My wife, adult daughter, and I recently traveled to Phoenix, Arizona from Seattle, Washington to attend a wedding. At SeaTac International Airport, while waiting for our flight, we noticed two soldiers in fatigues near the boarding gate. They were speaking with the airline staff at the Delta Airlines counter. A Phoenix police officer seemed to be shadowing the soldiers in case they needed assistance.
We noted it but didn’t think much of it, as the next announcement was for priority boarding for U.S. military personnel. Still, I’ve seen military members board early nearly every time I fly. But never with a police escort.
After presenting our boarding passes, we walked down the jetway. As we got to the door, my daughter and I had to stop because some passengers were boarding from the area where the jetway intersects with the plane’s entry door. It’s the place where airline staff often stage wheelchairs and rejected carry-on luggage. The Phoenix cop we’d seen earlier escorted on to the plane a boy about six, a girl around nine, and several adults aged 20s to 40s.
After they entered the aircraft, we made our way to our seats. Once there, my daughter told me she’d seen a tear running down the little boy’s cheek. I’d noticed the entire party had moved along with heads bowed and shoulders slouched, obviously straddling shock but functioning.
My wife thought there might be a casket on board, but the Delta crew had made no announcement. Our flight to Arizona was pleasant and uneventful. Then, twenty minutes before we landed, the captain announced we had on board with us a “fallen soldier.” Instantly, a lump formed in my throat and I sucked in a quick breath. The captain requested that after we land and arrive at the gate, passengers please remain seated while the soldier’s family departed the plane.
During his announcement, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, my daughter’s and my wife’s eyes welling. I noticed other passengers dabbing at their eyes with napkins. I felt a rivulet making its way down my own cheek. We didn’t know the soldier, but we knew what he’d done for us.
After landing, and while taxiing toward the gate, a flight attendant reiterated the captain’s earlier announcement. But she uttered one phrase with a slight but significant revision, which had an even more significant impact on us. She said, “Once again, we ask that you remain seated while our fallen soldier’s family departs the plane.”
As those who hadn’t teared up yet now wept, our plane made a turn toward the gate. As the aircraft’s nose swung to the left, a touching scene greeted us.
Several Phoenix Police Department patrol cars, emergency lights illuminated, officers standing solemnly, came into view. There were also three Phoenix Fire Department rigs, one an airport crash truck with an American Flag suspended high on its extended boom turret. Their emergency lights were also activated with several firefighters lined up in front of their rigs.
Along with the police officers and firefighters stood several members of Sky Harbor International Airport staff, also somber, showing a deep respect and affection for a soldier they did not know, who’d made the ultimate sacrifice for his nation—for them.
Once the soldier’s family was off the plane, from our window, we could see a U.S. Army honor guard patiently awaiting the soldier’s casket near the plane’s rear cargo hold.
After we departed the plane and entered the terminal, we joined the people lining the large windows, absorbed in the ceremony playing out below us. The honor guard of six soldiers escorted our fallen soldier’s flag-draped coffin off the plane, across the tarmac, and to a waiting white hearse.
Among the firefighters, police officers, other soldiers and officers, and airport staff, the soldier’s family watched the honor guard’s procession. I hope this demonstration of tremendous respect from those on the tarmac and those of us in the terminal softened the blow at least to some degree. And if not, perhaps they might find comfort in their later memories, when they recall the reverence shown by all those appreciative people on that Delta flight, lined up at the terminal windows, and those mourning along with them within the aircraft’s shadow.