A few days ago I was fortunate — and yes, I meant to use the word “fortunate” — to be traveling on a commercial airplane commandeered by the U.S. Navy.
While still in the terminal, I saw the men in their dress uniforms. I made note of their medals, their stripes … and even how shiny their shoes were, how stiff their hats. People clapped. And I heard a few token “Thanks for your service” shouts from fellow travelers. The officers nodded. Shook a few hands. Smiled, oh so slightly. But then — everything changed when people saw the flag-draped coffin being lifted from one plane to the next and realized, to everyone’s dismay, that these men weren’t on their way home … they were part of the honor guard accompanying a fallen sailor to his final resting place.
Now I don’t like to fly. In fact, I hate it. Something about a gigantic bundle of steel being able to float through the air just doesn’t sit with me — basic physics and Bernoulli’s law aside. So when I’m in the air, it’s going to be a bumpy ride for me, and everyone around me, no matter how friendly the sky. Yet when you’re sitting a mere ten feet or so above a fallen sailor, and your mind begins to encompass the gravity of the situation, it’s easier to be calm. Easier, for me at least, because rather than think about crashing to the ground, I couldn’t stop thinking about the person in the coffin.
Later that afternoon, when I was safely home I couldn’t help myself and I began an hour long search — with Google’s help — to try and find out more about the person in that coffin. I felt an overwhelming urge to know his, or her name. To know if the sailor was young; if he had a family; who his parents were; what he did before going to war; what made him who he was. But I couldn’t find anything. And maybe that’s for the best. Because forever now in my mind, that sailor is everyone — there is no race, no gender, no age … no characteristics other than someone that lost their life helping to protect mine.
There is nothing beautiful about war. Nothing beautiful about lives lost, about countryside’s scorned, about fear generated from ideology. Yet witnessing the active duty men and women salute our airplane upon touchdown; and sharing the moment with complete strangers, well, that’s beautiful. And I for one, consider myself fortunate to have been allowed to help bring this sailor home. To cry beside people I don’t know. To feel something so profound I cannot even begin to describe. For that, I am honored. It is something I will never forget.