Last Monday I received a call from the Mortuary Affairs Office. I would have rather have been called by the IRS scheduling an audit for the past 20 years.
A Second Lieutenant had been killed in Afghanistan and we were to send a person to escort him home to his family and final resting place. This time it was not a stranger, it was a young officer whom I knew.
2LT Scott Lundell was a new officer in my previous unit. He was on his way to earning a Green Beret. He had heard the sounds of the guns after 9-11 and instinctively this warrior's heart lead him to move towards those who were in danger. He put aside his personal aspirations of earning his Special Forces tab and volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan to train the Afghani Army.
His patrol was ambushed by vastly superior numbers. Undeterred, 2LT Lundell moved to counterattack. 2LT Lundell was always a natural leader. From serving as Student Body President, to serving his church on a foreign mission, to the battlefields of Afghanistan, 2LT Lundell always was a leader. His heroic actions saved many lives, yet cost him his own on that day.
I flew to Philadelphia on Thursday. It was my mission to escort and guard this father, soldier, warrior, and hero on his final journey home. It was a mission that I wished I had not offered, but accepted with honor.
The phone rang at 0200. Wake up call, 45 minutes to shine my shoes, shower, shave, and put on my Dress Blues before my ride to Dover AFB arrived. The standard uniform for this assignment is the Army Class "A", but our commander ordered all members of the honor detail to wear the uniform reserved for our most reserved occasions.
Sergeant Parsons greeted me as we entered Dover's Mortuary Affairs center. There were two other's from the Army who were there to escort soldiers home and one Marine with the same assignment. We were lead into a small conference room and began our briefing of our duties and sequence of events.
On the table in front of me sat a stack of cases holding the awards 2LT Lundell had earned. Purple Heart, Bronze Star, combat Action Badge, Paratrooper's Wings.... and a small, black, velvet bag with the words, "United States of America" across the front.
I was instructed to open the green folder on my table and remove the top form. I then to opened the black bag and began to inventory the immediate personal effects of 2LT Lundell. Out of nowhere, somebody hit me in the stomach with a baseball bat. I felt sick. I could feel the fever coming on, I could feel the sweat begin to bead on my head, and my hands began to shake. This was now very real and very personal.
My unsteady hands removed his watch, his dog tags, a challenge coin he had received from the 3rd Special Forces, and finally a gold wedding band. Through watery eyes I checked off each of these items on the form. I noticed Scott had a small plastic tag on his dog tag chain. I saw the familiar words emblazoned from the Special Operations Memorial in Arlington. It was the scripture from Isaiah 6:8:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"
At 0500 I boarded a special van with 2LT Lundell and we drove to Philadelphia. We arrived at the Delta cargo terminal. The driver & I unloaded 2LT Lundell and entered the office to complete his paperwork to travel home. Once we had his affairs in order, the driver took me to the passenger terminal.
I entered the bustling crowd of people all trying to fly to various destinations and began looking for the entrance to check in. I'm not sure if it was my emotionally dazed look or full dress uniform that caught the eye of the Delta agent named Michelle. She quickly pulled me aside and asked if I was escorting. I told her that I was and she took me aside and checked me in for my flight.
She upgraded my seat to first class, told me my departure gate, instructed me to use the far left lane of the security screening, and then took my and thanked me. She told me she would come to the gate and help me get to the tarmac to pick up 2LT Lundell.
I walked to the far left side of the TSA screening and stood in line. Regulations require I remain in uniform, but the TSA could ask me to remove my jacket and shoes. I was told they may have a private area where I could remove my jacket and shoes, but did not see any place where this could transpire. An agent from TSA quickly noticed me and asked if I was escorting and I nodded. He opened the line and led me to a lane that was even further to the left.
The TSA agents x-rayed my carry on bag and were able to conduct their security search while allowing me to maintain my professional duties.The agent shook my hand and thanked me. It was painfully obvious to me that this was something they had done many times, yet they really went to lengths to make me feel comfortable.
Michelle met me at the gate and introduced me to Dan who would take me down to the tarmac. The crew arrived shortly thereafter. The pilot came and shook my hand and told me if I needed anything to let him know.
He asked if he could have the other passenger remain seated to allow me to deplane first. I told him it would be very helpful if he could and that it would save time because offloading 2LT Lundell is the first thing the baggage handlers would do.
Dan led me down the stairs and I inspected the cardboard shipping container that protected 2LT Lundell's wooden coffin. There was not doubt it was him. The formality of checking his name and the condition were part of my duties.
I knew it was him. 2LT Lundell was a man larger than life itself. He required an extra large coffin. It was large enough to hold his body, but not the character of his spirit nor the love he gave and received.
The baggage handlers were most professional, but unprepared for such a man. Two of them tried to lift the end of this giant. It took another handler and me to place the 500+ pounds onto the conveyor to load 2LT Lundell into the hold of the 757. Once on the conveyor, I stepped back and rendered a salute as I watched him load into the plane.
I boarded the plane and sat down. The flight was completely full, yet I felt totally alone. I suppose it takes a couple hours to fly from Philadelphia to Atlanta, but time for me was a cloud. I heard the pilot ask the other passengers to allow me to depart the plane first and the flight attendants reminded them of this as we landed.
As we approached the gate I saw an Honor Guard formed by the baggage handlers. I had never seen nor heard of anything like this. I was stunned that the airline would go to such lengths for a fallen soldier. They stood at attention holding the flags of the United States of America, the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force.
The plane came to a rest and I stood. Not a single person moved.
Every passenger paid tribute to a man that made it possible for them to fly safely that day. As I exited the aircraft I was immediately greeted by a Delta baggage handler who told me he was a former Marine. He explained that the employees who were veterans received special permission from the Department of Defense to form an Honor Guard so they may honor all of the fallen soldiers as they transport them home. He
asked if I would participate in their ceremony and in a prayer with them.
We marched to the conveyor and 2LT Lundell was brought to us. We presented arms as he came down and then the Marine gave a short prayer. We prayed for Scott, for his family, for me, and for the Lord's protection for all who place themselves in harm's way to defend our freedom. It took every ounce of my strength to maintain my composure as I thanked each of them for what they did that day, for their service to
our nation, and for the ceremonies they will render for the heroes that will pass by them in the future. They gave me the short program and the prayer and asked me to give it to his wife. Each man had signed it: Fred Cadwell, James Davis, William Stearns, and Juan Farmer. I wished I had copied the prayer. A few short words, uttered in front of a few men, but heard by God.
2LT Lundell was placed on a special cart. Painted dark blue with the emblems of all branches of the military and these words, "All gave some, some gave all." "Delta vets honoring our own." We were taken to the employee lounge while we waited for our flight to SLC.
When the plane was inbound, we were taken to the gate. The driver parked the cart so nobody would see the precious cargo it carried. He took me upstairs so I could check in. The agent arrived and I asked her if it was possible to move me closer to the door. She said her computer was not up yet, but she would see what she could do. I stood watching the cart through the window. I doubted anybody would notice that one of the baggage carts was very different.
The pilot arrived and immediately walked over to me. He was a former officer in the USAF and his son flies F-15's out of Mountain Home Idaho. He also offered me any assistance he could provide. I told him how touched I had been with everything Delta had done. We shook hands and he went to go conduct his pre-flight checks.
The crowd around the agent at the desk was gone so I walked over to see if she was able to move me closer to the door. She handed me a boarding pass that put me at the back of first class nearest to the door. I thanked her and went back to watching 2LT Lundell. The baggage handlers came to move him to prepare to load. The gate agent opened the door and I went down to his cart.
I told the baggage handlers that they needed to get more people. So they brought two more men over. The pilot stopped what he was doing and came to assist as well. The pilot helped us load 2LT Lundell and then stood beside me and rendered a salute as he was placed into the hold of the aircraft.
As we flew to SLC, a gentleman tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a unit coin. He said this was from one grunt to another. He was the Commander of Dugway Proving Grounds. He knew why I was in my dress blues and what I was doing. It was a welcomed gesture of support. I felt I was not as alone on this part of the journey.
The pilot announced to the flight that they were bringing one of Utah's native sons home and that I was escorting him. He asked if everyone would allow me to please exit first. As we taxied to the gate the flight attendants repeated the request and said how privileged they felt to be able to do so and that they wished to thank all those who serve and have served our country.
Chicago was closed that day due to weather. I heard passengers say how only four flights made it out in the morning. Our plane was full of people who had rerouted to try to make their destinations. I heard several passengers mention they had less than 30 minutes to make their connections. I wondered if they would allow me to move to the door. I did not want to have to ask people to move so I could be first.
My concerns were abolished when the plane stopped. I stood and took a step towards the door. Nobody rose; everyone began to applaud at once. These strangers were bound by a kinship we all shared. We all were part of bringing 2LT Lundell home to Utah.
The first person I saw when I walked down the stair to the tarmac was BG Wilson, the Commander of I Corps. It was his command that 2LT Lundell volunteered to go to war. His eyes looked like mine. We shared in the grief of the responsibility. He returned my salute and gave me pat on the shoulder and thanked me. Behind him I saw 2LT Lundell's best friend from Afghanistan. He is a 1LT who was going through Special Forces training with 2LT Lundell. This 1LT was one of my ROTC students. I counseled with he and 2LT Lundell about this mission prior to their departure.
This 1LT had brought 2LT Lundell from Afghanistan to the USA. They had served together and they were close. 2LT Lundell's wife asked him to bring him home and to come to the funeral.
The Honor Guard now took charge of transporting 2LT Lundell. These were highly professional NCO's who I had worked with before. I was relieved to see them. They took a tremendous weight off of my shoulders.
They entered the cargo hold of the plane and removed the protective cardboard from the casket. They placed the stars of our nation's flag over the left shoulder and ran the stripes down past his feet. They brought him off the pane and placed him on a cart. The cart was escorted by his family, the Honor Guard, and at least six
airport police to a hanger. In the hanger, 2LT Lundell was taken from the cart and placed into the hearse.
After he was placed into the hearse I saw MG Tarbet. It was obvious that this was very personal to him. He looked like this was his own son. His strength and 2LT Lundell's wife's strength was incredible. I've never seen any two people so close to losing a loved one handle it so well.
The ride to the mortuary was somber. Every police officer in the valley must have been there. I have seen the motorcade when the President of the US visited Utah and it was nothing compared to what I saw this time. Every intersection was blocked for the entire 15 mile trip. Police were not leap frogging to get ahead to the next
intersection, they were already there. It was below freezing, yet there were officers on motorcycles.
When we arrived at the funeral home, the Honor Guard removed 2LT Lundell from the hearse and took him inside. Once inside, I followed the casket to a back room. CPT Wiedmeier was the Casualty Assistance Officer and he took care of the family while I went with 2LT Lundell. My job was easy compared to his.
The funeral home director and his staff only had a few minutes to try to make any adjustments if needed. We were told, "Viewable for Identification Only". This would most likely mean a closed casket and no viewing. SGT Parsons had told me they always down grade the condition to protect the family.
When the casket was opened there was opaque plastic covering his face. I feared the worst. When it was removed, he looked perfect. The funeral home people set about their duties while I inspected his uniform. Everything was in order and they moved him to a viewing room.
CPT Wiedmeier broke away so he and I could take care of paperwork. I signed over 2LT Lundell's personal effects and his awards to him so he could present them to the family. When he left to do this, I met with the Director of the funeral home and had him sign the remaining forms accepting 2LT Lundell and verifying his condition.
The Honor Guard took charge of guarding 2LT Lundell until his funeral. They would stand vigilant through the night and into the day until he was laid to final rest.
I found the 1LT who brought 2LT Lundell out of Afghanistan. His wife was clutching his arm. I thought how she must be thinking how easily the roles could be reversed and how it could be her husband instead. I talked with him briefly, offering encouragement and assistance. I'm sure those two spent the night holding each other closer than they ever have in their lives.
This was one of the greatest honors I've ever had. I wish to never do this again, but would do so anytime for any soldier.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
A Utah Warrior's Last Steps Home
Written by Captain Paul Falletto, Utah National Guard