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February 09, 2004

Just a little perspective...

Commentary: Some Soldiers missed Super Bowl

By Lt. Col. Andrew Straw
February 4, 2004

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Feb. 4, 2004) -- At kickoff, I was touching up the shine on my combat boots. I thought of calling my wife in Charlotte, N.C., but she had already gone across town to a Super Bowl party.

As I left Washington for the drive to the airfield, the first half was winding down and the score was still 0-0. I couldn't find the game on the car radio and forgot about football for the next 30 minutes.

I arrived at Davison Army Airfield to find the eight young Soldiers from the Honor Guard, also dressed in camouflage fatigues, sprawled out in the small passenger lounge. They were ogling the halftime show on TV and wisecracking back and forth just like thousands of other groups of young guys across the country at that moment. I learned that the score was 14-10, Panthers behind.

The general arrived five minutes later, just as the pilot stepped in to say the aircraft was ready. Anita called from Charlotte on my cell just as I was walking out the door-"Can't talk, gotta go." On the TV behind me, play was just beginning for the second half.

The ten of us followed a sergeant through the darkness from the near-deserted terminal to the waiting helicopter. As we carefully tiptoed across patches of ice on the apron, one of the Honor Guard soldiers whispered something about Janet Jackson.

Another Soldier beamed with adventure as he climbed in, "It reminds me of the first time I rode a tractor!" I was beaming too. It would be my first ride on an Army Blackhawk.

I was warned in advance that Black Hawks had no heaters, and had bundled up with two layers beneath my uniform. The night was clear. We flew to Delaware at low altitude over beautiful snow-covered scenery. We landed at Dover Air Force Base 45 minutes later, and parked near a huge C-141 cargo plane with Air Force Reserve markings. The rear doors and ramp were open, and light spilled from the huge cargo bay.

I followed the general as he was quickly ushered into a small, neat passenger lounge. Coffee? Water? The game was on TV; the score was 22-21. A half dozen others in various uniforms were waiting. I introduced myself to a major from New York City -- a forensic dentist in the Army Reserve, called up to help out for a 30-day tour. A Methodist minister serving as an Air Force chaplain bragged about the support his wife gives him while he is recalled to active duty.

While the general got a briefing on the mission details, an Air Force colonel gathered the rest of us together, and we marched out to the C-141. I followed him up the ladder into the cargo bay. It was empty except for the three oblong boxes in a perfect row down the center. Two loadmasters were adjusting the ramp in the rear of the aircraft, and several others were carefully arranging U.S. flags over each of the boxes. A congenial major explained the proceedings to follow the way a priest leads a family through a wedding rehearsal.

I line up with the flight crew along the fuselage, facing the caskets. Attention! The Honor Guard marches in silently; wearing white gloves with their camouflage uniforms now. The General marches up the ramp with the Air Force wing commander, a colonel. The chaplain says a prayer with all the right words: fallen warriors...the Army family...selfless service...the price of freedom.

Nobody is thinking about football. Nobody. The young Soldiers from the Old Guard are standing smartly, solemnly, expressionless. No slouching or snickers now, only the serious task at hand. Ready...Down! Ready...Up! Ready...Face! Forward...March! They move to the measured commands with astounding precision.

In the cold dark night, there are fewer than two dozen of us present. No outsiders are watching, but those young men give a TV-quality performance, as if their burden was a fallen president. Present Arms! We salute as the first remains are marched off the plane under the watchful gaze of the general. He salutes.

We do it again for the second set and the third. The unmarked, clean, white truck then drives off very slowly with its red, white, and blue-draped cargo. The Honor Detail marches behind it. The General dismisses us.

Back in the small lounge, the game is still on, eight seconds left. I watch the unfolding excitement numbly.

Welcome home, fallen sergeant, corporal, and private first class.

You missed the Super Bowl. The Patriots won.

Thank you.

(Editor's note: Sgt. Eliu Miersandoval, 27, Cpl. Juan Cabralbanuelos, 25, and Pfc. Holly McGeogh, 19, of the Army's 4th Infantry Division, died Jan. 31 in Kirkuk, Iraq, when their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device during convoy operations. Lt. Col. Andrew Straw is an Army Reserve officer from Charlotte. He has been serving on active duty at the Pentagon with the Army's G3 since October 2002.)