Several months ago, I was on a plane that was making its approach to D.C. National Airport. After arriving at the jet bridge, we passengers were asked to kindly remain in our seats so a family who was escorting their fallen military family member’s remains could leave the plane first, as they were going to Arlington National Cemetery.
Immediately there was silence as people took in the announcement. Necks craned, looking for the family. They were all seated across from me. Their shoulders raised reflexively when they heard a few people groaning about the inconvenience of it all.
The plane parked and the family got up. Most people kept their seats, but quite a few grabbed their belongings and made their way off the plane. I remained in my seat and watched the casket come out of the plane. A hearse arrived. With quiet ceremony and drilled precision, the casket was carefully carried to the hearse. Ground personnel stood by respectfully. I tried to gauge by their body language and facial expressions if they had seen this before, and concluded that they had.
By the time the casket had been put into the hearse, the plane had emptied. I was the last one off. I picked up my pack and got to the street in time to see the entire motorcade, with police escort, leave for Arlington.
I wondered how painful and surreal a day it was for the family. Bundled onto a plane, the body of their relative below them, only the family and crew aware of it. Flying for hours, increasingly worn down by grief, rushed out of the plane, doing their best to ignore those who had their afternoon slightly thrown off because of someone else’s life-altering misfortune, taken to a car, to whiz down the highway like a rock star to a place that is equal parts beautiful and crushingly sad, to say goodbye. Then what? Taken to a hotel to let the silence sink in and then back to the airport the next day? A perfectly awful experience.
Every aspect of bringing the fallen back to the USA for burial is challenging.
Every aspect of bringing the fallen back to the USA for burial is challenging, and all those who are part of the process are extraordinary. It is one of the aspects of military mechanics that civilians are mercifully kept from knowing too much about.
One of the many awesome burdens a president must carry is to contact the family of a fallen member of the military and thank them on behalf of a grateful nation. Either by letter or call, the choice of words must be Lincolnesque in their tone and sentiment. It would very likely be easier to get it wrong than otherwise.
I bet there’s no American president who, when tasked with reaching out under such awful circumstances, isn’t trying to do their best. I’m also willing to bet that even with the best of intentions, a president has hung up the phone and then for years returned to that moment, wondering if they got it right.
There have been fewer than 50 presidents in the history of the country. It is a job so rarefied that heavy lifts such as these are all in a day’s work. Imagine being the president, after hearing all points of view from your top advisers, looking at all the different variations of the plan, weighing the estimated number of casualties, realizing that the decision you have to make is literally one of life or death. Then, days or weeks later, the results of that decision have you on the phone with a grieving spouse.
This is one of the reasons that a presidency ages a person so dramatically. As an example, you need not look further than George W. Bush and Barack Obama. When Bush’s second term ended, his face was broken. He looked nothing like he had only eight years before. When Bush makes the rare appearance, he looks almost boiled. Obama, in some of his last televised moments in the Oval Office, looked drawn, exhausted, almost animatronic. To give that job the time and attention it needs, what it deserves, will all but wreck the president and put every member of his family through their paces.
Interesting that in the span of a few days, both former presidents have been back in the news cycle. Both men, who perhaps have very different views on everything from health care to foreign policy, seemed to be on the same page on the big stuff.
I wasn’t surprised to see President Obama back out there, on this occasion, stumping for Ralph Northam in his bid for governor of Virginia. But I was struck by how much of the America 101 that seems to have fallen by the wayside over the last several months he addressed. It was a PSA for what’s been lost as much as an election speech. The audience sounded as if they had been waiting to hear his words all their lives.
President Bush, whose speech pointed out one American ailment after another, even employing the phrase “soil and blood” —a reversal of the torch-wielding protesters’ chant in Charlottesville — hit its mark. His candor could almost make you forget the disaster of his eight years in office.
Beside all this, a young man who lost his life in the service of his country had his name not celebrated but dragged out and used as political fodder in a press cycle that was as opportunistic as it was abominable. You would figure that there was a collective sense of decency that would never be breached, out of respect for a family that’s trying to adjust to a loss that will steep them in misery for the rest of their lives. But of course, if there is a “there” we shouldn’t go to, we will. We did.
Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.
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