I wanted to wait until Sept 11 to share this note from William Daughtery, a C-17 pilot that had the honor of flying the Navy Seals back from Afghanistan. But I couldn’t wait until then.
Written by a C-17 Pilot flying the Navy Seals back to Dover AFB.
I had an unforgettable day yesterday and wanted to share it with you. I
know we've all sat around and discussed in detail why we do what we do and
if we will be willing to continue to do what we do day in and day out
regardless of deployments, retirement decisions, job opportunities, missed
birthdays, missed holidays, etc. This is something I wanted to share and
you were the people that came to mind. It's another reason I continue to
serve. I guess because many others do and sacrifice a lot more, some even
My crew was alerted yesterday to find that our mission had changed. We
were now a backup to a high priority mission originating from Afghanistan.
When I asked where we would be going the answer was "back to the states".
Later I learned our destination was Dover.
I was the aircraft commander for one of two C-17s that transferred the
Chinook helicopter crash soldiers back home. The crew that started this
mission in Afghanistan would end up running out of crew duty day and need
another crew to continue the soldier's journey. We just happened to be
available. After being alerted and going through our normal sequence, I
found myself at the foot of the aircraft steps.
Before I took my first step upward I noticed a transfer case close to the
door. I had only seen one in pictures. The American Flag was tucked
smartly, folded and secured on top. I paused at the bottom of the stairs,
took a deep breath and continued up with my mind and eyes focusing on making
it to the next ladder leading to the cockpit. However, as I entered, I
couldn't help but notice the remaining nineteen transfer cases in the cargo
compartment. The entire cargo compartment was filled with identical
transfer cases with American Flags. I made my way up to the cockpit and
received a briefing from the previous aircraft commander. After the
briefing we exchanged a handshake and the other pilot was on his way.
I felt a need to ensure the crew focused on their normal duties. I
instructed the other two pilots to began the preflight. I went back down
into the cargo compartment to see what needed to be done and find the
paperwork I needed to sign. The cargo compartment was now filled with
numerous people from the mortuary affairs squadron. They were busy
adjusting, resetting and overall preparing the cases for their continued
flight. Before they began I asked who was in charge because I knew there
was paperwork I needed to sign. I finally found a Staff Sergeant who was
working an issue with the paperwork. After it was complete, he brought it
up to the cockpit for me to review and sign.
There are moments in life I will never forget. For me, it's the days my son
and daughter were born. Another occurred five months ago when I had to
deliver the unthinkable news to a mother that her son was killed in
Afghanistan and although I didn't anticipate another day like that this
soon, yesterday was another. I looked at the paperwork I was signing and
realized the magnitude of the day. I glanced over the paperwork and signed.
In a way, I felt I had taken ownership of these fallen soldiers. It was now
my duty to ensure they make it home.
After confirming the preflight was complete and the aircraft was fueled, I
went outside to start my walk-around. As I walked down the steps, a bus had
parked in front of the aircraft and unloaded eleven passengers. The
passengers were fellow SEAL team members who were escorting the fallen back
to the states. I stood at the front of the aircraft and watched them board.
Every one of them walked off the bus with focus in their eyes and
determination in their steps; just as I imagine they do when they go on a
mission. I made eye contact with the lead SEAL, nodded my head in respect
and he nodded back.
Finishing my walk-around, I stopped at the bottom of the stairs. I looked
up into the cargo compartment; two American Flags and one SEAL Team Six flag
hung from the top of the cargo compartment. Three of twenty transfer cases
visible; one with an American Flag and two with Afghan flags. I looked up
at my aircraft and saw, "United States Air Force" painted on the side and I
stood trying to take it all in. I wanted to make certain that I never
forget these images. That I never forget the faces of the SEALS, the smell
of the cargo compartment or the sun slowly rising over the landscape. It's
important that I don't forget. We need to honor the dead, honor the
sacrifice of the fallen.
I understand my role in getting these fallen soldiers home is insignificant
compared to the lives they lived and the things they did for our country.
Most of it we will never know. All I know is every American should see what
I've seen. Every American should see the bus loads of families as they exit
the freeway headed for Dover AFB to reunite with their fallen or witness the
amount of time, effort, people and equipment that go into ensuring our
fallen have a honorable return.
The very next day we took the same aircraft back overseas. We had leveled
the aircraft at our cruise altitude and I walked down to the cargo
compartment. No more American Flags hung from the ceiling. All the
transfer cases were gone.
Instead I watched a father lay with his son, cradled on his chest, on the
same spot that only yesterday held a fallen soldier. I watched a young
girl, clutching a teddy bear, sleeping quietly where the fallen had laid. I
realized so many Americans have no idea where the fallen lay.
I'm honored to be one that does.