Carry me home

Carry me home

Jason Shelton, an American soldier, was on my plane to Greenville last night.

I hadn’t slept in two days. I’d left my hotel 22 hours before. My back and neck were knotted up. I needed a hot shower. I needed to sneak into my boys’ rooms and give them a hug. I’d been gone a week. I missed my family.

We don’t think about how long it takes America’s military personnel to fly home from the warzones in the Middle East or, in Shelton’s case, Germany where he was training. We don’t consider how uncomfortable they are during deployments that can last longer than their kids’ childhoods. I remember a decade ago when seeing our troops in the airports felt new and scary and patriotic. Now it happens so often, it’s weird not to see one of the brave souls in camouflage getting a Starbucks between flights.

The flight home from Atlanta lasts barely more than 30 minutes. I’d carried on both bags so I could make a quick escape for home once we taxied to the gate. I was on the aisle, Bose headphones on, “Astral Weeks” cutting off the sound of the engines. The landing was a little harder than normal, the kind that makes my eyes open a bit faster and my heart skip a half a beat.

We don’t think much about what the soldiers have to endure when they get back home. Their kids have gotten older. Their spouses have sometimes hardened or drifted. The things that make their eyes open and hearts skip are things we can’t see or hear.

When the seat belt bell dinged, I started to stand and grab for the overhead bin when I saw the honor guard outside the window. There were seven of them, all in dress uniforms and white gloves. Their salute wasn’t a snap to their foreheads. It was a slow, melted wax, almost robotic trip from their waist to their brow. One of them held an American flag folded into a triangle. The next thing I saw was the hearse.

The window seat in front of me emptied, and I sat down in it. Over my shoulder, I heard a man a little older than me whisper, “Kind of puts it all in perspective, doesn’t it?”

In a matter of less than a minute, the people who were going to leave the plane did. The rest of us sat in silence and watched Jason Shelton’s casket come out of the cargo hold. The man behind me had his hand over his heart. I put my forehead against the window and stared at the casket. It was silver and gray, attached to a wooden pallet with black fabric loops on the side. Someone had draped a flag over it from end to end.

In the background was a banner supplied by Delta that read “All gave some. Some gave all.” I felt something like anger tighten in my chest—not that the banner was there or that Delta had chosen that way to honor Shelton, but that this wartime has lasted so long that banners like this are part of a normal corporate operation.

I didn’t know who was in the casket at the time. Until I read the news this morning, I didn’t know Shelton was inside. As I sat there with my head against the cold window, I pictured him having a mother, or a wife, or kids, and I couldn’t stop the tears. I stayed until Shelton was in the hearse. When I stood, I saw the plane was still mostly full. There were eyes full of tears from the front to the back. I’ve been on hundreds of planes, and I’ve never heard one so quiet, reverent, or sad.

Jason Shelton had a wife. Her name is Heather. He’s from Madison County, North Carolina. At 22 years old, he died in a training exercise. Veterans on flag-flying motorcycles met the hearse in the cold air outside the airport and escorted the soldier the rest of the way home. I sat in my car and watched them pass.

Jason Shelton and his wife Heather

Jason Shelton and his wife Heather

It’s hard not to remember the time when the government didn’t allow pictures of dead American soldiers’ caskets as they came back from war. From 1991 to 2009, there was a ban on those photos. Some people said it was to protect the soldier’s family’s privacy. Other people said it was an attempt to hide the reality of wartime’s true hell. There have been thousands of those caskets since we went back to war in 2003. I’d say we should all have to see them on the national news every night. The sad reality is, dead soldiers aren’t news anymore.

When I got on the flight last night, I was tired, sore, and thinking about only myself and what I had to do the rest of the week. This morning, my kids jumped in my bed and kissed me. They told me they missed me and thanked me for their souvenirs. I may have to leave sometimes, but it’s almost always guaranteed I’m coming home. That’s not the case for the people we task with fighting the battles we choose.

It’s a good thing we can now see the pictures of our fallen soldiers coming back to America. If we stop bearing witness to their deaths, then we forget the meaning of what they do and the reason they are there. Today I wonder, though, if looking at those pictures is enough. Today my heart is hurting for a man I never knew and the family left behind. That’s because I shared Jason Shelton’s last flight to the Carolinas.

I wonder how we all might look at things—our country, our government, our soldiers, and our lives—if we all could be touched in the same way. I wonder how our leaders might think about the choices they make and the people they choose to carry out those decisions if they, too, had to share those flights, see the honor guard, and watch the casket slip into the back of the hearse.

We should do more than mark Veterans Day. We should do more than lay flowers on a grave on Memorial Day. We should do more than wave a flag on Independence Day. We should witness. We should simply do more, feel more, and honor more than we do. Put another way, we should all have to carry them home.