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.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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82 Responses

  1. cassidl says:

    heartbreaking but words that need to be said, thank you for this

  2. sarah says:

    I went through training with Shelton- he was by far the most kindhearted person i have ever met. we went through almost 6 month of what some people would call “Hell” not one day went by when there wasn’t a huge smile on his face! he would come up to me every morning and say how its such an amazing day and we are a whole day closer to seeing our families! he is the type of person that would love a total stranger and be able to brighten anyone’s day simply by talking! he will be forever missed and never forgotten!!

  3. Brad Willis says:

    Sarah, thank you for taking the time to tell us that. It’s important that we know our soldiers as people as much or more as we know them for their job. Peace to you and those who knew Jason.

  4. Carole says:

    For those of us in Jason’s extended Shelton family…

    Thank you so much for sharing what Jason’s immediate family experienced last evening. We are spread out all over the area east of the Mississippi, but our hearts are broken together.

    This was incredible!!!

  5. Thank you so much for this very touching story. Your kids and wife are very lucky to have you in their lives to show them how to be a kind and caring person. Blessings to you.

  6. Carla says:

    As Jason’s sister, I want to express a heartfelt thank you for sharing with us (his family, and friends) a glimpse into what Jason’s flight home entailed! I had pictured in my head numerous times about what it would be like for us to see his casket brought off the plane, and not see his smiling face to greet us. Nothing I imagined in my head prepared me for what I actually felt when your flight (Jason’s flight) landed and we got to witness the transfer of his casket to the hearse by the Honor Guard! My heart was breaking inside, but at the same time I felt so proud of him and what he stood for and had accomplished in his short life! The honor that he was shown by everyone there was amazing! We saw you all standing in the windows of the plane and inside the airport and were so glad that so many people got to honor Jason on his flight home! Our motorcade back home to Madison County was filled with people honoring Jason! Every overpass and on ramp had EMS, firefighters, and police officers stationed there saluting Jason as he made his way home! Some even had huge American flags draped over them! I can’t imagine this world without my baby brother, who was always smiling and always so full of life! I can’t begin to tell you the heartbreak our family feels! I do know people like you and everyone else that has shown their support and honored Jason throughout this journey has helped tremendously!

  7. Chad Dickens says:

    Carla, please accept my heartfelt condolences on your brother’s passing. I will gladly and with a tear in my eye, honor your brother this Veterans Day. Words cannot express how sorry I am. I normally wouldn’t say this to an Army man, but Semper Fi Jason.

  8. Becky Hardin says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. My prayers are with Carla and the rest of the family . Thank you Jason for your ultimate sacrifice for your country and us as Americans. You are a true hero .

  9. Cassandra says:

    I also went through training with Shelton. He was a great guy and it saddens me to hear about his death. Such a kind hearted boy. This article was heart touching. I hope everyone takes the time to read this. Not only for Shelton, but because the words for our fallen is true.

  10. Norma Hughes says:

    Thank You for sharing this. Our prayers are with his family. Carla I am so sorry for your loss.

  11. Brad Willis says:

    Carla, I can’t tell you what it means to me to know you saw this. It means so much to know it helped i ever so little. You are a brave woman just as your brother was a brave man. Thanks and peace to you, Jason, and your entire family.

  12. Sheila Miller says:

    Rest in peace, young soldier. Your tour of duty is done. Well done.
    Thank you for your service and sacrifice.
    And to your surviving family, what an honor this was to be able to share in Jason’s last journey, even if only on FB.

  13. StB says:

    If you get the interest, watch the movie Taking Chance. Hard to keep a dry eye during it.

  14. Connie Carver says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am from Madison County and know this family. Many times his mom Audrey and I exchanged stories of her son and my daughter’s fiancé in the military. Mike my soon to be son was in the war zone of Afganistan and Jason was in the Midwest at boot camp. I never thought either one of us would face having the pain of losing a loved one. I have cried many tears since I heard the news . My heart goes out to Audrey and the family. May God be with you and give you peace.

  15. Belinda says:

    Wonderful testament, heartfelt. yes the movie Taking Chance is a tear jerker but very close to reality.

  16. Kathy says:

    Thank you for sharing this heartbreaking journey, Jason’s last journey home. My heart breaks for his wife and family. I do not know the family or Jason but I do know a couple soldiers that were in Germany training with him. He was a remarkable young man. May God bless you all Shelton family and be PROUD of that young man <3

  17. Sandi Hill says:

    Thank you for sharing. May God bless you for honoring this young man. I was the Teacher Assistant in Jason’s class when he was in 3rd grade & fell in love with that little mischevious blond haired 8 year old boy. I was so proud of him when he decided to join the service! My heart breaks for his family & for the life that was taken away. I am so thankful to have been able to share a small part of his life & am so proud of the young man he grew up to be.

  18. Jennifer says:

    This is an amazing written tribute to a life lost too soon. I did not know Jason, but knew a soldier who served with him. Thank you to Jason Shelton, his wife Heather, and his family for making the ultimate sacrifice. And thank you to the author for shedding some light on the fallen.

  19. Chris says:

    We lined every bridge in NC with police fire and ems for his journey home while most were asleep last night. He came through Asheville ad around 1120 pm prayers for the family!!

  20. Dawn says:

    Living in Madison County knowing the family and what they are going through.I would say that this means so much to them.So I would like to say Thank You for sharing this. Thoughts and Prayers to the family.

  21. praying says:

    I work with Jason’s mother and younger brother, and I know that the entire family is heartbroken– Every other time I saw his mom she was putting together a care package to send to him, full of his favorite stuff that he couldn’t get in Germany. Although I never met him, I know he touched a lot of lives in our community. This is a beautiful piece of writing honoring a short but meaningful life.

  22. Steve Wood says:

    Thanks Brad for sharing this powerful story and thanks to Jason’s family and friends whose comments add to its impact. I’ll be sharing it every way I can.

  23. joanie harris says:

    So sorry for your loss,thinking and PRAYING for your family.Remember Jason YOUR,BABY brother,so full of life.May God hold you all through this.Love you.

  24. Billy Yang says:

    Thanks for posting this Brad. Heartbreaking indeed. God bless Jason, his family and this great country he died protecting.

  25. Cheryl Baynard GSM says:

    We became a Gold Star family on July 22, 2012, when our 23 year old son, Sgt. S. Matthew Baynard, passed away from complications of injuries he sustained during deployment. We share your pain and you are in our prayers. I know these are tough days but take pictures, write things down, pay attention to every detail because in the months and years to come, you’ll be glad you did. We thank your family for your sacrifice, for giving up your soldier for the greater good. much love to you.

  26. phyllis says:

    i am so glad this story came here to read. know one knows how a mother feels each time their child get on that plane to go off to war, how much a wife dies each time she sends her solder off. how a child cries for dad. or how a father grieves silently. but every person should read the story of every solder that serves. my heart goes out to you

  27. Jose says:

    My prayer for the family members of this Great American Soldier. I’m in the services for 14 years now. Its hard to see how every change is the last decade. I pray a lot for my Soldiers and their families, but its hard having a lost of one of us no matter the time in services or rank. But I want to rise my voice because these young men and women that joint in the services now facing challenges with the leadership. Something happened with one of our Soldiers and then after they paid with their live to defend this country, at then like someone mentioned before, no one remember them. I don’t want this become normal, its been more that 5 years when I lost a Soldier and I’m still in contact with his family. To the Army We are Human, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, WE ARE GREAT PEOPLE THAT WANTS TO SERVE THIS COUNTRY, we are not a number to fill the battle…..

  28. Jacque Holliday says:

    Thank you for posting this. My heart breaks each time I learn of another military member not coming home alive. I hope we never forget the sacrifices that are made for our freedom. God bless you Shelton family. My prayer is that God will comfort and hold you close. God Bless America and those serving this great land.

  29. Nathaniel says:

    I am Jason’s little brother and I was there last night and I never expected someone to.write something like this. I am just speachless when I was reading this I can picture the airpane.

  30. cordero says:

    there are moments when I absolutely despise this military I have committed 8yrs of my life to. to some 8yrs may seem fitting, even flight time.. but to others it’s dedication and commitment.. enlisting in the longest contract available to serve this country usa. reserves, guard, active duty alike we all share similar trials but the one thing that is guaranteed in all branches is our lives on the line. we all go down range at some point in our careers and we all face that grueling reality that we may not one day return home. we all train in these exercises to prepare for this war. respectively I’m a combative mos so bear with the perspective. I never shared a moment with Shelton yet I spent six months away from home in the same confines as he did amongst nearly 130 other troops. this passage brought a tear to my eye bc the author is absolutely correct in his approach. I think back and wonder, had I ever heard his laughter when walking into a room, could I have seen a glimpse of his smile, did he ever greet me did I ever share a shoulder or sip from my cantine did I ever greet him in passing. the reality is we all face our own personal battles in training specifically those months that determine your fate as a soldier upon enlistment. whether I did or didn’t cross paths with Shelton, I take it very personally when I hear of the deaths of our brothers and sisters in arms especially my battles in c795. it has only been a year since graduation and our total seems to deplete slowly. this is a very big part of why I enlisted.. some of us join for school benefits some of us join to be a part of a greater good and some of us, those rebels who just couldnt conform to societies norms, some of us join to find a brighter path and others join hoping that in achieving our career goals first and foremost, that we may also join a family. many of the soldiers I have come to know have been just that to me, a second family. in honor of Shelton, and those brothers in arms we have lost this year, I salute you. I vow to continue on this journey and fulfill my commitment to this country, be it that I agree or not with the politics of our government, to the best of my ability as I stand today. rip shelton
    c795 mps lead the way hooah

  31. Sarah Whelan says:

    I didnt know jason but as the wife of a Marine I know the fear that comes with being married to the military. My heart brakes for his wife and family as they struggle to understand and find peace during this time and in the years to come. I pray that you find peace and comfort in the Lord and in the community as well as within yourselves.

  32. katilyn says:

    I am so sorry to Heather and to all of the families who have lost their soldiers. I know his mother and brother and if Jason was anything like them he was an amazing person. I am so saddened that this has to happen to families. My thoughts and prayers are with ALL soldiers, families and loved ones. Thank you.

  33. Miranda Lewis says:

    I am so sorry for your loss. I am from Madison County and I know how it is to have a loved one in the military and the worry you go through. My husband served in the Army. But I just wanted to say “Thank You” for Jason’s service and to you his family. May God bless you and you will be in my thoughts and prayers.

  34. Joslynne says:

    Thank you for writing this and caring so much. My husband and I went to say goodbye to Shelton yesterday. It was the hardest drive to North Carolina from Nashville. We will be in DC this weekend to see my dad who is AD. I only got to meet Shelton once at graduation but he was amazing to my husband at basic. He was the first person that my husband met at basic. They were bunk buddies and great friends. I know the bond you make with your fellow soldiers. Its something that will forever be there. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and prayers. I pray everyday for his wife.

  35. Mike says:

    I did not know Shelton or the family he left behind, but would like to sincerely express my appreciation for his service and the sacrifices he made so that I can enjoy the freedoms in this country we take for granted everyday. Thank you Shelton!

  36. Renee says:

    I read the story and it gave be goosebumps and brought tears to my eyes. Thank u Jason for serving our country, may u rest in peace and god bless u and your wife and family. We Should Do MORE!!!!!!!!!!!!

  37. Carson Shelton says:

    Thank you all so much for your honor and support of my son Jason. No words could ever express the hurt I feel inside right now. He was an awesome “son” always thinking of others and never worrying about himself. He could brighten anyone’s day without even trying. Everyone who knew him could always remember his big smile. He would do anything for anybody even a stranger never asking for anything in return only to know he had made their day brighter. No matter what happened he would always have some little way to make you smile too. I’m proud he choose to serve our country and touch so many lives that otherwise would never have known about the very special person he was. He was never one to want to be the center of attention but I know he also would be proud of the honor you all have given and that he proudly deserves. May the angles in heaven welcome you with open arms because I know you will them. And remember if there’s any way possible don’t forget to tell that friend or loved one you love them today military or otherwise because no one knows if tomorrow will come. THANKS AGAIN EVERYONE FOR THEIR PRAYERS AND SUPPORT. And thank you Bill Willis for taking the time to write such a great article. R.I.P MY SON

  38. Carson Shelton says:

    So sorry Brad Willis for spelling your name wrong its hard to think rite now

  39. Brad Willis says:

    Carson, when it comes down to it my name doesn’t matter. This piece was about your son, a man I didn’t know about two days ago, but one I feel like we’ve all gotten a better chance to know through the outpouring of love and support I’ve seen here and around the internet. You are a brave father, and I wish you peace in the coming days. Thank you for having the bravery and will to stand up and face this tragedy with such courage. My heart is with you.

  40. bonnie stroud says:

    ~ brad…your message should impress anyone who reads it…we should all be more cognizant of those who serve… and more importantly of those who sacrifice their lives in service…as a society, it seems we’ve become unfazed by news of these losses…I honestly believe we aren’t at all unfazed…but it hurts too much to face the facts, it’s easier to say “wow, another loss” or “so sad”…and move on to our own busy, stressful lives. i’m glad you witnessed this last flight…i’m glad everyone on your plane saw the finality of what it all means…and proud that you paid tribute and gave recognition to this incredible young man…who leaves behind a family and friends that will never understand…but will know, his life was lost doing what HE wanted to do…to serve others…to stand for freedom and our country. thank you again brad, for being a sensitive man, who can put into words his thoughts and feelings, letting your audience experience with you every moment of that realization. May our loving God wrap his arms around the wife and family and friends of Jason…may each of you cherish memories of his awesome smile and giving heart…and allow those happy thoughts to carry you through this storm. ~

  41. Jessica says:

    Carla it is hard to lose a brother, I would know I lost my brother in 2006 he was in the army. You have a strong heart and remember to smile a big smile in your brothers name. I am so sorry for your loss! Brad thank you for sharing this story tho i never got the chance carla got it feels good to know that someone is willing to post this. “All gave some, Some gave all” R.I.P Jason you will never be forgotten.

  42. As a combat veteran of another war a long time ago, thank you so much for honoring a fallen warrior and husband. My heart goes out to his widow, I helped place five of the best men (my brothers )in their last travel home containers and know that it can tear your heart out to say goodbye. Thank God that Americans now hold the fallen in honor when they pay the ultimate call to duty.My condolences and most heartfelt sympathies go out to his widow,Heather, and his family. as to Jason–Sleep well Brother you gave your all for us left behind , I salute you and will remember your name with the others who gave all in my prayers.
    SGT R. L. Waters Viet vet.

  43. John Bradley says:

    Alluding to what the author said about the ban on pictures of caskets returning home, during the Vietnam War I was flying home “space A”, in other words catching a free ride. After being lucky enough to get a seat on the aircraft, an Air Force C-141, we were asked by the loadmaster informed us that there was going to be “HR’s” (human remains) on the plane with us. He said that any of us who were too uncomfortable with that were welcome to wait for another chance at catching a flight. We all still flew, but at no point did we ever see the caskets.

    What is described above is infinitely better treatment of those who gave all.

    John Bradley, MSgt, USAF
    (One of the ones fortunate enough to have only given some)

  44. David Hancock says:

    Thank you for your perspective & taking the time to write about what you saw & how you felt. I wondered about the folks in the plane as I stood on the runway watching my son make that trip out of the cargo hold & down the ramp to the awaiting cart just a few weeks ago. I guess I found it odd that it was just a normal flight for the people inside & anything but normal for myself & family waiting on the outside. Surreal I think. Thank you again for your perspective. Jason Shelton, may you rest in peace. Nathaniel, be strong for your bro.
    RIP Staff Sergeant Jason A. Hancock – my son – July 9 1795 / August 23 2013

  45. David Hancock says:

    Correction – July 9 1975 / August 23 2013 – it’s hard to see the keyboard when your crying like a baby –

  46. This is a beautiful tribute. Thank you.

  47. Brad Willis says:

    To the many of you who have commented here, in emails, on Facebook, on Twitter, and in private messages, I want you to know that everything you write is being read, not just by me but by the many others who were touched by Jason’s story and the ones you’re telling here. I, like many of my friends, am in awe of the kind of strength and resolve we’re seeing. Thank you for being brave enough to share your stories.

  48. Thank you Mr. Willis for writing your thoughts and impressions in such a moving and poignant fashion. Living in western North Carolina, I was well aware that this hero would be coming home last night. To everyone that honored him either in his official reception or as unofficial escorts on the plane, I thank you for recognizing this hero and responding in part for those of us who could not attend. And to his broken hearted family, I will never have words to adequately describe for you my sorrow for your loss and my gratitude for the sacrifice your entire family has made. Thank you for raising the kind of man that is willing to serve his country. This is a selfless act. Thank you for going through every emotion you must have felt when he made this decision. Thank you for everything large or small that you have done for your son. He never served alone as it is clear his family loved him dearly and I am quite sure he knew this. The words “thank you” to you and your son feel so inept. But it describes a much deeper and heartfelt gratitude that there are no words for. Your son’s life and legacy is now forever ingrained in my heart. I pray that God will comfort you and give your heart peace and rest. And I also pray that one day soon, the things only you know about him that cause your heart to break right now will soon bring you comfort. I pray that one day much sooner than later a smile will return to your face. Please know it is my honor to know of you and your son. Thank you again.. from the depths of my heart.

  49. Shirley Freeman says:

    I read and cried the whole time, and also read the comments shared by others. I have known many who served and several who did not return home to families. My husband served during Viet Nam and he came home. So many others did not and many that he knew and served with. We should always remember each and every life lost to war. Wars fought to assure our freedom and all we take for granted. May God bring comfort to all of Jason’s family and friends and to all the other families out there going through the same thing. Thanks to all who serve and God Bless each of you.

  50. Barbara Jernee says:

    Carla and family, words cannot not begin to express our sympathy for you loss. They also cannot express our gratitude to Jason for his service to our country. May the Lord give you comfort and hold you as tightly in His arms as he now holds Jason. God bless you all.