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. Cyndi Taylor says:

    You will never know what your service has meant to the Taylor family. Rest in peace young man may your angel’s wing’s keep you flying high! Love and prayers for Heather and the family. May God bless each of you and keep you in his loving care!

  2. Ronald ott says:

    You have a true gift with words and I agree with everyone of them!

    Thank You and may God bless Jason Shelton and his family.

  3. Carrie Perialas says:

    My heart,thoughts and prayers go out to this soldier and his family. I hope knowing that there are so many out there that do appreciate what our soldiers do for our freedoms will bring the family some measure of comfort.

  4. gegesinclair says:

    Crying my eyes out. I will get down on my knees this Veterans Day and thank God for this man/son/husband/brother who gave his life for my freedom. And to all the others. Thanks to the writer who took the time to put into words how our soldiers come home. I felt I was there.

  5. Neal Ann reeves says:

    This has left tears or respect and reverence spilling down my cheeks. Seems we ignore the sacrifices our military families make day in and day out. My thanks to all veterans and their families. Let the people of this nation stand together and demand accountability for these wars and the blood shed from our troops.


  7. Beth Alavez says:

    As the Daughter of one who came back from Vietnam this way; Thank You ! You are so right. This is so commonplace and too often. As one that lives here close to this young man, I am proud to know he will be honored here in the Mountains. Thank you that your heart was soft enough to be touched and needed to share. You will have a different perspective as a Father now and in how you teach and love your children.

  8. Maranda Everson says:

    Blessings to the Shelton family all. And to the Author of this article. As Veterans day approaches we should all reflect on the lives of those who fought and who continue to fight for not just our freedom but for the idea’s and that make America the great country it is.

  9. Gail Robinson says:

    My prayers go to the family and friends. Freedom is what we should not take likely.May we honor our servicemen and servicewomen for their dedication,and families who are giving and sacrifices being made. God bless America the home of the brave.

  10. We should mark every day with our most careful, brave, and determined efforts to assure that the circumstance that leads to these sad moments only come to pass when they are truly necessary.

  11. Christina Bergeron says:

    THANK YOU so much for sharing this article and to the family, friends and strangers for extending their condolences. Sometimes it is hard to believe with all the difficulties out world is having that there are people who care. I never knew this outstanding soldier, but my heart does go out to those who did to include his family. Thank you for serving bravely, selflessly, and upholding our Army values! My heart and prayers go out to you.

  12. Thank you for caring.

  13. Thank you… I know that his family appreciates these heartfelt words.

    As an American, I can say that I am proud and humbled by your words….

    I will continue to pray for Jason’s family and his extended family…

  14. Kevin Cullis says:

    Whenever I see a story of a service member coming home in a casket, I ALWAYS, ALWAYS am reminded of the movie “Saving Private Ryan” and these two scenes:

    I continually ask myself, “Have I lead a good life?” so that I live up to the cost of their sacrifice.

    Never forget.

  15. Melissa Hogue says:

    Carla, as the proud granddaughter, neice, cousin, and daughter of military personnel I want to offer my condolences to you and your family. I also offer my never ending respect and admiration to Jason. My father (retired Navy) taught me from an early age to always show respect and honor to any and all service members that I meet. I shake their hands and thank them with all my heart for what they have done for me and mine.

    Carson, if I meet parents of a service member I shake the father’s hand and give the mom a hug. I wish I could do this for you and your wife so please accept a virtual handshake and hug instead. Please give Heather a hug for me. Even though I grew up a Navy brat I know I could never handle being a military spouse. Watching what my mom and my friends moms and dads went through was enough.

    The comment Carla made about the police and firefighters honoring her brother made me smile a little. I had civilian kids for friends growing up as well as my fellow military brats. The civi kids (as we called em) that I always got on best with were the kids of cops and firefighters/EMS. Someone once asked me why that was and I said I think it’s cause of all the jobs in the civilian world those two come closest to what it is like to be a military kid. The pride of having a family member who runs toward the danger to protect others and the dread of seeing uniforms at the door or that phone call that means the world you knew is over. So they and theirs will always have my respect and admiration as well.

  16. Melissa Hogue says:

    I also wish to say to those that have written here:

    Thank You and Welcome Home to my Dad’s fellow Vietnam Veterans. Please know I will never forget or take for granted what you all gave for me and our country.

    To the ones who are serving now, Thank You. Even if the government doesn’t seem to care I do give a damn about you.

    To the wives of those serving now or served and made it home, I don’t think thank you is enough but it’s the best I can do. You are the toughest ladies walking the earth and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

    To the wives of those who gave all, Thank You and my prayers go with you.

    To the Mothers and Fathers of those serving Thank You for raising such strong children.

    To the Mothers and Fathers of those who gave all, their sacrifice and yours will never be forgotten by me and mine. Thank You and Bless You always.

  17. shannon says:

    my respects and prayers to jasons family thank you and may he rest in peace god bless

  18. Patricia Mack says:

    My son served, God Bless him and everyone who served to protect our country. This includes the families of loved ones who sacrificed as well, thank you

  19. What an amazing story. Its sad that people tend to lose focus on who the true hero’s are. They are not baseball, player or even wrestlers,they are the men and woman who sacrifice their lives everday for our freedom. I will thank any and all military personel for not only my freedom but the freedom of my family. Jason is one of the true heros. From my family to yours thought and prayers to a true “HERO” JASON.May god wrap his loving arms around this family.

  20. Prayers to Mr. Shelton’s family and all who knew him..hugs from a military mom and <3

  21. BobR says:

    Thank you, Brad, for sharing your experience. Thank you, SPC Shelton, for your service and sacrifice. And a special thanks and heartfelt gratitude to the Shelton family. As we go through our day-to-day activities, we tend to lose site of the fact that many of our young men and women continue to stand in harm’s way, and far too many of them come home this way.

  22. As the mother of a teen aged boy who plans to join the Army when he graduates, this story is my deepest fear. As the wife of a veteran, I know the fear that knots your stomach every time the phone would ring or someone would knock on the door while your loved one is deployed. As an American citizen, I say THANK YOU to Jason and his family for their sacrifice. Only those who have served (and their families)can truly know that freedom isn’t free. My prayers are with your family for strength and peace and know that he is with you always.

  23. Michelle Willis says:

    Thank you, Shelton family, for sharing your memories and your love of Jason. If you are still following this post, please tell those of us who have been profoundly affected by your family’s loss how we can honor Jason on this Veterans Day. What can we do to show our support for you and other military families?

  24. Thank you for this. I greatly appreciate it, and I included your story – Jason’s story – in my sermon yesterday: Let Us Not be Silent.

  25. Kristine Keys Hamilton says:

    Brad-Thank you for writing this. Its beautiful. I pray for the Shelton family, that they have peace in knowing their beloved soldier is home to rest. They all sacrificed and will everyday with this loss. To this family, on Veteran’s Day and everyday after..May the lord bless you and thank you.

  26. Da Goddess says:

    It’s been a while since I stopped by to read, Brad, and this was my first Otis post in a long time (too long, truthfully). You floored me, as you always do.

    Thank you. Just…thank you.

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    I found it on 15 position, you should build some quality backlinks , it will help you to get more visitors.
    I know how to help you, just type in google – k2 seo tips

  28. Colton renfro says:

    I saw this on Jason’s brothers feed and had to read this. My brother and Jason were like brothers and so was I and him. It was allways a big event when he came home on leave and he allways came to see us like he was one of the family and he was. It warms my heart to see this and how high you think of our troops over sea and deployed some people just don’t understand how hard it is for the family to see them go for so long and then find out this happend. Rest in peace brother I know I’ll see you again in a better place

  29. jake Sawyer says:

    I knew jason very well i went to school with him he was a good man all ways had a smile on his face and never said eny thing bad about eny one. You know you don’t really miss some so much antill there gone but i guess that’s just life. Jason’s wife is one of the sweetest girls you will ever meet she loved Jason and i know she all ways will i guess the saying the good die young is true.

  30. James says:

    He was a outstanding soldier and a outstanding friend. being all he can be, and doing more than anyone i’ve ever known. He is the one you could always count on to make you laugh and to make you mad at hell sometimes but more than often we were laughing. Basic training went by so fast and a lot of lost touch but even then he will always be my friend. He will be greatly missed and still loved. RIP Jason Shelton see you on the other side brother…

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