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Sacrifice - A proper perspective

  • Published
  • By Capt. Douglas Pietersma
  • 20th Air Force Director of Intelligence
Like so many other military members, my 2009 deployment started with a tearful goodbye to my family and a long walk down the jetway of a local airport. I was off to the desert, or more generically, the Middle East. I was not particularly looking forward to this deployment, but I would do my duty as required.

As with all military endeavors, there seemed to be an inordinate amount of "hurry up and wait." This is the phenomenon of showing up six hours before catching the rotator, or contract aircraft, only to spend five of those hours waiting to depart. These sentiments seemed to be shared by my fellow servicemembers as we waited for what seem to be an eternity.

Flying from the continental United States to an overseas location is never a short enterprise. As expected, the long flights were accompanied with poor sleeping, if any, and barely edible airline food. All in all, it was an undesirable experience.

After arriving at our first stop in Southwest Asia my fellow service members and I were informed our layover could be anywhere from one to five days. With nothing to do and thousands of square miles of barren land to do it in, the prospects of something better were fading quickly. This brought morale to an all-time low for everyone, and I was no exception.

I was sorely disappointed to hear my air transport would be aboard a C-130 Hercules. This was certainly not the most favorable way to get to where I was going. Cramped space would put my knees right up against the person sitting opposite me, high temperatures in this region would no doubt leave me sweating off pounds by the minute. Our carry-on luggage might end up on top of us, or more uncomfortably, underneath us. This all proved to be exactly as I imagined.

Trying to look on the bright side, I told myself, "Things couldn't be all that bad, this should be a non-stop flight to my final destination, right?"

Unfortunately, there would be a three-and-a-half hour flight, a layover at relatively remote location, then a short flight to my final destination. At this point, I didn't care much, because I had hardly slept at all in four days, and I just wanted to get where I was going.

The only good thing about the layover was that it was only supposed to take a few minutes as several passengers and their cargo were being offloaded. Things were going as planned, and we were ready to depart from our short layover when the back ramp of the aircraft came open again and the engines shut down completely.

I thought, "What could possibly be the problem now?"

The pilot came back into the passenger and cargo compartment and announced the flight had been delayed because we would be taking "HR" on board.

I thought, "HR, what in the world is that?"

The pilot said there would be a ceremony as this took place and then we could be on our way. It was then I realized "HR" meant human remains.

Reality check

There had been a casualty of the conflict I was going to support, and that casualty was an American. The body of that American would be loaded onto the aircraft transporting me and my fellow service members to our deployed location. For the deceased service member, this would be the first leg of a journey to bring a lifeless body back to grieving loved ones for final respects and burial in the United States.

As my fellow passengers and I disembarked the aircraft and headed for the terminal at this military field, the mood was somber. We weren't sure exactly what was going on or how long it was going to take, but that seemed less important in the context of what was happening. Just then, a senior NCO announced we had been invited to participate in the ramp ceremony, which our pilot had previously mentioned.

Every passenger of our aircraft moved quickly to participate in the ceremony. We joined more than a hundred servicemembers already standing in formation. As we began to take our places, more service members continued to show up. By the time the ceremony began, there were approximately 300 to 400 service members in two long formations.

We marched out to form a corridor through which the flag-draped case would pass in procession.

With the color guard in place, the senior leaders took their position and we all saluted. An Army chaplain then read scripture as he lead eight soldiers bearing the case on their shoulders. Some of those soldiers had tears running down their cheeks; no doubt because they knew the individual in the casket.

Normally, standing at attention for 15 to 20 minutes would have seemed like torture, but not in this situation. The strength to stand and salute was easy when compared to the sacrifice of the deceased we were saluting. Even though we were tired from several days of flying, there were no complaints as we paid our respects.

I didn't know the name, gender, military service or military specialty of the person in the case. Neither did I know the circumstance nor cause of death. But, none of that really mattered, because one of my fellow countrymen had given the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of freedom.

As the bugle played taps, I felt tears coming to my eyes. For the reality of the moment had overshadowed what now proved to be petty annoyances I had been feeling over the previous few days.


At first, I thought how much of an honor it was to have this American hero onboard our aircraft on the last leg of our journey. However, the more I thought, the more I realized, it was also my honor to accompany this hero on the first leg of the final journey home.

Were my inconveniences really as big as I thought? The delays and travel complications were nothing in comparison to the dreadful anticipation of this warrior's loved ones who might have already heard of his tragic death.

This put into clear perspective my responsibility, lest I forget that I, like every service member, raised my hand and swore an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Although, I don't desire the same end as the one to whom I paid respects that day, I am willing to accept such an end, if that is the cost required of me for the freedom of my family, the freedom of every citizen of the U.S. and for the freedom of every citizen of this world.