After landing at O’Hare on Wednesday evening, we taxied the jet off the runway and turned to face Terminal 1, which looked like it was in a state of emergency. Several Crash/Fire/Rescue trucks and a bunch of airport police cars and ambulances surrounded it, with all their lights flashing. A large crowd of people stood on the tarmac. An airplane was stopped for no apparent reason right in the middle of the Alpha taxiway.
That doesn’t look good.
Of course there was an emergency going on, but what was it? The scene was too big for a medical emergency. A fuel spill maybe? Was there a fire in Terminal 1? Did they evacuate a jet?
As we continued our taxi to our gate, the inbound ground frequency grew quiet, weird for O’Hare inbound ground, and someone asked, “You got time for a question?”
The controller responded, “Sure.”
“What’s going on at Terminal 1?”
“A soldier,” was all he said.
And my heart jumped up into my throat. Yes, it was an emergency. One family’s personal, horrible emergency.
The commotion at Terminal 1 wasn’t a commotion at all. It was an honor guard. A salute to a fallen soldier. I knew they did this; I’d heard about it from a Captain who’d brought a soldier home on one of her flights. I'd just never seen it before. A ceremony as they loaded the body onto the plane and then another as they took the soldier off.
As a mother of two fifteen-year-old boys, I don’t like to think about all these wars we have going on. I ache for the mothers whose children come home in the manner I witnessed on Wednesday. You raise your kids, see them through every spill and fall, stitches and middle of the night trips to the Emergency Room with croupy coughs so violent they can hardly breathe. You do everything possible to keep them alive, and then they succumb to a roadside bomb in some country you had never given a second thought to over the course of most of your life. I think about the people I know who have children fighting these wars. About my cousin Joey, who just enlisted. And so, I don’t like to think about this type of honor guard.
It used to be tradition when an airline Captain retired for the Crash/Fire/Rescue folks to shoot two arcs of water for the airplane to taxi underneath when he or she parked at the gate for the very last time. This tradition ended a few years back. The rumor I heard was someone forgot to turn a switch from foam to water, and ended up spraying a couple of jet engines with extinguishing agent. Pricey. So, they don’t do it anymore. I imagine the ceremony for this soldier wasn’t free, either. But this soldier had just paid the ultimate price for his or her country and we need to be reminded of that. As the war in Afghanistan loses the headlines to elections and hurricanes and Honey Boo Boo, it’s my opinion we can’t afford to not do it.
As we started to pull into our gate, I heard the ground controller giving instructions to another jet that had just landed. And I know it was out of respect and an unwritten protocol, that he said, “Follow the soldier.” As it should be.