Bringing the bodies home

Women have throttled up through many a glass ceiling since Jackie Fleming’s mother first zipped up her go-go boots and boarded a Pan American Airways Boeing 747 for its inaugural Washington D.C. to London flight.

“They actually checked their legs for scars. The skirts were so short,” Fleming says with an amused bewilderment. In the sexy ’60s flying was still stylish and her mother was an airborne pioneer.

The daughter of a former flight attendant, “stewardess” in those days, and an Air Force fighter pilot who flew F-100 Super Sabres, she has fast tracked from Purdue University’s highly respected aviation program to Certified Flight Instructor, Flight Engineer on the 727, a CRJ and G-4 corporate pilot, and then recently a First Officer on the Boeing 757 and 767 for Continental Airlines.

“I was born to do this,” says the petite 28-year old redhead from the tarmac of Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, where she is performing the preflight for our mission today.

“This” is the duty as an officer with the Air Force Reserves 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patterson, outside of Dayton, Ohio, which has temporarily slowed the trajectory of her high-flying career and put her in harms way on a monthly basis.

Capt. Fleming is the copilot on the C 5-A the largest most imposing looking plane in the Air Force fleet. A veteran of more than 50 aero medical flights on the smaller, and now phased out C-141 into and out of Iraq, she has transitioned into the larger aircraft to continue her service with the 445th Air Force Reserves. The C-141, a Vietnam stalwart, has been cut into scrap in the American desert and the 445th Airlift Wing has been re-tasked to hauling supplies into and out of Germany in the C 5-A.

A great gray warehouse with wings, the C 5-A sprawls on the tarmac at Ramstein Air Force base on indefinite hold. At the last moment, Fleming’s flight has been re-designated an “H.R.” flight, the blunt military acronym for human remains. It will now ferry home six U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. The word is that they have just been flown into Germany from the war zone.

“We’ll wait as long as we have to, to bring them home to their families,” says Major Rachel Daulton, the Aircraft Commander, a veteran of hundreds of flights into and out of Iraq.

“They probably died in the last 12 hours,” confides a crew-member. The coffins have been lined with bags of ice. “Were getting them home for autopsies at Dover,” she quietly explains.

The Dover Air Force Base in Delaware houses the military’s largest mortuary, which has been receiving the war dead since the Vietnam War. The handling of the caskets is a deeply respectful process. The war dead are escorted to the planes by military personnel and saluted aboard the transport planes. The crew says prayers and observes a moment of silence before takeoff.

On this flight the 445th Airlift Wing Reserve flight has two full crews, 10 airmen, five of whom are women, who, by rare coincidence this day, will make up the all female crew for the first leg of the 3,970 mile flight from Germany to Dover. With tens of thousands of hours between them, these fliers are sisters bonded by duty, the love of aviation and a camaraderie born out of a difficult assignment aboard a complicated aircraft.

“The C 5-A is ’70s era technology,” says a male Flight Engineer, while we prep on the ground.

“It breaks a lot,” explains Major Daulton, who, in civilian life, is an American Airlines First Officer. She is the boss of the flight deck in what is often a largely male community. Sharing the cockpit, sitting right front seat, is Capt. Fleming.

The flight back to Wright-Patterson is light. Two Dash 60 Powercarts, the size of Volkswagens, and three pallets of fuses and explosives will be dwarfed in a cargo hold that could easily accommodate six Greyhound buses.

But now there is precious cargo.

The six coffins, all cloaked in American flags secured, the crew resumes pre-flight duties. The flight crews have done rough duty in the past. Before converting to the larger C-5A they flew aero medical routes from Germany to Balad, Iraq, to bring back the war wounded. Only one C5-A is equipped with missile deflecting flares and can be used downrange. There is talk all the planes will eventually be re-outfitted for war zone duty. But today the war has come to the crew. One young crewmember confesses that H.R. flights bring a tear to her eye. This is tough duty, too.

The huge jet shudders as the four engines spool up and we roll down the runway, airborne in just a few seconds at our relatively lightweight.

After takeoff the crew adjusts for the long trip. But two hours into the flight a sensor alerts the crew to a troubling vibration in the number one engine.

“It’s nothing devastating, but there is a point of no return and a decision has to made,” explains Fleming. The crew troubleshoots for 20 minutes. All four pilots make an individual assessment, but the decision to abort the flight is left to the flight engineers.

Major Daulton shuts down the number one engine and puts the leviathan through a series of gentle left turns as the emerald green of County Kerry spins below. Through the windshield, west slowly becomes east.

“Someone else will have to get them home now,” says Fleming.

On a break during the return flight, Major Daulton sheds her businesslike demeanor and says softly, “I am proud to know we have people serving like the soldiers we are bringing home. It’s a reminder to all of us that there are people who still believe that freedom is worth dying for.”

Below the flight deck, 19-year old Danielle Kremer stands by the six coffins as the plane turns back to Germany. “They deserve our respect. They deserve to go home.”

It may take a little longer, but they will.

(Timothy Malloy has 29 years as a TV news anchor/reporter under his belt. He has worked in 22 countries as a broadcast journalist and currently reports for WPTV in West Palm Beach, FL.)


  1. Carl Nemo

    A superb, spot-on post Judy B…! Every day I’m benumbed to the fact that 300 million Americans haven’t risen up and taken the time to make summary demands concerning the ending of this rip-off, Iraqi debacle to their elected reps!

    To save this once great nation will take the efforts of the few to save the many. It’s always been that way. So if only several million Americans started hammering their elected “disppointments” daily, not simply asking, begging, and entreating, but summarily “demanding’ we exit Iraq; then “we the people” shall prevail!

    I’m an intense activist and lately I’ve made it clear to my Congressional rep and to my Senators they best get “crackin” concerning our exiting Iraq or they are history! I have many connected friends and associates and I will work 24/7/365 to see my reps get the boot when they come up for re-election. I don’t care how much feelgood legislation and pork they’ve brought back to Washington State. All three are Dems, all three disappointments, all three headed for my sea-boot sanction; ie., over-the-rail!

    I’ll post the duty links so folks can get off their collective butts and make an effort to contact their reps. As they say “just do it”…!

    Carl Nemo **==

  2. JudyB

    Our infamous President decider ‘n Chief Bush, would rather not have the American Public see or know about the thousands upon thousands of U S Troops returning home in ice lined, flag draped coffins NOR air ambulances. That so many have had their lives cut short or ruined, is an even worse atrocity when you consider this war was based on lies and greed. This does not diminish the fact that these young men and women died while serving in the U S military and deserve to be honored. Those serving in a capacity of returning our troops home via “H R FLIGHTS” and Air Abulances will never be immune to, OR ABLE TO FORGET the heart breaking reality of war..and more so, niether will the loved ones of those who will be there to recieve them.


  3. gene

    “They died for greed”…(TallMike2)..God are you ever so right and thankyou for saying it. You know the truth as most here do. I can’t imagine anyone posting here that doesn’t hurt for the families and lost lives (Iraqis and our young soldiers).

    So many here in the USA continue their lives as though this murdereous evil, criminal conflict doesn’t even exsist. Most are just struggling to live now in a nation that is imploding. These young soldiers are coming back to a nation no longer able to help them, control by a group of evil bastards (Bush and Cheney) that have no conscious and can only puke lies out of their mouths. These are truely evil, heartless creatures destined for HELL.

    My brother and I both were in Vietnam together, he was hurt bad, mentally and physically and eventualy committed suicide because evil bastards in the 60s sent young innocent soldiers (like Iraq) to die for nothing.

    Congress should have already impeached these monsters but they themselves are heartless cowards seemingly concerned only with what is considered “politically correct”.

    This nation will soon receive its just reward. I wished their were enough of us to stop this evil insanity but again, as I have said so often. All I see in this society as I travel to Walmarts and other places are individuals concerned only with their reality.

    Its hard to imagine juctice in a nation that has strayed so far from its original moral foundation.

  4. Elmo

    The soldiers die because they believe that freedom is worth fighting for. They die for greed because they are sent to fight a war that has nothing to do with our freedom — unless you mean the freedom to drive gas-guzzlers to the store and buy cheap goods made in a foreign land where labor is cheap.

    But the soldiers die with and for honor. We dishonor them when we send them to fight dishonorable wars.

  5. TallMIke2

    To Major Daulton: Freedom is worth fighting for, but these soldiers did not die for freedom. They died for greed, and this is why their deaths are so heartbreaking; a grief from which it is so hard to recover. Thank you and others for bringing them back home to us. I agree with Ms Price, we must never again send our children to die in a war based on corruption and manipulation.

  6. vietnam vet

    vietnam vet

    Very well said Gene. All you have to do is visit walter Reed Army Medical Center and see the shame of what greed has done to young men and women. But I’m confident that those who perpetrated this evil will be repaid in full

  7. bryan mcclellan

    I live in the Dover flight path and each time I see a C-5 go over it reminds me of that time in my youth when looking skyward we would remark,there goes another freedom bird ,back to the world.The people that man these flights truly have a difficult task and deserve our thanks.I sought to attend the debarkation ceremonies a couple times a month to pay respects, but we the civilian population are bared from attending these activities by the smirko ilk,hiding from reality as always. This burns my ass to no end.By this action they not only dishonor those who’ve sacrificed,but their families, and as well, we who wish to honor the fallen.How do these bastards sleep I wonder?

  8. RSW

    Yes, I suppose that we did think we were in Vietnam to die for freedom. Some of us anyway. But somewhere, sometime in 1968 or 1969 many of us, perhaps the majority of us who were humping the hills and valleys and paddies and forested swamps knew we weren’t dying for freedom. We, too, were dying for greed, and an economic system that promoted drugs, which we indirectly fought for control over, and which constitute a major part of our hidden economy today (Afganistan, anyone?).

    This is an all volunteer army. Maybe that’s what they were thinking originally, freedom, that is, but I suspect that most of the early arrivals in Afganistan and Iraq were there to avenge the 3,000 or so who died on September 11. Most likely, that is how they were motivated, anyway (I do remember how we were indoctrinated before being herded to Vietnam).

    Signifcant portions of those occupying Afgan/Iraq now are National Guard and Reserve units, who serve with those lifers trying to make rank doing honorable but cheap service in a war zone. Ask the Guardsmen where they believe they should be. Maybe the Reserve units, too, though they should know what they signed up for.

    These soldiers no more die in honor or for freedom than did those body bag warriors whom I served with almost forty years ago. And it won’t matter if we reinstate the draft and put a million men and women over there. We’ll still lose. The war strategists of this nation don’t understand what our enemies have learned about us, for they let us move in, then pick at us incessantly like mosquitoes, horse flies, and gnats until we can’t tolerate it anymore, and we leave. Declaring victory, of course. And what of the dead then?


  9. Sandra Price

    This is another side of the war that is often overlooked. We all have read about the medical planes who take our injured soldiers to Germany and the fabulous care they are given until they can be flown home. This is the last ride for far too many Americans who were brought into a war based on false premises. We must demand that this be the last war based on corruption and manipulation.

  10. Sandra Price

    Carl, you are not alone in your activism. I sign petitions, send emails to my reps on my own as well as sending through several other organizations. My Senators are Kyl and McCain who are gungho for the war. My Congressman is a whimpy coward who wants the prohibitions on everyone and of course raves about Bush. All are Republicans!

    I’ve never lived in a district that is so unwilling to act on any effort to stop this government assault on us, let alone the Middle East.

    Apathy is killing America.