CURL: A soldier returns home one last time

POLITICAL THEATER COLUMN:

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. | Army Spc. Michael J. Anaya, assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division in Iraq, came home Tuesday.

He returned just like 4,948 U.S. military members before him - his remains contained in a flag-covered transfer case, were carried off a jet by white-gloved comrades, loaded into a truck, saluted one final time, and taken to the military's largest mortuary.

Every member of the armed forces killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan has passed through the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center en route to a final resting place. Here, they are positively identified, autopsied and prepared for burial.

“He'll have the uniform put on him, if he can,” Air Force Maj. Paul Villagran said.

Specialist Anaya died on Easter in Bayji, Iraq, up the Tigris River about 130 miles from Baghdad, at one end of the Sunni Triangle. He was killed when the truck he was driving ran over an improvised explosive device.

About a dozen photographers and reporters gathered Tuesday on the tarmac to chronicle his “dignified transfer,” a somber ceremony that for nearly all of the six-plus-years war in Iraq has been closed to the media. At the urging of President Obama, the Pentagon this month ended an 18-year ban on press coverage of such events.

Shortly after he was killed, Spc. Anaya was put aboard a transport plane and flown to Ramstein Air Force Base in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Less than 48 hours later, aboard a 747 operated by Atlas Air, an American cargo airline, he was back on U.S. soil.

Before the ceremony, Air Force officers briefed reporters on what would occur. With a schematic projected on a large screen, one official laid out the movements of the “carry team” (not an honor guard, he said), how the “transfer case” (not a casket) would be loaded aboard a “K loader” and lowered, how the “hearse” (which turned out to be a large, white step van) would depart, and where family members would stand (“Do not photograph the family.”)

“The plane is here,” Maj. Villagran announced. Aboard a modified school bus, awaiting transport to the tarmac, the reporters and photographers chatted idly - some talking about about how to stay dry on the drizzly day, others about the Washington Nationals' opening-day loss or one lucky reporter's win in an annual lottery to play Augusta National, site of the weekend's Masters golf tournament.

A 30-minute wait on the bus allowed time for a Google search of Specialist Anaya. One news article said the 23-year-old son of Carmelo Anaya Sr. and his wife, Cheryl, of Crestview, Fla., “was a young man who loved fishing, cooking on the grill and fighting for his country.”

Mike to his friends and family, he had no wife, no children. He was offered his choice of assignments in the Army, but chose infantry, saying that was his destiny, according to Katie Rowe, who is engaged to his older brother, Carmelo Jr.

Miss Rowe said Spc. Anaya, stationed in Hawaii before his death, had a premonition that he would soon be killed in Iraq.

“He told his brother, 'I have a feeling that I'm not going to make it back, but that's what I'm meant to do,'” Miss Rowe told the Honolulu Star Bulletin. “He said, 'It's not just for you and the family and my nieces and nephews. It's for everybody.'”

On Tuesday, somewhere in the air base's passenger terminal, Spc. Anaya's parents waited. The Army had flown them in for the ceremony, paying for commercial airline tickets - which before the change had to be covered by the family. Soon, they boarded a bus and drove out to the 747, where their son lay.

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