- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

In an about-face by the U.S. government four years into the war in Iraq, America’s fallen troops are being brought back to their families aboard charter jets instead of ordinary commercial flights.

And honor guards in white gloves are meeting the caskets instead of baggage handlers with forklifts.

That change — which took effect quietly in January and also applies to members of the U.S. military killed in Afghanistan — occurred after a campaign waged by a father who was aghast to learn that his son’s body was going to be unloaded like so much luggage.

John Holley said an airline executive told him that was the “most expeditious” way to get the body home.

“I said, ‘That’s not going to happen with my son. That’s not how my son is coming home,” ‘ said Mr. Holley, an Army veteran from San Diego whose son, Spc. Matthew Holley, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2005. “If it was ‘expeditious’ to deliver them in garbage trucks, would you do that?”

Before Congress enacted the new law, the dead that arrived from overseas at the military mortuary in Dover, Del., were then typically flown to the commercial airport nearest their families.

Some were met by smartly uniformed military honor guards. But in other cases, the flag-draped caskets were unceremoniously taken off the plane by ordinary ground crew members and handed over to the family at a warehouse in a cargo area.

Now, the military is flying the dead into smaller regional airports closer to their hometowns, so that they can be met by their families and, in some cases, receive community tributes. And the caskets are led from the plane by an honor guard.

Last year, the U.S. military spent about $1.2 million to bring home the dead on commercial flights. Switching to charter flights will cost far more: The six-month Pentagon contract won by Kalitta Charters of Ypsilanti, Mich., is worth up to $11 million.

“It’s so much more dignified, so much more a respectable way of getting them home,” said Tom Bellisario, a Kalitta pilot who has flown more than 30 of the missions.

“It’s definitely an honor for all of us,” Mr. Bellisario said. “You figure the last time they saw that person they were alive. As soon as we pull the flag-draped casket into the doorway you hear the crying. You can sense it in the air.”

Mr. Holley said he thought his 21-year-old son deserved a more dignified return than the Pentagon was planning and complained to his congressman, then-House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, California Republican. He also got help from Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat.

They made sure an honor guard from Spc. Holley’s unit based at Fort Campbell, Ky., was sent to Lindbergh Field in San Diego for the arrival of the body. Mr. Holley said the ceremony was dignified and fitting.

Then he turned his attention to other U.S. troops.

“What about all these other parents?” Mr. Holley said. “This is one of the last memories. I don’t want it to be in a warehouse on a forklift.”

Military officials have said commercial airliners were used previously because that was the fastest way to return the dead to their families.

Persuaded by Mr. Hunter and others, Congress enacted a law that requires the remains to be flown on a military or military-contracted aircraft. There must be an escort and an honor guard. Commercial airliners are used only if requested by families, or in cases when remains are sent outside the United States.

“We are happy with what this has been able to provide the families and the relatives,” said Pentagon spokesman Maj. Stewart Upton.


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