Since the war on terror began nine years ago, nearly 6,000 troops have been killed in combat or died otherwise in the line of duty. Their flag-draped caskets are transported back home from Iraq or Afghanistan. But what happens to that casket on their final journey to their families, to the airport that signaled coming home?
The Southwest Airlines flight from Austin taxied to the gate at LAX Terminal 1. As the plane's door slowly opened, Officer Thomas Dye of the airport police stood waiting at the jetway entrance. All the passengers remained seated as a man in Army uniform stood and walked to the exit. Dye saluted."The honor guard has been posted," Dye said. "The field stands ready to receive the fallen."
In a ceremony unique to most airports, Officer Dye has single-handedly organized an honor guard for the return of fallen soldiers to Los Angeles International Airport. Since 2004, every flag-draped casket that arrives at the airport is met by Dye and his fellow officers.
"One day it was a situation where we were not at hand for the return of the remains of a fallen soldier," Dye remembered. "It was undignified and it needed our attention."
A catalyst to forming the honor guard came in 2005 when Officer Tommy Scott, an LAX police officer, was killed in the line of duty. "The officers wanted to do something honorable for the department, for him, for the family, in his memory," Dye said. "So we came together, we trained."
Dye taught his fellow officers the protocol of the ceremonial and escort duties, a protocol he learned during 28 years in the U.S. Navy and with the Army Corps of Engineers.
The cargo door of the Southwest plane opened and Dye climbed inside with a folded flag in his arms. Assembled on the tarmac were TSA officers, Army soldiers, Dye's fellow airport police officers, Los Angeles Police Department officers and even a couple of FBI agents. Watching from the side was the family of 1st Sgt. Steven Studebaker, 48, who died at the U.S. Army Garrison in Fort Hood, Texas. Dye appeared again at the cargo door and stepped down to a conveyor belt. Behind him a maintenance man slowly moved a flag-draped casket to the top of the belt.
Without this ceremony, the remains would simply go to the airline's cargo holding area, waiting for pick-up. Since he began nearly seven years ago, Dye said the airlines have been increasingly alert about notifying him when they transport a fallen soldier's remains.
70 Honor Guards Organized for Fallen Heroes
Dye has organized at least 70 such honor guards but he does not keep count of the exact number.
"Every one is very important and every one is a hero to us," he said. "They served with honor, they've distinguished themselves and they need to be recognized on the return."
The conveyor belt slowly moves the casket toward the men lined up on either side, the Army's honor guard. They salute and after several moments, they lift the casket up and begin moving in formation toward an open hearse. As the casket is carried, the white-gloved TSA and police officers remain saluting. Waiting passengers have assembled at the terminal windows, peering down to the tarmac. Two Southwest flight attendants stand precariously at an open door where? watching the ceremony.
Though he has organized these ceremonial guards for years, Dye was quick to explain that the honor guard is the work of many people.
"It's not just airport police but it's all of us, from the director down to the maintenance individual that wants to help and wants to make this a meaningful return of the loved one," Dye said. It's a team effort."
For his part in the honor guard, Dye always makes sure to escort the families to the air field and assign a fellow officer to remain with them during the ceremony.
"Most of them are very distraught, very emotional of course," Dye said. "They arrive here and they don't know how they're going to get through the day. So we tell them 'You're part of our family, you're with us and we're going to get you through the day.'"
His fellow officer, Karla Ortiz, was one of the first to volunteer and joined the honor guard in early 2007.
"Sometimes tears have rolled down my face," said Ortiz. "But what the family is feeling compares nothing with what I might be feeling. I could not even fathom or imagine what they're going through, their loss or pain. To see another human being grieve for somebody who is a hero is very touching for me."
The Army honor guard placed the casket into the hearse and the family approached with Dye close by. After a few minutes of silence, they hugged each other and stepped away. Dye escorted an older woman away from the hearse, taking her arm into his and giving her hand a reassuring pat. The hearse was closed.
"It's a very private moment, a very personal moment," Dye said, "And we're very honored that we're part of that."