It is overcast this early morning at Manas, but familiar. I’m joining other comrades-in-arms to pay respects to a few Fallen Warriors.
I felt this same way years ago while standing in formation as a first lieutenant anxiously waiting for my first Honor Guard detail at Bourne National Cemetery, Mass. It was a moment that connected me directly to our calling, a powerful sense of commitment and duty that framed my expectations for service afterwards. Above all, I was now part of an inseparable bond with an Airman who served years before me, and now his responsibility was mine and all who wear the uniform.
The morning air is already chilly, just like a late summer or early fall evening, the wind a bit crisp and surprising as it blows past me and sways the trees at the bus stop.
Fellow military members and I boarded buses and headed to the flightline, along with other vehicles with their hazard lights on. The vehicles line up to to pass through the serpentine guard lanes. We pass refueling aircraft from another era, KC-135s, designed with paper, pencils, and slide rules and flying before I was born, now silent sentinels watching the motorcade pass by. No telling how many conflicts or such formations they have witnessed, and their mute stares won’t give up any secrets either.
We pull up to a modern C-17 cargo plane, taking on fuel, with more vehicles surrounding it, hazards on. Airmen are moving around, checking lines and speaking to aircrew. The flightline is a magical and ethereal place at night, especially as we line up in a V formation at the tail end of the C-17.
Off in the distance is the horizon, blue and deep, and the pathway for our three warriors heading home to loved ones for one final reunion.
Three special purpose utility vehicles, each carrying one passenger, are lined up underneath the massive tail of this plane, its cargo lights from within its hold and underneath its massive whale tail illuminating the detail unfolding.
As the chaplain asks us to pray, a light mist drizzles slowly, and the massive grey hulk now shimmers with a moist sheen. The smell of fuel, exhaust, and brake lines stay present, and in its own right are the perfect incense for the moment.
We salute three times, as the Honor Guard purposefully moves our warriors onboard for home.
Through the cold mist, they remain covered in their sleep by our flag, the canton of blue over their hearts. It has been so for over 237 years as it is right now. The chill felt earlier is still there, but now somewhat welcomed as we are dismissed.
And once again, we board vehicles with hazards on, lined up, and pass by the same cold sentinels as before, still as silent and brooding, awaiting their next mission.
The plane slowly yet loudly powers up, preparing to taxi and launch for home. We pass through the gates, guards checking ID cards and waving us through. The flightline is now behind us, and with our brothers safely on board, we return to where we began. At a quiet bus stop, with a slight drizzle, a cool breeze, and a quiet walk back to our dorms.
For a brief moment, I was once again that first lieutenant, standing proud knowing I was with my fellow warriors, all united in a common cause – sending Fallen Warriors home.
May we never forget.
PHOTO: A KC-135 Stratotanker prepares to land in the early morning sunrise at Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, Aug. 22, 2013. Flight operations run seven days a week at the transit center to meet mission demands providing support for operations in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett)