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 the caskets are being met by honor guards in white gloves instead of baggage handlers with forklifts.
That change — which took effect quietly in January and applies to members of the U.S. military killed in Afghanistan, too — came 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 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?"
Kalitta Charters of Ypsilanti, Mich., won the Pentagon contract to bring the war dead home, and has returned 143 bodies since Jan. 1.
More than 3,500 Americans have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before the new law was passed by Congress, 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 being borne from the plane by an honor guard.
Higher cost but ‘so much more dignified’
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 Kalitta contract 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," 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."
John Holley said he believed 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, R-Calif. He also got help from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
They made sure an honor guard from Holley's unit based at Fort Campbell, Ky., was sent to Lindbergh Field in San Diego for the arrival of the body. Holley said the ceremony was dignified and fitting.
Then he turned his attention to other U.S. soldiers.
"What about all these other parents?" 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.
Hunter presses the issue
Hunter wrote a letter to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in December 2005, calling for more appropriate military honors. Speaking from the House floor in May, Hunter said: "The extreme respect that should be afforded those fallen heroes ... has in some cases, been lacking."
Persuaded by Hunter and others, Congress passed 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 where 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. "Regardless of what the reality was, there was a perception there that the proper respect was not being provided to those who made the ultimate sacrifice. That is no longer a question."
‘You just don’t do that’
Kalitta's manager for the project, Steve Greene, said the sight of a forklift unloading a casket proved too much for military families.
"You just don't do that," he said. "And doing that with a family watching it, they don't want to see their son's casket being unloaded with a forklift or a belt loader, and this is what Congress saw."
Kalitta brought home the body of Army Staff Sgt. Terry William Prater, of Speedwell, Tenn., on March 23. Prater, 25, was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.
Michael Patton, a police sergeant from New Tazewell, Tenn., attended the arrival ceremony at the Knoxville airport. He said he was impressed by the military escort and the precision color guard.
The ceremony was held in a shaded, general aviation section of the suburban airport. The jet rolled to within 50 feet of a waiting hearse, offering the privacy the family requested.
"It showed more respect than him being on a plane with the rest of the luggage," Patton said.