Kenneth Tigge retired from the Army in 1984, but he still goes out on missions. More than 200 of them in the past six years.
Tigge, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, is co-founder and team leader of the USOs Honors Support Team at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Team members see it as their mission no, scratch that: their solemn calling to ensure that the bodies of soldiers who pass through the airport on their final journey home are treated with the respect they deserve.
I had the privilege and a privilege it most assuredly was to accompany Tigge and his team on such a mission Monday as they made sure that a dead U.S. Marine Corps machine gunner from Camp Lejeune made it home to his family in Louisiana with dignity and honor.
I stood with Tigge and Terry Brest, a member of the USOs Family Support Team, while we waited for the funeral home in Jacksonville to deliver the dead Marines body. Tigge asked that I not identify by name the Marine or his hometown to prevent hecklers from showing up at the funeral.
Ninety percent of the time, theres no family waiting at the airport, Tigge said. We believe that if they served our country, they are deserving of full military honors.
And a dignified send-off.
Two coffins in cardboard boxes bearing civilian remains sat off to the side, ready to be flown to loved ones. I hope. It was humbling and disconcerting to think that after a lifetime of laughter, tears, accomplishments and disappointments, you could end up sitting alone in an airport warehouse surrounded by boxes containing computer equipment, building materials and anything else that can be shipped on a plane.
Brest looked at me, then at the two coffins shunted to the side, then back at me and said, Thats why the escort stays with the body as much as possible. Thats the whole point of the escort that the body is never alone.
Did I mention that the two civilian coffins were alone?
The least I can do
When Tigge saw the body of a soldier treated in a similar manner in 2006, it prompted him to start the Honors Support Team.
I got a call from Fort Bragg asking me to meet the spouse at RDU, Tigge recalled. I talked to everybody but wasnt able to get her down on the tarmac close to her husbands body. I was able to get down there, but she had to watch from the terminal window. The crate came off the aircraft like a regular piece of cargo and was put on an old crappy cart and was hauled away to the cargo area.
That was it for the spouse, he said. I made up my mind that things had to change and would change. Everybody at RDU said, We will do whatever needs to be done to ensure that never happens again.
And it hasnt. Since 2006, Tigge said, his team has met about 245 bodies passing through RDU. Master Sgt. O. Backland, who was escorting the Marine on Monday, said he volunteered for the mission.
He was one of my men, Backland said. I feel it is the least I can do for the family.
I didnt ask if he meant the dead Marines family back home or the Marine Corps family. Probably both: Team member J.C. Cunningham explained that there is a color guard to load each member of the service whose body passes through, but the Marines prefer to provide their own escorts for their soldiers.
As the eight-member color guard seven Marines and one sailor led by 1st Sgt. Joseph Reconnu marched in formation through the airport terminal to the plane, passengers stared in awe. One little girl she looked to be about 4 or 5 - said, Wow.
Older passengers said the same thing with their eyes.
I saw one woman praying as we walked by, team member Nan Maples told me later.
Watching the ceremony
Cunningham announced over the airlines intercom that Master Sgt. Backland would be on their plane accompanying the dead soldier home and invited passengers to watch from the window the ceremony that was about to take place on the tarmac. Scores did.
What a ceremony they saw. Instead of just lifting the crate and throwing it in cargo, well have the color guard do it, Brest, an Air Force veteran, explained.
Despite a sudden rain shower, the color guard removed the coffin from a specially built, flag-festooned cart, removed the flag from the coffin, folded it and presented it to Backland. He will present it to the dead Marines family.
The color guard then placed the coffin on a conveyor belt and saluted as it was pulled onto the plane. They moved with such precision that you knew this was something theyve done often. Sgt. Reconnu said his color guard is called to serve as many as 16 times a month. World War II veterans are dying at about 1,000 a day, he said.
Except for the several minutes it took us to go through security inside the terminal, Backland was never more than a few feet from the remains entrusted to his care.
The dead Marine, bless his soul, was never left alone unlike the other two bodies in the warehouse.
Of the process that ensures that soldiers are sent home with dignity and respect, Cunningham said, Its a sad occasion, but I view it as a distinct honor.
I view being able to watch it the same way.