Afghanistan: Visual Cues to Sending a Fallen Soldier Home

Like so many communities have done thousands of times before – Tampa Bay will welcome home a fallen soldier. Army Spc. Brittany Gordon’s remains arrive Wednesday at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida.

Yet, few know what it’s like at the other end – in Afghanistan. What do the soldiers experience when sending home a fallen colleague.

My thanks to Tony Schwalm for sharing his observations. He is a retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army Special Forces currently assigned as an Army civilian to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan and author of The Guerrilla Factory.

A Journal Entry from Afghanistan

Tonight, due to a torn calf muscle, I am missing the institutional response to what is now a common signal on the camp where I live in Afghanistan. In the center of the camp, which is defined by a line of razor wire and blast walls within a larger perimeter of razor wires and blast walls that encapsulates the adjacent airfield, stands a row of flag poles representing the nations who hunt and kill Taliban alongside the US.

As it is a US camp, the US flag is first. Without warning and I have never seen who does it, the flag is at half-staff and remains there for 24 hours when a special operations soldier dies.

Due to the connectivity of the world in which we live and kill each other and the chance that a social media site will announce the death to an unsuspecting family member, no one is given the name until the next of kin is notified in the US.

As I was limping back to my office, I saw the flag at half-staff and most of the task force was walking down to the airfield. They will stand at attention in a rectangle of a few hundred people while a truck with flag-draped coffins slowly passes in front of them and stops at an honor guard. Continue reading

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Soldiers’ Honor Escorts, Memorials for Tampa Bay Fallen

Over the next two days, MacDill Air Force Base will serve as the transfer point for two Tampa Bay Area fallen soldiers killed in a bomb blast two Sundays ago in Afghanistan.

Arriving Tuesday

The transfer for Army Staff Sergeant Ricardo Seija is scheduled today, Tuesday at 11 a.m. under the care of the Air Force 6th Air Mobility Wing and with Seija’s family on the flightline to welcome him home.

After a ceremony on the tarmac, an escort will accompany the family and SSg. Seija casket from MacDill AFB on a route where the public can view the honor escort passing:

  • Depart MacDill AFB approximately 1130-1145 at the Bayshore Gate
  • North on Bayshore Boulevard
  • East on Platt Street
  • North on Florida Avenue
  • East on Jackson Street
  • North on Jefferson Street past the Hillsborough County Courthouse to the Interstate 275 connector
  • North on I-275 and exit on Sligh Avenue
  • West on Sligh Avenue past Leto High School
  • East on Broad Street to North Dale Mabry and the Gonzalez Funeral Home, 7209 N. Dale Mabry.

Visitation at the Gonzalez Funeral Home is scheduled today/Tuesday from 3 to 5 p.m.  The Funeral Service for SSg. Seija is set Wednesday at 11 a.m. at the Gonzalez Home followed by his internment at 1 p.m. the Florida National Cemetery, 6502 SW 102nd Ave., in Bushnell.

Arriving Wednesday

The primary next of kin for Army SPC Clarence Williams III will be on the tarmac Wednesday for the transfer of their loved one at MacDill AFB Wednesday at 9 a.m.

The Brooksville soldier was killed in the same bomb blast with Seija and four others in Wardak province, Afghanistan. Williams’ casket will be escorted from the Flightline to the Carnegie Funeral Home in Chiefland.

The public is encouraged to line the route for Wednesday’s honor escort of Fallen Hero Army SPC Williams III following a brief ceremony on the tarmac.

The Honor Escort including personnel from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Florida Highway Patrol and the Hernando County Sheriff’s
Office will depart MacDill AFB through the Bayshore Blvd. gate around 9:30. The route:

  • North on Bayshore Boulevard
  • East on Platt Street
  • North on Florida Avenue
  • East on Jackson Street
  • North on Jefferson Street to the I-275 connector
  • North on I-275
  • Continuing onto Interstate 75
  • Exiting at State Road 50 in Hernando County
  • West on SR 50 and continue onto Jefferson Street through downtown Brooksville
  • North onto U.S. 98, then north onto U.S. 19
  • Final destination Carnegie Funeral Home in Chiefland

A memorial service for Williams is scheduled today/Tuesday at 5 p.m. at Grace World Outreach Church, 20366 Cortez Blvd., Brooksville.

An Air Force Wife’s Thoughts on Memorial Day

Military personnel and civilians join together to line the streets at MacDill AFB for every "Fallen Hero Homecoming."

This Memorial Day I couldn’t help but reflect on some of my new experiences of the past few months. I have attended my first few Fallen Hero homecomings since moving to Tampa last summer.

Each time, the sidewalks on MacDill Air Force Base slowly fill. People mingle and talk and joke with one another. Some are in uniforms, some are in office attire. Some hold flags, some, like me, hold babies. It is always quite a cross-section regardless of where I’ve stood.

As the first police cars or motorcycles come into view, a silence takes over. Even fussy babies and rambunctious toddlers seem to know that it is time to be quiet as they watch the cars drive by. Of course, the hearse carrying the guest of honor gets my attention, but I can’t help but get choked up looking at the family members in cars behind. They clutch to their cameras. They gasp and cover their mouths. They are stoic and yet you can see that their eyes are glossy and red from tears.

Dayton National Cemetery where Michelle along with the Girl Scouts place flags on every grave annually for Memorial Day.

The families are the reason I attend these homecomings. The journey is over for the soldier but it is just beginning for the parents, spouses, and children. I will continue to take my daughter with me because I want her to respect the sacrifices of others. I know that I am fortunate that my husband does not deploy too often.

Watching a story about the American Widow Project on the Today Show this morning, I caught myself thinking “Wow, I want to do that.” I then realized, no, no I don’t want to be able to be part of that organization.  I can’t imagine going through losing my husband. Those spouses are who my heart goes out to on days like Monday.

Treats for Troops boxed up and awaiting shipping.

When my husband and I lived in Ohio, we participated in placing flags on the grounds at the Dayton National Cemetery through the Girl Scouts. I always found it interesting to listen to the children talk about what they were doing and how much pride they took in placing the flags just right. I plan to find a way to participate in something similar next year here in Tampa.

There are so many great organizations that do so much for military members and their family’s year round. There are organizations here in the Tampa area that I hope to volunteer with when I am able to. Operation Homefront Florida has a variety of events throughout the state. I recently began working on collecting items for care packages for Treats for Troops.

Memorial Day, and every day, I am thankful for all that have served to make this a great country and to those that serve today to keep it that way. Thank you to their families that support them as well.

Michelle VanHuss is an Air Force wife, Off the Base contributor and member of the MacDill Enlisted Spouses Club. Her other entries include:

Finding a Balance: Redefining Myself as an Air Force Wife

Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

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