Farewell on a Dark Tarmac
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
SATHER AIR BASE, Iraq -- His commanders gave Airman 1st Class LeeBernard E. Chavis the proud emblem of their squadron -- a blue-and-yellow flag known as a guidon -- because they knew he would rather die than lose it.
The 21-year-old District native carried it from the unit's home base in the hills of Georgia to the sands of Kuwait and onto the streets of Baghdad, where, on Saturday, he was killed by a sniper as he tried to keep civilians away from a suspected roadside bomb.
"The colors have dropped," said Maj. Thomas Miner, commander of the 824th Security Forces Squadron, as he waited to escort Chavis's body onto a C-130 Hercules late Sunday. His lip quivered and his eyes turned glassy. "But we've got to pick them back up."
More than 200 personnel from the squadron and other units stood in near-total blackness on a tarmac and saluted the man who became the unit's first combat fatality in Iraq. The guidon was solemnly carried forward, for the first time by someone else. Then a white, unmarked truck pulled up and the door swung open.
"Reach for remains!" a voice barked.
The sight of the coffin, draped in a large American flag and carried toward the plane by six pallbearers, slowly distorted the faces of 18 members of Chavis's sub-unit, known as a flight, who stood in two neat rows facing the makeshift charnel.
The bottom lip of one young woman in baggy fatigues trembled, and then she began to cry hysterically, her head bobbing up and down.
A chaplain intoned: "There is no greater love that can be displayed than for a person to lay down their life for others."
Another woman started to cry, and soon two men standing nearby joined her.
The chaplain continued: "His love is proven by this ultimate sacrifice."
The legs of several airmen buckled slightly. Within a few minutes, nearly the entire flight was sobbing uncontrollably. The face of Staff Sgt. Kyle Luker turned bright red as tears streamed down his cheeks.
This type of ceremony, known as a patriot detail, is rarely observed by anyone outside the military -- not by the president, not by members of Congress, not by the children or spouse of the fallen service member. The squadron commander allowed a Washington Post reporter embedded with an affiliated unit to witness, but not photograph, the ceremony for Chavis.