October 2014 Heroes of the Month: The Final Journey Home: Honoring Delta Airlines, Patriot Guard Riders, and Kalitta Air for The Way in Which They Honor Our Fallen Warriors
It is very difficult to find the right words to comfort those who have lost loved ones in what is now the longest war in American history. Sometimes it is just the simple acts of kindness that mean so much. It has been my privilege to stand in silent reverence when these brave souls return home on the final journey and watch how they and their loved ones are treated by the men and women of Kalitta Air at Lindbergh Field in San Diego as their remains are gently lowered from a Dassault Falcon 50 to a hearse and then escorted to the Miramar National Cemetery with an honor guard from the Patriot Guard Riders organization on their spotless Harley-Davidsons with American flags flying.
For those who have not borne witness to this emotional, gut-wrenching experience but want to honor those who honor them, please watch the YouTube video below “Delta Honor Guard.” This video was recorded at Jackson-Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta and brought to my attention by our good friend Jenny Craig, who loves our military like few others. She will surely be the subject of a future story. Over 2 million Americans have watched this video. What you see are ground crews and pilots tenderly handling the transfer of an Afghanistan veteran and his dog on their final journey. In particular, watch how the Delta first officer hugs the Delta crew chief at the end of the video and the respect shown to the military honor guard. This is truly America at its best. And it has been repeated all too often over many years.
A word about Kalitta Air. Connie Kalitta started Kalitta Air and struggled for years finding his calling. Shortly before 9/11, he knew what he wanted to do. He quietly became one of the most trusted air cargo and charter operators for the US military. Eventually he had a fleet of Boeing 747s and an assortment of smaller specialized aircraft. In the dark days after 9/11 when all commercial aircraft were grounded for national security, Kalitta Air was flying emergency supplies to New York City and Washington, D.C. The only other airplanes flying in North American airspace were USAF fighters on patrol and Boeing E-3 AWACS out of Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. Later, Kalitta began delivering mail and time-sensitive supplies to our service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still later, Kalitta was designated to bring home our fallen warriors to their families after their bodies were brought back to America at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. Kalitta had finally found its ultimate calling.
As to the Patriot Guard Riders: I suspect few know their story. They were formed in Mulvane, Kansas at American Legion Post 136 in 2005 to shelter and protect America’s fallen warriors and their families from members of the Westboro Baptist Church who claimed that the deaths of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were divine retribution for American tolerance of homosexuality. The church members were disrupting funeral processions and funeral services with loud and disrespectful demonstrations. It is hard to comprehend the pain such demonstrations caused the families of fallen warriors in their hours of maximum grief. PRG members countered with volunteers waiving American flags along the funeral routes, and the noise of their Harleys drowned out the demonstrators. Although initially founded by motorcyclists, the organization is open to anyone, regardless of political affiliation, veteran status or whether they ride or not. The protestors have long since gone home and order has been restored at the funerals of fallen warriors thanks to PRG. But now there are 220,000 members nationwide and they have expanded to include the funerals of all first responders and veterans of all wars.
To Richard Anderson, Chairman of Delta Airlines and the wonderful ground crew depicted in this video, to Connie Kalitta and his team at Kalitta Air and to the Patriot Guard Riders, thank you from the bottom of my heart. You make us proud to be Americans.