The U.S. military didn’t always bring home its dead. In the Seminole Indian Wars in the early 1800s, most of the troops were buried near where they fell. The remains of some dead officers were collected and sent back to their families, but only if the men’s relatives paid all of the costs. Families had to buy and ship a leaded coffin to a designated military quartermaster, and after the body had been disinterred, they had to cover the costs of bringing the coffin home.
Today, air crews have flown the remains of more than 5,000 dead troops back to the U.S. since the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan began.
For those charged with bringing out the dead, it is one of the military’s most emotionally taxing missions. The men and women of the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command function as the nation’s pallbearers, ferrying flag-draped remains to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware from battlefields half a world away.
The missions take a heavy toll on the air crews, but many of the pilots and loadmasters say their work is part of a sacred military obligation to fallen troops and their families. Air Force Capt. Tenaya Humphrey was a young girl when her father, Maj. Zenon Goc, died in a military plane crash in Texas in 1992. She remembers his body being flown to Dover before his burial in Colorado.
Capt. Humphrey and her husband, Matthew, are now C-17 pilots who regularly fly dead troops back to the U.S. and then on to their home states for final burial. “It’s emotional for everyone who’s involved,” she says. “But it’s important for the family to know that at every step along the way their loved one is watched over and cared for.”
Bringing fallen troops home is a relatively modern idea. Until the late 19th century, military authorities did little to differentiate and identify dead troops. Roughly 14,000 soldiers died from combat and disease during the Mexican-American War of 1846, but only 750 sets of remains were recovered and brought back, by covered wagon, to the U.S. for burial. None of the fallen soldiers were ever personally identified.
The modern system for cataloguing and burying military dead effectively began during the Civil War, when the enormity of the carnage triggered a wholesale revolution in how the U.S. treated fallen troops. Congress decided that the defenders of the Union were worthy of special burial sites for their sacrifices, and set up a program of national cemeteries.
During the war, more than 300,000 dead Union soldiers were buried in small cemeteries scattered across broad swaths of the U.S. When the fighting stopped, military authorities launched an ambitious effort to collect the remains and rebury them in the handful of national cemeteries.
The move “established the precedent that would be followed in future wars, even when American casualties lay in foreign soil,” Michael Sledge writes in “Soldier Dead,” a history of how the U.S. has handled its battlefield fatalities.
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The relatives of fallen troops in both world wars were given the choice of having their loved ones permanently interred in large overseas cemeteries or brought back to the U.S. for reburial.
Those who wanted their sons or husbands returned to them were in for a long wait. Fallen troops had been buried in hundreds of temporary cemeteries near the sites of major battles throughout Europe. When World War I ended, the families of 43,909 dead troops asked for their remains to be brought back to the U.S. by boat, while roughly 20,000 chose to have the bodies remain in Europe. The war ended in 1918, but the first bodies of troops killed in the conflict weren’t sent back to the U.S. until 1921.
World War II posed a bigger logistical challenge, since American war dead were scattered around the globe. Nearly 80,000 U.S. troops died in the Pacific, for example, and 65,000 of their bodies were first buried in almost 200 battlefield cemeteries there.
Once the fighting ended, the bodies were dug up and consolidated into larger regional graveyards. The first returns of World War II dead took place in the fall of 1947, six years after the attack at Pearl Harbor. Eventually, 171,000 of the roughly 280,000 identified remains were brought back to the U.S.
Today, the remains of 124,909 fallen American troops from conflicts dating back to the Mexican-American war are buried at a network of 24 permanent cemeteries in Europe, Panama, Tunisia, the Philippines and Mexico.
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The military now goes to tremendous lengths to recover the remains of fallen troops. In March 2002, a Navy Seal named Neil Roberts fell out of the back of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan and was cornered and killed by militants on the ground. The U.S. sent in a second helicopter to attempt a rescue, but six members of its crew were killed in the ensuing firefight.
Then-Brig. Gen. John Rosa, the deputy director of operations for the Joint Staff, told reporters that U.S. commanders ordered the high-risk recovery mission to ensure that Petty Officer Roberts’ body didn’t fall into enemy hands.
“There was an American, for whatever reason, [who] was left behind,” Gen. Rosa said at the time. “And we don’t leave Americans behind.”
The military’s system of concurrent return is basically still in use today, with modern technology cutting the lag time between when troops die in the field and when they are returned to their families down to as little as one day.
On May 16, Navy Petty Officer Zarian Wood, a 29-year-old medic who had deployed overseas less than a month earlier, died from wounds suffered in a bomb blast in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Marine Cpl. Nicolas Parada-Rodriguez, the son of immigrants who moved to the U.S. two decades ago, was killed in Helmand that same day.
The following evening, the remains of both men were slowly lowered from the cargo deck of a civilian 747 that the military had chartered to fly their bodies back to Dover. Cpl. Parada-Rodriguez’s relatives could be heard weeping as the transfer case carrying his body was taken off the plane.
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The military doesn’t have air crews who are assigned specifically to the mission of bringing out the nation’s war dead. Instead, the work is assigned to crews depending on their locations and the speed with which they can stop at bases in Afghanistan and Iraq to pick up fallen troops and their military escorts.
Air crews are tight-knit groups of men and women who typically pass the long hours in the air and on the ground telling jokes and needling each other. But veterans of the repatriation missions say the mood among the flight crew changes immediately after they get orders to pick up fallen troops.
“You can sense it in the crew,” says Maj. Brian O’Connell, a C-17 pilot who has flown the remains of a half-dozen soldiers and Marines. “As soon as everybody knows about it, the attitude changes, a lot.”
The long flights from the war zones mean that the air crews spend hours with the flag-covered remains. Air Force Tech Sgt. Donny Maheux, a C-17 loadmaster, says he often finds himself staring at the metallic transfer cases holding the bodies of the dead soldiers and wondering what kind of people they were. “I’m looking at [the remains] the whole flight,” he says. “Sometimes I wonder, ‘What if it was my family on the receiving end?'”
When they land at Dover, the crews often choose to remain with their plane until the families of the dead troops arrive to see the bodies of their loved ones taken off of the plane. Since the planes land late at night and early in the morning, it can sometimes be hours before the families arrive for the transfer ceremonies.