The C-130 was parked on the tarmac, her rear door open, yawning in the afternoon sun. The small, relatively quiet corner of the runway in which she was parked stood in contrast to the hustle and bustle of the surrounding airfield. The base, elsewhere, was alive with activity. This made perfect sense given that this was a warzone; schedules had to be kept, deadlines had to be met, missions had to be completed. Her crew had dispersed, but she remained, alone and waiting. The plane, a workhorse of her generation, had carried men and machine to theaters across the globe, but at this hour, her four massive props were silent and her bay was empty.
She would not be parked for long. She also had a schedule to keep. She had but one mission this day, one long flight to make before she could settle into a distant hangar and rest her weary wings. She had but one passenger to carry, one VIP to deliver, and though the mission was simple on its face, it would be her most important to date in a career filled with important missions.
Her passenger also waited; waited for the crowd to gather, waited for the lines to be formed, waited for the music to play, waited to go home. He had come here to do his job, to make a difference, and he had. This would be his last flight and although he had longed for this freedom bird home, he never thought it would come like this. He was young. He had the world in his hands. He had much left to do.
The crowd, a chess set of tan and olive and brown, stood at perfect attention, together, but alone in a hundred different thoughts, a hundred different questions awaiting answers. Some knew him, most did not. It made no matter. On this day, regardless of emblem or camouflage pattern or rank, they were all brothers. They all understood. They all came, not on orders, but out of honor and respect and love.
He would not go alone. None of them do. From his last breath until his shadow no longer made its mark upon the earth, he would not be alone. His brothers, not of blood but borne by it, would carry him and remain by his side. He knew this. He knew that if his name was ever called, he would never be left alone; he would never be left behind.
And then there was the flag. There is always the flag. She would be his closest companion on this voyage, her silent shock of color wrapped as barrier and beacon, screaming to the masses as if to say “I am why”. Like mother to child, she would comfort him on his journey. She would be with him as he made it home. She would provide strength, she would provide hope, she would provide the answers to a hundred different questions. As he had done for her, she would stand as sentry and sentinel and she would give peace to a distraught, but proud family.
And so the plane was loaded, the ramp lifted, the four massive props again set into motion. The last salute was presented, the colors furled, the tears wiped away. The passenger waited no longer. His freedom flight had come, but it had not come only for him. She carried with her every tear shed, every drop of blood lost, every loss endured and every victory won. She carried the hope and the will of an entire country. She carried us. This was not only his freedom flight, it was also ours. We owe it to him to make sure it lasts forever.
(Dwight deLoach, who is serving with the S.C. Army National Guard in Afghanistan, is a contributing columnist for the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C.)