By James E. Walker, Jr. and Master Sergeant Carson McHale, 11th Security Forces Group
/ Published November 12, 2010
Air Force District of Washington -- On Aug. 22 2010, I learned that Master Sgt. Lamar Robinson, an active duty Air Force security forces member, was killed in a motorcycle accident in the Washington, D.C., area. Sergeant Robinson served on active duty for 17 years. He loved his job, family and life itself. As a Defender stationed at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., he had the responsibility of protecting all resources, to include personnel and equipment, while training and mentoring the Airmen he was charged to lead.
After I learned of his death, I found out he was originally from a small town just outside of Columbia, S.C. This fact alone meant that the Mortuary Affairs Division would be transporting Sergeant Robinson to his final resting place. He would be transported home by air ... commercial air. I also learned that Master Sergeant Carson McHale would be the one bestowed the honor of escorting him home. This part was a little surprising to me. Why you may ask?
Well, Sergeant McHale and I served in the U.S. Air Force Presidential Honor Guard in Washington, D.C. We had the honor of standing side-by-side next to the president, vice president, foreign leaders, generals and admirals. This was part of our daily routine, but our primary function, the function of our unit, was to pay last respects to those who have fallen. It is conceivable to say that we took part in the interment of more than 1,000 members of the U.S. Air Force. It was by far the most prestigious unit I served with solely for this mission alone. During the many funeral details we performed or attended, never once did I know the military escort. Since I knew Sergeant McHale, I felt obligated to make sure I did my part to ensure everything went perfectly.
At what seemed like the 11th hour, Sergeant McHale finally received movement orders for Sergeant Robinson. On Aug. 26, he relayed his travel itinerary. The Mortuary Affairs Division confirmed his specific travel on Delta Air Lines. Sergeants McHale and Robinson would depart Baltimore - Washington Airport to Atlanta and then to Columbia, S.C. I made five calls within Delta to ensure proper notification and inform everyone of the importance of this mission.
On Aug. 27, I arrived at one of Delta's restricted areas where Sergeant McHale was standing by with Sergeant Robinson and a Delta employee named John. Sergeant McHale was dressed in his service dress uniform and truly personified professionalism. He didn't know it, but I conducted a complete inspection from head to toe. With Sergeant McHale's own personal standards and the years of training, he passed with flying colors. As I expected, nothing was out of place. As we waited in the restricted area, Sergeant Robinson laid no more than an arms length away from Sergeant McHale. We reflected on the mission at hand and shared a few light hearted moments until I informed him it was time to start the process.
I drove Sergeant McHale to the parking garage where we parked and walked inside of the terminal. As we approached the Delta counter, we encountered a line of approximately 70 people waiting to speak to an agent. I knew this was not going to fly because of why we were there. I called the Delta Station Manager on his cell phone and told him we were at the counter and were pressed for time. Immediately, Tina, a Delta Air Lines supervisor appeared. Tina waved her arms to get our attention and told us to come forward. We literally went ahead of everyone and walked straight to the counter. She was well aware of why we were there and began a dialogue with us.
We learned from Tina that we had a major glitch in the operation. The flight was running more than an hour late, which meant they would miss his connection in Atlanta. Tina worked furiously to find alternate routes, but was unable to get results. Tina (not really understanding the importance) suggested that Sergeant Robinson could stay in holding overnight and fly out the following day. On this suggestion, I saw Sergeant McHale starting to lose his composure, but he never uttered a word. He immediately got on the phone with the Mortuary Affairs Division who already knew there was a problem with the flight and began working on a backup plan. While she remained on the phone, I very politely and carefully explained to Tina that every step of the process needed to be handled in a dignified manner and that the suggestion of Sergeant Robinson spending the night inside the holding facility was not acceptable. I asked Tina how long we would have to delay the connecting flight in Atlanta in order for Sergeant McHale to make it. Tina did not think it was possible based on the fact that the plane would have to be delayed for at least an hour and a half. Delaying a flight "on purpose" and especially for that long was unheard of and rarely ever happens. I told Sergeant McHale I needed a moment and walked away from him and immediately made a phone call. Before I walked away, I asked Tina to call Delta's Operational Control Center in Atlanta to see if they would consider a delay.
I made two phones calls and who I called was not important, but I knew the full weight of my authority was being used for this mission. The connecting flight in Atlanta had 113 passengers booked and I was recommending that we purposely inconvenience every single passenger to ensure Sergeant Robinson made it home. Other flights and routes were suggested and, traditionally this would have been fine, but there was one exception; the planes were too small for this mission. Therefore, in my mind, we only had one option. Truth be told, I did not need approval to delay the flight, but it was given to me and I was grateful.
I walked back to where Sergeant McHale stood and told him we were good. The flight would be delayed until he arrived in Atlanta, no matter how long that might be. Sergeant McHale relaxed a little and advised the Mortuary Affairs Division of the update. Ten minutes later, Tina walked back to the counter very happily. We already knew why she was so ecstatic, but allowed her to tell us that the OCC has decided to delay the flight until Sergeants McHale and Robinson arrived in Atlanta. I looked at Sergeant McHale, he looked at me and we both smiled. Tina proceeded to give Sergeant McHale his boarding pass and I personally escorted him to the TSA checkpoint.
As we bypassed the line waiting to go through the TSA checkpoint the screeners took great care of Sergeant McHale when they learned of his mission. The supervisor for the checkpoint began to tear up when she learned that he was an actual friend of the escorted, Sergeant Robinson. They took care in using the hand wand on him and apologized numerous times for the inconvenience. Sergeant McHale told them repeatedly, "Do your job. Do it every single time for it is important."
When we made it to the departure gate we met up with John again. He advised us that Sergeant Robinson was now secured on the flightline and ready for the arrival of his aircraft. We walked over to the window and stood there for a while looking out where Sergeant Robinson lay. No one spoke, we just watched him, as other passengers watched us. We walked back to our gate and waited, periodically checking on Sergeant Robinson. We checked on him three more times before the late aircraft arrived. Now, it was game time.
Standing at the gate, the pilot, Captain Lund, walked over and introduced himself. He gave Sergeant McHale his condolences and apologized profusely about the inbound aircraft being late. He informed us the connecting aircraft would wait until they arrived in Atlanta no matter how long it took. Tina also arrived at the gate. She briefed the other gate agents as we all waited for the inbound passengers to deplane. When the last passenger departed the Airbus 319, Tina escorted us to the flightline.
The ramp agents carefully and meticulously off-loaded Sergeant Robinson from the baggage cart and placed him on the belt loader. Sergeant McHale commanded them to stop the process as he walked up to coffin and verified that it held Sergeant Robinson's body. Protocol states that the escort must make sure the correct body is being loaded and transported. The agents started the belt loader again and Sergeant Robinson's body slowly traveled toward the cargo compartment. Sergeant McHale snapped to attention and drew a slow three second salute. Mirroring Sergeant McHale, I followed suit. He slowly dropped his salute and executed a right face and regained the three second salute. In unison, I mirrored his actions. The agents placed Sergeant Robinson inside the compartment and once again Sergeant McHale dropped his salute. He walked over to me and we embraced; it was time to fly.
Tina escorted Sergeant McHale to the airplane where he once again was met by Captain Lund. Before Sergeant McHale walked on board the aircraft, he looked at me one last time and said, "Thanks Walk, you have gone above and beyond for Lamar." I shook his hand and he walked on the plane.
I must say, Sergeant McHale and I held up pretty well through this process. Maybe it was because this was a mission and there was really no time to think about what we were really doing. But what Sergeant McHale didn't see after getting on the plane was Tina breaking down in tears in the jet bridge. He didn't see the tears on the cheeks of a few passengers as they realized what was happening. He didn't see the TSA supervisor and screener who screened him as he came through the checkpoint, walk to the gate to observe the process through the window. He didn't see other passengers and employees not involved with the flight, stop, observe and pay respects. And finally, he didn't see John, the cargo guy who was supposed to have left work two hours prior, standing by himself on the flightline and saluting the aircraft as it passed him.
When I saw that ... I must admit, I lost it.
When we arrived in Atlanta, Delta parked the plane immediately next to the gate we had to transfer to. The Delta ground crew met the aircraft and carefully removed Sergeant Robinson from the plane. They placed him on a flag painted cart and made a slow trip around the tail of the waiting MD-88. I walked around the nose of the plane and prepared to patiently wait, but what I saw next made it very hard for me to hold it together. A Delta Honor Guard made the transfer from the cart to the loader. They appeared to be veterans, each wearing a reflective vest that was covered with military patches and pins. They proved to be extremely careful in every detail and movement. They stopped his casket halfway up the loader, removed their hats, and recited a prayer before making the final push into the belly of the aircraft. I held my salute, fought back tears and watched as they provided their honors. Once I boarded the plane, I saw the magnitude of the movement in a few red eyes and concerned faces of the passengers.
After landing in Columbia, S.C., the captain stopped the plane shy of the gate and made an announcement. It went as follows: "Ladies and Gentlemen, on board we have Sergeant McHale who is escorting Sergeant Robinson home. Both were stationed at the 316th Security Forces Squadron. I am asking that you please remain seated so Sergeant McHale can deplane and take his friend home." Yes, fellow Defenders, that is when I lost it.
When I got down to the tarmac, I made contact with the Shaw Air Force Base Honor Guard. We discussed how things would proceed from there. They immediately took control. An airman first class from their team crawled up into the belly of the aircraft and removed the shipping container from around Sergeant Robinson's casket. He adjusted the flag and instructed the ground crew to remove Sergeant Robinson from the plane. The bearer team from the base honor guard did a fine job carrying Sergeant Robinson from the loader to the waiting hearse. After Sergeant Robinson was secure in the vehicle, I took a moment to look around. I noticed a crowd had gathered at the terminal windows and it seemed that nobody deplaned. What I noticed next was there were no cameras, flashes or video, just utter silence and respect.
The next stop was Simmons Funeral Home where Mr. Simmons made preparations for our trip to Orangeburg, S.C., Sergeant Robinson's hometown. The trip was about 50 minutes by car and my required duties were far from complete. One specific duty was to inspect Sergeant Robinson upon completion of the trip. I'm not sure the motuary affairs representative knew what she got Sergeant Robinson into when she asked ME to INSPECT him. Mr. Simmons assisted by opening the casket. I made a few notes of what needed to be fixed and some adjustments that needed to be made to his uniform. Then, I was told by Mr. Simmons I could come back in the morning as it was already 12:45 a.m.
I woke up at 6 a.m. without an alarm, stumbled through the morning and mentally prepared myself to do what I've done to so many times as a Ceremonial Guardsmen in the past. Just as before, 'slop' was unacceptable. No strings, no lint, no cheese on the tie, no ring around the collar and no "fallout to fix yourself."
I arrived at Simmons Funeral Home at 9 a.m. as they were opening their doors. I was brought back to Sergeant Robinson. I talked with the employees about the fixes I requested. Then I began, just as if he stood in front of me. I started from his head all the way down to his feet. It didn't matter to me that his lower half wouldn't been seen, I completed his last detailed inspection. The process took about 15 minutes and I personally fixed anything that was wrong with his uniform. Sergeant Robinson and I then took an additional 15 minutes to reflect. I said my final goodbye. Sergeant Robinson was inspection ready and prepared to take his post.
Sergeant Robinson was home, his final flight complete.