Sound Off: Don’t forget heroes who live

Naval Air Station Whidbey Whidbey Island recently learned that three of their own were killed in action near a town called Kirkut, in Iraq.

Thinking about all this, the thought came to me, these three sailors, these brave men, who died as heroes in Iraq, what if they had survived? Severely wounded as many have been, and returning to Washington State, perhaps remaining in Oak Harbor as civilians on disability, where fewer and fewer medical facilities are willing to accept Tricare patients.

When the guns fall silent, and the flags are folded, what would have become of them?

There seems to be something wrong here. Please don’t get me wrong. I honor these men for their gallantry and sacrifice. But must all heroes die? Are the ones who survive simply a liability? To be shunted aside?

The silence from the Bush administration on the subject of Tricare funding is deafening. I’ve heard there are as many as nine different government appointed committees and fact finding boards currently investigating military health care. So perhaps the jury is still out on the issue. But in the meanwhile, it appears one can die, a hero. But heroes that survive, and make it home, are quickly forgotten.

Ironically, speaking of casualties on the battlefield, things are improving in a grim kind of way. Something to be considered in view of the loss of these three fine young men. In something of an about-face by our government, four years into the Iraq war, our fallen troops are being brought back to their families aboard charter jets instead of ordinary commercial flights.

The caskets are being met by honor guards in white gloves instead of baggage handlers with forklifts.

That change, quietly took effect in January this year. It came after a campaign waged by a father who was aghast to learn his son’s body was going to be unloaded like so much luggage upon its arrival home. The father, Mr. John Holley, explained how an airline executive told him, when asked, that it was the “most expeditious” way to get the body home.

“That’s not going to happen with my son. That’s not how he is coming home.” replied Holley, an Army veteran from San Diego whose son Mathew Holley, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2005. “If it was expeditious to deliver them in garbage trucks, would you do that?” He snapped at the airline executive.

Holley and supporters pressured Congress, which as a result passed a law that requires the remains to be flown on a military or military-contracted aircraft. There must be an escort and an honor guard.

Commercial airliners are used only if requested by families, or in cases where remains are sent outside the United States.

Kalitta Charters of Ypsilanti, Mich., won the Pentagon contract to bring the war dead home and has returned 143 bodies since January 2007. Before the new law was passed by Congress, the dead that arrived from overseas at the military mortuary in Dover, Del., were typically flown to the commercial airport nearest their families. Some were met by smartly uniformed military honor guards. But in other cases, the flag-draped caskets were unceremoniously taken off the plane by ordinary ground crew members and handed over to the family at a warehouse in a cargo area.

Now, the military is flying the dead into smaller regional airports, closer to their hometowns, so they can be met by their families and, in some cases, receive community tributes. And the caskets are being borne from the plane by an honor guard.

It shows a much higher level of respect for the serviceman or woman who has made the ultimate sacrifice. As opposed to off loading them with the rest of the luggage.

As an old Navy man I salute what Congress has done. It’s about time.

Mike Turner

lives in Oak Harbor.