Amid the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s busiest airports, travelers rush from one gate to another, rarely pausing to peer out at the tarmac. If they did, they might bear witness to a humble ceremony honoring an American hero’s return home.
Brian McConnell, a 28-year Delta Air Lines employee at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, organizes a dedication service to honor the remains of fallen service men and women who return home aboard Delta Air Lines flights.
As the coordinator of the “Fallen Soldier Program,” he reaches out for help from every corner of the airport. The service is never short of volunteers. Each person takes time from their day to pay their respects to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.
They may come from other airlines, baggage handling, the ticket counter, or air traffic control. They’ve all heard of the program through the “word-of-mouth” emails McConnell sends when a fallen service member is inbound.
“This is all about respect,” said McConnell of the ceremony. “Everyone who comes out here knows, some more personally than others, what these men and women have sacrificed—what they’ve been through.”
The program was started by a former colleague of McConnell’s more than five years ago, but lost its organized feel when that employee moved on.
“I thought you had to be former military to participate,” said McConnell. “After my father passed away of natural causes and my son escorted his remains, I was so moved about the program that I asked if I could get involved.”
It was a pleasant surprise for McConnell to learn that the only qualification to participate is the desire to honor service men and women.
“Coming from a military family, I was always brought up to respect those who protect and guarantee our freedoms and our rights,” he said. “All these guys have the utmost respect for these ladies and gentlemen, and they want nothing more than to pay them tribute.”
McConnell has three sons. The oldest, Brian Jr., is ramping up for his third deployment to Afghanistan with the U.S. Air Force. His middle child, Scott, began working for Delta Air Lines three weeks ago to also get involved, assisting with the set-up, tear down, and maintenance of the honor guard ceremony equipment.
“It’s really incredible the amount of support we get from Delta,” said McConnell. “Anything we need, we get, and they support the continuance of this program 1000 percent. They put me in charge of coordinating this program to ensure that each of the fallen get the attention that they deserve."
Some remains come directly from the combat zone. Others are shipped from the Joint Prisoners of War and Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC) at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, Hawaii, on their way to their final resting places either at Arlington National Cemetery or in their respective hometowns.
“If it was my son, I would want to know he is being taken care of,” McConnell added. “I would want to know that my son is being respected, and that my son is going to get to where he’s going no matter what—because it’s the right thing to do.”
Most military remains are escorted by a uniformed service member or family member who receives a personalized card and a coin from the honor guard. The card is signed by each member who attended that day. The card and coin are delivered with a prayer, in hopes that they will be passed along to the next of kin.
“While every service member is rendered the same honors, one story hit close to home for me,” McConnell said with a deep sigh. “A 30-year command sergeant major was escorting a young female soldier, just 18 years old, home from Afghanistan. She was the victim of a roadside explosion.
"After we finished the service, he asked me if I had any family in the military. I said yes, my oldest son. He leaned in close and said to me, ‘when you see your son, make sure you hug him—make sure you tell him you love him,’” he said. “I nodded and shed a tear, because the remains he was escorting were those of his daughter. She had been in country less than a week when she was killed.”
A delayed flight can surely be an inconvenience, but it just may be that the airline employees are taking a couple moments to honor an American hero.
Joseph Andrew Lee is a USO staff writer.