DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Delaware - The widow stepped gently off the small blue bus, dressed all in black. She was surrounded by family members and several uniformed members of the military. She looked stunned and frail.
She was at Dover Air Force Base to witness the "dignified transfer" of her husband who was killed in Iraq.
|Paul J. Richards / AFP - Getty Images|
|Members of the U.S. Army Old Guard carry the remains of Army Specialist Israel Candelaria Mejias shortly after his body was returned to the U.S. from Iraq on Tuesday.|
Tuesday evening was just the second time in 18 years that members of the media were allowed to witness the solemn ritual surrounding the return of remains of fallen U.S. service members; the first time was Sunday evening.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ordered the military to lift the ban on media coverage and allow the public to witness the homecoming of America's war dead, if the family allows it.
But while the family witnesses the event just a few yards away from the media, the Dover rules strictly prohibit the media from taking any photos of them. Even though we all do our best to avert our eyes and give them their privacy, their presence is palpable and heartbreaking.
|VIDEO: Solemn ceremony marks 'sacrifice' of war dead|
On Tuesday evening, Army Spc. Israel Candelaria Mejias' remains returned in a large metal transfer case, covered with an American flag.
Mejias' was killed when a mine detonated near him while serving outside of Baghdad on Sunday. He was from San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico, and was 28 years old.
An eight-person team carry team marched into the back of the cavernous C-17, where several more soldiers and airman stood at attention. The carry team paused as a military chaplain said a quiet blessing and then they carefully raised the transfer case.
The carry team, in this case soldiers from the Army's Old Guard, slowly marched to a waiting truck. After the case was placed in the truck, the soldiers backed up. As the doors closed, the officer presiding over the ceremony gave the command, "Present Arms."
And in perfect unison, the eight soldiers gave a steady salute to honor the fallen soldier. After a few moments, an officer gave the command, "Order Arms," and their arms went back down to their sides. As the police escort led the truck away from the flight line, the carry team marched behind the truck.
And with that, the brief ceremony was over. It lasted less than 15 minutes, but in that short time the reverence and honor bestowed upon the fallen soldier was palpable.
Mourning for someone they had never met
And then something remarkable happened. I turned toward my silent colleagues and saw raw emotion from the press. Reporters were wiping away tears, some turning away from the huddled group.
Journalists take a lot of criticism for being detached from a story, and unfortunately sometimes that is a necessary defense mechanism when you are surrounded by images of war and stories of suffering. But in a few brief moments on the frigid flight line at Dover Air Force Base, I saw my colleagues mourn for someone who they had never met and really knew nothing about.
The story at Dover was supposed to be about the media finally gaining access to the solemn dignified transfers at Dover Air Force Base. But in a brief moment I finally saw that the story was not about the media at all. It was about honoring the heroes who sacrifice their lives to serve us all.