NEW CASTLE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Delaware — The six U.S. troops killed this week first appeared amid bright lights and a dusky sky. Their bodies rested in a C-17 aircraft that transported them here, illuminated in the sunset by the lights of the plane, its ramp open for the country to see. It was dark, and rain coated the tarmac—a fitting scene for the somber military ceremony known as the “dignified transfer,” marking a fallen service member’s return home.
The transfer of fallen troops back onto home soil is a solemn moment that has been repeated for decades. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 2,400 transfers happened between 2009 and 2014.
And yet Wednesday’s transfer was somehow different. This many fallen troops were supposed to stop arriving in one week, let alone in one day. The war in Afghanistan was supposed to be winding down, and service members were to be largely confined to their bases. Yet six troops were killed Monday when a suicide bomber on a motorcycle attacked them as they were on patrol just outside Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. It was the deadliest day for U.S. troops this year.
Before Monday, a total of 14 troops had died in Afghanistan in 2015.
The flag-draped “transfer cases” carried by comrades off cargo planes make for a searing image of the ultimate cost of war. They have, at times, been mired in politics. During George W. Bush’s presidency, such photos were never seen outside the military. In March 2009, the Obama administration allowed Americans to start witnessing the return of troops killed in combat if their families approved.
This week, five of the six families requested that the media not cover the return of their loved ones. But one family—of Air Staff Sgt. Chester J. McBride, 30, of Statesboro, Georgia—was open to press coverage. The moment, which usually happens at Dover Air Base, was moved to a location one hour north because of the inclement weather, defense officials said.
I came to New Castle to witness Sgt. McBride’s arrival home.
In addition to McBride, who was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigation’s Detachment 405, out of Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, the five troops killed were:
Maj. Adrianna M. Vorderbruggen, 36, with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, 9th Field Investigations Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; Staff Sgt. Michael A. Cinco, 28, with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, 11th Field Investigations Squadron, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas; Staff Sgt. Peter W. Taub, 30, with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Detachment 816, Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota; Tech Sgt. Joseph G. Lemm, 45, with the 105th Security Forces Squadron at Stewart Air National Guard Base, New York; Staff Sgt. Louis M. Bonacasa, 31, with the 105th Security Forces Squadron at Stewart Air National Guard Base, New York.
Dignified transfers are all of 15 minutes long, but they hardly seem short when one knows that they happened six times Wednesday. I have been a war correspondent since the war in Iraq began and watched such remembrances from the war field, when hundreds of comrades—the troop’s military family—would salute a killed troop at the start of their journey home.
But I had never seen how they were honored at home.
On Wednesday, the Air Force released photos of their comrades holding the first of several moments of reflection and gratitude, from a tent at Bagram Air Base, just north of Kabul, before the fallen began their journey home. More than 200 saluted the six helmets, boots, and rifles placed for each of the fallen.
Often after that, troops carry the flag-draped transfer cases onto planes like the C-17 bound for the United States, becoming the fallen troop’s first pallbearers as they march off the plane.
At such moments of reflection on the battlefield, one can only imagine who the fallen are leaving behind. Service members sometimes exchange any details they can remember about the fallen troops’ family and interests. Whatever the story, the fallen always sound too young to die; most are in their twenties or thirties. Chaplains will speak after the soldier is carried into the plane. And, in those eulogies, they describe young men and women with passions like video games, family, and their small children.
At home the transfer is notably silent.
McBride was a football star in high school and at Savannah State University. Just last fall, he visited his high school to speak to the athletes there, the local paper reported. His principal still worked at the high school and remembered his onetime student.
Once they arrive back in the United States, one no longer has to imagine the families. The media cannot see them but we know that mothers, fathers, and young children are among them. My own father passed away last year, and as the bodies arrived Wednesday, I thought about how the children, like me, had become a part of this horrific club, forever wearing the pained scar of a lost parent. But of course, such comparisons are hardly apt. I got to watch my father’s hair turn gray, to watch him experience the kind of contentment that only comes with years of life, to hold his hand as he took his last breath. These children did not.
Slowly, six members of the Air Force Honor Guard, based out of Washington, D.C., marched in two rows of three up the ramp to the transfer case. The Air Force has sustained the majority of U.S. deaths this year and yet, one senses that they, like those tasked with making the dreadful knock at the door, are out of practice. Was it easier to do such a job when you have the regular experience of steeling your heart, I wondered, as many did during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? The troops, as they moved out of the plane, this time holding McBride’s transfer case, didn’t have the luxury of indulging in such questions. Their job was to be stoic and strong so the rest of us could be weak.
More than 200 friends and associates were present, including 63 members of the New York Police Department, as Lemm had also served as a detective for the department.
In addition, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh, and Chief of the National Guard Gen. Frank Grass, watched as McBride’s transfer case came down the ramp.
The totality of it all for me, and I imagine for some of those who serve, is like reliving a nightmare you thought was done. There is no heartbreak like watching one begin for six American families, all for a war that was supposed to be all but over.