Onboard an Angel Flight
An uncounted number of men and women have stepped up and served this country so that we might keep our freedoms. We should all be thankful when we get a chance to repay them. The story below is fictional, but the service that brings fallen soldiers home is real. Let us all give thanks.
Fortunately, it had been a quiet flight so far. This night the sky was clear and peaceful, which was a blessing because shortly after takeoff U.S. Air Force Captain Matthew Marrow’s co-pilot had taken ill and was now in the back sleeping.
Matthew had been flying Angel Flights as a volunteer for the last 15 years. He had made so many trips that he could probably do it in his sleep; he was one with the C130. With nothing to distract him from the sound of the bird’s engine, old thoughts filled his head. He was positive that it was only by the grace of God that he hadn’t ridden home in a box himself. The years he’d spent in Vietnam had been chocked full of close calls. To this day, he didn’t know whether he’d taken fool-hardy chances with an angel on his shoulder or if he’d just managed to avoid being in the wrong places at the wrong times. There had been uncounted times when the men standing right beside him were felled, and he hadn’t even been grazed; times, when he’d missed stepping on a mine by inches and the man right behind him, hadn’t been as lucky. At any rate, when he’d survived his multiple tours of duty and then made it safely back to the States, he had vowed to repay his debt of gratitude by carrying as many fallen heroes’ home as he could. It was the least that he could do.
He snapped back to attention when the plane rattled and shuddered as it rode through a small pocket of turbulence. He straightened up in the seat and took a sip of his cold coffee. Glancing at the instrument panel, he saw that everything was as it should be. He shrugged; sometimes God just made His presence known with a ripple in the starry sky. Just as he reached to sit his coffee down, he felt a hand on his shoulder, and a voice he didn’t recognize asked, “Sir, how long before we touch down?”
A surge of adrenaline shot through him when he glanced up into the face of a young soldier who was staring out the window. Realizing that he had a stowaway; an unpredictable situation on his hands, he carefully said, “We’ve still got about fourteen hours of flying time before we touch down at Travis Air Force Base, in California. You got a name, son?”
“Yes, Sir, I’m Private First Class, Michael Winston.”
His stowaway had lifted the name off one of the caskets. With the copilot out of commission, the only thing to do was to stay level-headed and buy time until he could think of a way to secure the cockpit. He nodded to the empty seat beside him, and said, “Have a seat, soldier. Fourteen hours is too long to stand.” Holding out his thermos, “You look like you could use some coffee; help yourself. There’s an extra cup in the box by the seat.”
“No thanks, Sir. Never learned to drink the stuff, but I will take you up on that seat.”
Where do you call home, Private?”
The quiet stretched out for some time, but eventually, the young man said, “Sir, you know how when you’re marching along and taking orders and staying focused so the bastards can’t sneak up on you? You lose track of time. Minutes seem like hours, days like months. Your past and present are so far removed from each other that … well, you live a lot of lifetimes in between breaths. Pretty soon you don’t even know what year it is.” He paused and took a deep breath. Rolling his hands into fists, he clenched his teeth, and answered, “As best as I know, I don’t have a home.”
Realizing the soldier was getting agitated, Matthew changed the subject. “You look to be about the same age as my son. I peg you at about 24; am I close?”
“I’m 23, Sir; been marching now for three years. After high school, I spent five years doing every dumb thing you can think up, and then me and two of my buddies had one too many drinks, and we walked into a recruiter’s office and signed on. It was accidentally one of the smartest things I ever did. Serving is an honor.”
Matthew wondered how the soldier went from thinking that joining the Army was smart to running away from it and stowing away on his plane, but for now, that would have to remain an unanswered question. “I guess if I looked back at my beginning that I could tell pretty much the same story. We all start out young and dumb, but war sobers you up.”
“Yes, Sir.” He cleared his throat, and said, “I know about Angel Flights. I know you only carry heroes home. I don’t belong here.”
“Son, what makes you think that you aren’t a hero?”
“Heroes don’t cry.”
Matthew shook his head. “Where the hell did you get that idea?”
“It was a Saturday. I know that because Pa and I always went to Halls Hardware on Saturdays. That was the one day in the week things were on sale. We always walked there because pa said we both needed the exercise. A block away from the hardware was a crosswalk. That day, I saw the car coming down the street, but there was a cat in the street that I just knew was going to get hit. I jumped off the curb to save it, but I didn’t make it in time. My pa was right behind me. I was sobbing when he grabbed me up by the back of my pants. We didn’t go to the hardware that day because he was so angry. He marched me back home, laid the mother of all whippings on me, and made it clear that if I ever tried to be a hero again that he’d take another layer of hide off me. He grabbed my face, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘Some hero you are with those baby tears on your face. Get to your chores.” He shrugged, and softly said, “I’m just not the hero type. I bawled like a baby every single time one of my bullets killed. Can you believe that? I cried over the enemy. My pa was right.”
“Can I tell you something from a father’s perspective?”
“Of course, Sir.”
“It’s the way your pa worded what he said to you that makes me think that what happened that day in the crosswalk was that you scared him to death. You thought the car was going to hit the cat, and your pa thought it was going to hit you. The adrenaline that filled his body at that moment made it look like something it wasn’t. I think he was proud of you for wanting to be a hero; he just whipped you to make it clear that he didn’t want you to take such chances again.”
The soldier turned and looked at Matthew. There was confusion etched on his face. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, sir, but there’s a big difference between me crying over a dead cat when I was twelve and crying over the enemy as a grown man.”
“Is there? Think about it. Tell me the difference.”
After a few minutes of thought, the soldier said, “I don’t know. I guess I just figured that a man should be able to control his tears.”
Matthew closed his eyes for a few seconds to control his own tears, and then he said, “I’ve been carrying heroes’ home for fifteen years now, and once I land, I attend every single funeral – and when I give that soldier the last salute, there are always tears running down my face. No one makes it through that twenty-one-gun salute with a dry face. Every strong, brave soldier in attendance cries. I think that as a man that you don’t separate people by their cause; I think you cry because it’s painful to take a life; you would rather save lives than take them. That makes you a hero in my book.”
With tears of relief running down his face, the soldier’s voice barely above a whisper, he said, “Home is 127 Riverdale Dr. in Valley Springs. Please tell my pa I miss going to Hall’s Hardware with him, and that I love him. Tell him that Private First-Class Michael Winston always did his best and that he’s happy to be home.”
Matthew took in a slow deep breath and silently held it for a few moments to regain control of his emotions. He didn’t hear his copilot enter the cockpit, so he was startled by his voice.
“Captain, I’m feeling better, if you want to get up and stretch your legs. I can handle the landing.
Matthew nodded and stood as the copilot slid down in the empty seat. “Thanks, I could use a stretch.”
The light of understanding filled him as he made his way to the back to where four flag-draped caskets were lined up. Matthew knew every Angel Flight to be special; each one a source of honor, but this flight was one that Matthew would never forget because God had entrusted him with a mission, and he knew he hadn’t failed at it. Reverently laying his hand on the Winston casket, he said, “Private First-Class Michael Winston, you are a hero on board an Angel Flight. I am honored to be entrusted with such an important message. It will be personally delivered. Welcome home, Soldier.”