The Flight Home

A recent flight my wife and I took from Las Vegas to Indy was anything but typical. After we boarded the plane, the first announcement the captain made was that we were transporting the casket of a fallen U.S. soldier home to his final resting place. For a minute or two, the plane was quiet and somber. Just as quickly as the mood turned solemn, two minutes later the usual amount of airline chatter and grumbling filled the cabin.

The next hour of the flight was pretty normal, the guys in front of me pounded Bloody Mary’s, I failed miserably at the crossword puzzle and listened to podcasts, while my wife read her Kindle and caught up on work that had piled up while we were on vacation. Things changed in an instant with the seemingly innocent ding of the flight attendant about to make an announcement over the loudspeaker. “Is there a doctor on the plane? If there is a doctor on the plane, will you please push the call button?”

My wife, a doctor, looked at me, let out a long exhale, reached up and depressed her call button. Within seconds the flight attendant called her to the front of the plane to help with a lady needing medical attention. For the next hour, my wife, and another physician, on their hands and knees of the plane, took care of this woman (who admitted she was flying against her doctor’s orders). Ultimately the two physicians decided the forty-five minutes left of our flight would be too long for this woman to go without admittance to a hospital. Our flight was diverted for a medical emergency landing in St. Louis, only ten minutes away. After landing in St. Louis, the patient was loaded up on an ambulance and rushed to the hospital.

All told, the extra stop in St. Louis (and the proceeding paperwork the pilot had to fill out) only added about ninety extra minutes to our flight. The way my wife put it, “No one needed to be in Indy as badly as that lady needed to be at a hospital.” Fair enough, I suppose, but then I started thinking about the soldier. The dead soldier on the plane that were were transporting home. The hero that gave his life for our country. The soldier that had family at the airport waiting for his arrival. And now, because of this ill woman’s poor choice to board an airplane, they would have to wait for ninety more agonizing minutes. Not much time to someone like me just wanting to get home, but imagine how long ninety extra minutes must feel like when you’re waiting for the arrival of a loved one’s casket.

At 9 p.m. we landed in Indy. Our captain asked us, out of respect, to remain seated once we arrived at the gate until the casket was removed from our plane. Once the plane stopped, a man I hadn’t noticed all flight stood up, wearing his Full Dress Whites Naval uniform. He’d been on the plane to escort the casket to Indy.

After we got off the plane and walked through the jetway into the airport ready to head for home… we stopped in our tracks. From inside the airport we could see onto the tarmac where several servicemen and women, and all the baggage handlers, were lined up, out of respect, while the casket was transported from the plane to a car.

It was a sobering moment. One that really put those tally marks of servicemen and servicewomen’s lives lost into perspective.

I was a pile of mixed emotions.

I was annoyed at the inconvenience of the medical emergency on the plane.

I was sad for the soldier’s family.

I felt grateful and guilty for being healthy and alive.

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