It is raining in Dover. No surprise there. It always seems to be raining at Dover Air Force Base. Summer rain here in Delaware is a hot, humid precipitation that seems to asphyxiate the soul. It makes everything heavy. This evening, time seems to swim through the misty haze. From my view of the flight line the aircraft look like beached whales dying for an ocean.
The maintenance crews scurry about the C-5s and Boeing 747s. They are slow, heavy beasts and seem to defy the laws of nature every time their enormous engines scream down the runway. Substantial amounts of 24-hour maintenance and security support a fleet of aircraft as they continuously come and go. Just enough repairs and patching up so that they can carry boxes from point A to point B and probably break down at point C.
When I first reported in to the colonel at Dover AFB he asked, "What is the point of all the transportation aircraft on the flight line?"
Before I could rattle off some textbook response about expeditionary airlift, he jumped in with, "It's the cargo. Period. End of story."
Thinking this back to myself I laugh, "It"s the cargo, stupid." Letters, tanks, airplane parts, helicopters, food, water, basketball courts . . . you name it, it is all cargo.
I'm here to protect the assets that carry the cargo. I'm really nothing significant, just a team member that supports the base so that it can continue with its mission.
It is all a routine. Even tonight's delivery is routine. I look around at other military cops in position for the escort. How many times have they done this? Sometimes we don't get this kind of delivery for a whole week. Other times it is more than one in a 12-hour shift.
So, it is the cargo we are waiting for tonight as the honor guard solemnly, slowly, and methodically approaches the 747. The aircraft came in from the desert. Its nose is opened up. In a gaping hole rests a lonely, small, silvery, but very heavy piece of cargo.
The shipment tonight is a coffin, and in that coffin is a soldier, on his final trip home. It is a sobering reminder of what we are. We wear the uniform. We are mortal.
The honor guard continues to march out into the downpour, led by an Air Force colonel and an Army general. The Army always sends a representative when the soldier is theirs. The Army doesn't have a morgue. The bodies come here.
"Tap," go the boots on the flight line.
A quote by General Patton comes to me as I stand by the squad car, "You are always on parade."
I bet the recruiter did not tell the soldier lying in that casket that he would always be on parade, even on his final march home. I find myself wondering, "What did the recruiter tell you? Why did you sign on the dotted line and pledge to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic? Was it for education, security, patriotism, boredom, or desperation?"
The rain starts to beat harder. The honor guard moves the coffin into the back of a multi-stop van, which resembles a baker's bread truck. The radio crackles, "Dover to all post patrols. Be advised HR in motion. All units stand by. Halt all traffic." At this time the cops serve as escort as the van carries the remains to the morgue.
Why am I thinking about this tonight? This is routine. Everything about this evening is routine from the rain to the maintenance crews taking smoke breaks. But then again, nothing is ever really ordinary. The moment is unique and it is unlike any other we will have again. We can't have this time back.
The radio breaks into my thoughts. "Dover Control to all post patrols, HR secured. You are free to release traffic."
So, release the traffic. Refuel and reload the aircraft. The mission is never done and troops needed those supplies last week.
Life is back on the move. We always have to move on. It isn't that we don't care. The cargo must fly. We have to keep moving, because there will be more little aluminum boxes, and in them we find ourselves. In those precious pieces of cargo is the reality of the oaths we've made. I, we, owe it to those troops to keep our end of the bargain, and never give up.
My call sign comes on the radio. There is a domestic issue in housing.
By now the honor guard has dispersed. The colonel and general are on their way home. It is time for me to get back to work. Let's go see what is happening in housing.
It is raining in Dover.
I don't know why, but I salute the building where the soldier is now resting.
I won't get this moment back. So, I just want to say, "Thanks. We'll keep marching for you."
First Lieutenant Winters, a 2003 graduate of the Air Force Academy, is currently serving in Iraq with Det 2632nd AF Gun Truck Company. She is a security forces officer assigned to the 436th Security Force Squadron, Dover Air Force Base.