Kelley Westenhoff, who has served in the Air Force, and is married to an Air Force pilot, shares her experience of travelling Space Available, or “Space-A” as it was called.
Having grown up as military kids, my husband and I fondly remembered the adventure of Space-A travel and wanted to share it with our own children. So for Thanksgiving break of 2003, we found ourselves at Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) Airport waiting for a flight to Europe.
Our flight out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport was easy to get on. There were only six passengers on the flight in civilian clothes. Everyone else was in BDUs, soldiers returning to Iraq, via Germany, after spending two weeks R&R leave in the U.S. It was a quiet flight. As the engines droned on, the mood in the aircraft was one of reflection and quiet contemplation. They were not talkative. There was no nervous chatter as there might have been on their first flight to Iraq.
These young men and women were going back to a war zone, and they knew exactly what to expect. While they had been home they had been able to tell their families what it is really like – all the good and hopeful news that the American press wasn’t interested in printing. One said, “people at home tell us they believe us, not the press.” As we separated in Frankfurt, we prayed for their safety. For a first Space-A adventure for our kids, it had been a tame one.
After spending a week of fun and touring in Germany, we went to Ramstein Air Base to catch a flight home. Included in the line-up for a C-141 back to Dover Air Force Base, we awaited boarding. About an hour before, we were called to passenger relations for a briefing. The young airman informed us that there would be a casket on board, and that any passengers had the option of not taking the flight. We talked to our children (then ages 7 and 9) about what a casket is, and elected to take the flight, as did everyone else.
Due to equipment delays we had time to talk to our fellow passengers before the flight. Everyone we met was thrilled with President Bush’s recent surprise visit to Baghdad. There were two gentlemen in Desert BDUs. One was a soldier heading back to the U.S. The other had an Arabic name on his tag and his BDU’s read “DOD Civilian.”
We learned he was an American who had emigrated (escaped) from Iraq in the Saddam days. He was successful and perfectly comfortable in his American life in 2002. Yet, when it was time to be part of the rebuilding of Iraq, he did not hesitate to volunteer as a translator. As a civilian in a war zone he was wearing a U.S. uniform, and was subject to all the hardships of military life, including being shot at, but chose to serve both of his countries in order to bless the future of both. That man was a hero.
Another gentleman in civilian clothes had his 18-month old daughter with him. His wife, an Army service member stationed in Germany, had been deployed to Iraq in March and he was single parenting in their base housing. He was doing what our mothers did when we were military kids – learning how to take care of that child’s every need alone. This was his first trip back to the U.S. with the baby. During the flight he loved, nurtured, changed, fed, comforted and cared for her. When she was smiling and cooing, it looked easy.
On a 10-hour flight in very rough air, she wasn’t always smiling and cooing. He handled it with patience. He told us she had taken to calling her child care provider “mama.” She was too young to know that the woman in the uniform in the photo he showed her was mama. He told us his friends kept calling him to go out and party, but when he got to his mom’s house, all he wanted to do was sleep. He too was a hero.
Finally, when we boarded the plane we came face to face with the reality of war. In the aft section of the aircraft a silver metal box was strapped to the deck. The flag-draped casket bore silent witness to the price of freedom. As we fitted into the webbing that would hold us in our troop seats, our 7-year old son whispered to me that he was scared to see the casket. I hugged him and told him that it was an honor to share this ride home with a fallen hero, that we were privileged to have escort duty. As the tears welled in my eyes, I imagined the mother of the fallen soldier, 11 or 12 years earlier, comforting him as he expressed a fear of something. Now I wished I could hug her – that mother who would receive these remains. I told my son that the soldier wasn’t in that box, that his soul was with God, and that we honored his remains in order to honor his sacrifice. I comforted myself hugging my boy as my heart ached for that mother’s pain and grief.
When I was a child and we traveled Space-A, our biggest challenge was getting five people on the flight together and since my dad was only a major at the time, we sat and waited around a lot. Sometimes we got bumped, such as the time we headed to Thailand but spent the holidays in Taiwan instead. On occasion we traveled to a tiny airport over land in order to boost our chances of getting out, like when we went from Bangkok to Pattya Beach. Never once did we contemplate that those planes flew solely to get us where we needed to go. Never did my parents tell us anything about the cargo that might be on board.
But on this trip with our children, the cargo was inescapable. There was no curtain or bulkhead that separated the live passengers from the deceased one. And I’m glad. Because we grew up on bases, we were surrounded by military culture. Cut off from family back home, we created family-type arrangements and flourished in them. Our children’s experience has been different. They’ve had the internet to help them stay connected with friends. Rather than living on base, they’ve grown up in civilian communities, going on base to visit the commissary or the doctor, but not living within that culture.
But while many things have changed, some have stayed the same. They have great respect for those in authority. They are polite. And this trip from Germany reminded them that military life isn’t “somewhere else”, it is all around us, and it involves sacrifice. The awareness of the cost of freedom gives them a strong sense of mission, purpose and compassion.
We nurture it in them so they can pass on what’s best about military children to their own children someday, whether or not they choose to serve. So while my husband and I never traveled with heroes on Space-A, we are very grateful that the military gave us the opportunity to connect our children with some part of what military kids know deep down.
What our parents do matters.