Friday, April 11, 2008

Stand down, Marine.

I just finished a rather stressful 4-day domestic trip, but I can't tell you why it was thus—some stories are best left in the hangar. Otherwise, it was an uneventful trip to some dull cities that were clad in even duller weather, that made me wish I was back home among sunny skies and dogwood blossoms. But a profound thing happened.

When I got to the United operations center at the Des Moines airport Tuesday afternoon my plane had not yet arrived but was due in 10 minutes. As I was reviewing the flight plan and weather for Chicago the station manager told me there might be a delay getting off the gate. The plane was bringing in a Marine casualty. The Marines intended to take their time recovering their dead.

I went out and waited against the wall under the loading bridge to get out of the cold rain. A hearst sat to the side, as did a couple of vans with Marines in them. A bag handler told me the Marines had requested that all bags be unloaded before the coffin, and after that only Marines be allowed in the cargo hold. At a distance, near the far edge of the ramp, other vehicles waited with police escort.

I watched the 757 turn in and glide to a stop, its nose bobbing down as the captain applied the brakes and compressed the nose strut. I don't know why but I always enjoy watching that. I couldn't help but think what an enormous and supremely beautiful airplane it is from such a close ground view. The hearst drivers must have thought so too; they were standing beside their vehicle pointing, gesturing, jabbering—irreverently it seemed, beside the Marines standing at solemn attention.

I moved closer when the last bag was removed and the Marines lined up, four on each side of the belt loader. Then I saw an amazing spectacle. Two high ranking Marines, a colonel and a gunnery sergeant, walked up the loader and got into the filthy cargo hold, got on their hands and knees and draped the flag over the coffin of Lance Corporal Cody Wanken. I was instantly convinced that, had the Commandant of the Marine Corps been there, he would have done that dirty job himself. These people are of a different breed.

The two had difficulty manhandling the coffin onto the belt loader and two United rampers scrambled up to assist. Finally down it came, slowly, on the belt. I heard the gunnery sergeant yell, "Present Arms!" and saw the sharp salutes go up. Instinctively, so did mine. As the coffin arrived in front of the honor guard they lowered their salutes, very slowly, and took the handles. The dazzling red white and blue draped coffin and the brassy Marines' dress uniforms made a compelling contrast with the colorless airport shrouded with low hanging clouds and depressing drizzle.

As they carefully placed the coffin in the hearst I saw the gathering in the distance. TV cameras were pointed our way. Several people were crying. One young man was convulsing with great sobs. Three people stood out in front of the crowd, a man and a woman with another person standing behind them holding an umbrella over them. The man hovered over the woman, clutching her. He stood tall, wearing everyday clothes and a ball cap. The woman was holding a handkerchief to her face. I wondered what they were thinking. Were they proud, angry, or just numbed? And I wondered what it would be like to stand in their place watching one of my sons being taken off that aircraft.

What I was watching was a sight that had been repeated at the Des Moines airport and many other others across the land for scores of years. The only change was the people and the planes. And there’s no end to these ceremonies in sight, but don’t take that as a commentary on the war. It’s just an observation on the world we live in, and those before us, and those to come. It’s an affirmation of the fundamental truth that freedom is never free.

It didn't seem right for me to
photograph what I saw, as I was standing very close. I found this picture of a similar ceremony on the internet.

While I was searching for the above picture, I found this one. If this dead soldier could see, this is what his last sight of his mother would be.


bradcockrell said...

The Marine boys are indeed a different breed. What great respect they deserve. Understand you didn't feel right to photograph but I wish I could have seen it.

jenny said...

I'm glad to know that another person from Alabama has been touched by Cody Wanken. I met him last summer when he was training with bomb dogs at Fort McClellan. We grew to be great friends in the month he was here and I gained an even greater respect for him as a Marine as well as a friend. I only wish I could have been in your shoes the day he came home for good.

scockrell76 said...

Well said dad. Every time I see the phrase Semper Fidelis or Semper Fi, I am reminded of the absoluteness of it's meaning. It is what makes the Marines the worlds most feared group of soldiers and America's greatest business and political leaders. To a Marine it is the only way they know to live and they don't understand people who live otherwise. What you witnessed on this day dad was a brotherhood practicing their creed and it is awesome.

sutter329 said...

Mr. Cockrell,

My name is Brian Sutter. I am writing you to say thank you for posting your touching words in your blog that you titled, "Stand Down, Marine". I just read it aloud to my girlfriend and struggled through it, fighting back tears. You see, I knew LCpl Cody Wanken very well.

I was there with Cody's family that cold, drizzly day on the tarmac at Des Moines International Airport. I am also a former United States Marine.

Cody was like a little brother to me. I met him 15 years ago when I began hanging around with his older brother, Andy. Over the years, I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with Cody and his family. Andy and I became best friends and I got to watch Cody excel in baseball and and football in his youth.

Cody was 8 years old when I joined the Marine Corps and went off to boot camp in San Diego, CA. Even back then, all he wanted to be was a Marine. Years later, after I was discharged, he never waivered. Cody could have done anything with his life. He would have been great at anything, but it seems that being a Marine was his destiny, it was his dream.

I never worried about him surviving the rigorous training that is required to join the elite ranks of the U.S. Marine Corps. Cody was tough, confident and strong enough to take on the task. He is exactly what you want out of a Marine. He was also a natural leader, had a huge heart and just had a way with people. He always walked around with a huge smile on his face. He was that way his entire twenty years. Just thinking about him now brings a big smile to my face. He had that effect on everybody and obviously still does to this day.

Cody was very proud of being a Marine and we are all very proud of him. He understood the risks. He had no illusions. Cody was wounded in Iraq last September by an enemy round that did extreme damage to his jaw, ear and eye on his left side. He endured several surgeries and more pain than I can ever imagine, but still he never waivered. He would never allow all of us to see or know how much pain he was in. Whether it was talking to him on the phone or in person, he still had that fire and that big smile. He didn't want our pity. He was determined to recover and inspired all of us that knew him. He wanted to rejoin his unit. He wanted to continue serving his country. I had the honor of bringing him home from the airport after that first round of surgeries last fall. Andy and I got to be there when Cody and his father, Rick, came down the escalator near the baggage claim at Des Moines International Airport. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. He got to spend over a month with us here in Iowa while he was recovering. It was great to have him around again, and we thought the worst was behind us.

Cody Wanken died in his sleep on April 2, 2008. Andy had spoken to him the night before on the phone and he said it just sounded like the same old Cody. They laughed and joked around. They made plans for the future, they said their "I love you's" and said goodbye as usual. Words cannot describe what we all felt when we heard the news on the 2nd. I heard it from Andy and just started sobbing. It was and still is so unbelievable.

I had the honor of accompanying Rick, Sue and the rest of his family to the airport again. This time we brought him home for good. His pain is over and he no longer has to fight. He can rest easy now.

Thank you so much for writing those words in your blog. I means so much to us all to help put that day into words. Sometimes it takes someone on the outside looking in to describe something that well. I cannot describe what I felt that day, it is all just a series of images in my mind that I will never forget. You also took the time to pay tribute with your words to someone we all love and miss so much.

I don't know why I gave you all this information. I guess I thought you should know a little bit about LCpl Cody Wanken and what he meant to all of us. It's the least I can do since you took the time to share your thoughts with the world on your blog.

Thank you for honoring Cody.

Semper Fidelis,

Brian Sutter
1997 - 2001

Jay Hargrove said...

Alan, you painted a picture for me with your words and as I read them I felt as if I was standing by your side.Thanks for allowing me to share in this expeirence with you. JAlan, you painted a picture for me with your words and as I read them I felt as if I was standing by your side.Thanks for allowing me to share in this expeirence with you. J