Soldiers can serve their country knowing that when they die, somebody will be at the airport to meet their body and make sure it’s handled with dignity, not left alone in some cold, dank storage facility.
Soldiers who don’t die, however, are pretty much on their own when they arrive at the airport.
Several months ago, I wrote about the moving tributes the USO performs at Raleigh-Durham International Airport to ensure that the bodies of soldiers headed home for burial are not treated like mere cargo.
Ken Tigges, team leader of the USO’s Honors Support Team, told how the caskets and their escorts are greeted at the plane and the casket is draped with an American flag and loaded onto a special cart. I spent a day with the honor guard as it met the body of a U.S. Marine Corps machine gunner who’d died, and it was an impressive sight, let me tell you.
None of the soldiers, Marines or sailors stepping off the plane at RDU realistically expect a brass band to greet them — although that would be nice, wouldn’t it? — but it’s also unlikely that they expect to pay as much as $320 to get back to Camp Lejeune, Fort Bragg or wherever they’re based.
If you check the pay scale for Marines and soldiers in the Army, you’ll see that the commercial cost of just getting back to base represents a huge hunk of their monthly income.
Kim Bruss of the USO said, “We always try to arrange a free ride first,” and that the organization has a list of volunteers to transport returning soldiers. The logistics of coordinating the ride make it less reliable than it should be, though. When the USO calls a volunteer in the middle of the day or night, she said, they may be unreachable or the soldier “has found a ride by the time” the volunteer arrives.
Tigges, a retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. and Vietnam veteran, said, “There are shuttles they can take back to base, but they’re very expensive. Sometimes they can call a friend to come and get them.”
He and I agreed that since a ride to Lejeune, for instance, is two and a half hours each way, it would have to be a very good friend or one you’ve known a long, long time.
Or not at all, if you’re Bill O’Neill. On Veterans Day, he gave a free ride to a soldier he’d never met.
In the process, he saved her a lot of time and money and, in a small way, presented the soldier — whose husband is still deployed — with a token of a grateful nation’s appreciation.
O’Neill said he was dropping his wife off at RDU, “when I heard a PA announcement from the USO asking anyone heading to the Cary area to contact the USO desk. I asked the skycap if that meant someone needs a ride ... I live in Cary, so the skycap gave me the USO phone number, I called, and sure enough a U.S. Army soldier needed a ride and I was happy to oblige.”
The female soldier, he said, was returning from deployment in Asia and was trying to get to the Cary storage facility where she’d left her car. “What I learned is that soldiers, sailors, and Marines are often stranded at RDU for long periods of time with no way to get to Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune, or elsewhere.”
After alerting me to the problem, O’Neill wrote, “By the way, I did not write you looking for credit for this, because in fact it was easy and no big deal. I’d rather remain anonymous unless you feel strongly otherwise.”