FROM THE PUBLISHER >> How bodies come home from Iraq
Editor's Note: Relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq are often surprised to find out that their loved ones are returned home on commercial airplanes. This column first appeared here on May 26, 2004.
A couple of weeks ago, passengers on an airplane flying into Little Rock heard a pilot telling them that an officer was escorting home a soldier returning from Iraq.
When the passengers stood up after they landed late at night, they could see an Army officer in the front of the plane, but there wasn’t a soldier with him.
Some of the passengers must have realized why the returning soldier wasn’t sitting with the passengers. He was coming home in a casket.
An honor guard waited for the arrival of Sgt. Hesley Box, Jr., whose casket was lowered from the cargo area out of view of the passengers.
Because of the ceremony, it took a while for the luggage to arrive at the baggage area, but most of the passengers had no idea why their bags were delayed.
The soldier was a member of the Arkansas National Guard’s 39th Infantry Brigade based in Little Rock, which has lost nine members this spring, the highest of any Guard unit in Iraq.
Three other Arkansans assigned to other units have also been killed in Iraq. They come from all walks of life and from most parts of the state, and they had no idea when they went off to war back in March and April that they would join the rising toll of American casualties there.
The number of dead is ap-proaching 800, although only a couple of weeks ago, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was under the impression that figure was about half that many.
Apparently he hadn’t been checking his daily briefings that land on his desk.
The 39th Brigade, also known as the Arkansas Brigade, is special. “They’ve performed courageously in the face of insurmountable odds,” Staff Sgt. Mark Starr of North Little Rock told the Associated Press.
Starr survived an attack on his camp which killed four Arkansans and almost killed him.
For one thing, you won’t catch the 39th Brigade abusing prisoners.
“You see these pictures of Abu Ghraib in that prison. I tell you that would never happen in the 39th Battalion. They have a deep sense of obligation to the Iraqi people.”
But Starr, who is recovering from his wounds in his North Little Rock home, is critical of the way the war has been run since Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
“I’m very disappointed with the civilian administration,” Starr told the AP. “I feel this administration did not have a plan for the occupation after the war.”
“This president landed on an aircraft carrier,” Starr continued, “and he said combat operations were over, and it wasn’t over. The war is actually starting.”
(Postscript: U.S. combat deaths in Iraq now stand at 2,175.)