Originally appeared at The New Republic.
U.S. Marines, not noted for their sentimentality, call the flights that carry their dead comrades home “angel flights.” I witnessed my first of these at a remote airfield in Anbar province, Iraq, in 2005. For about an hour, all activity on the tarmac ceased, including my own unloading of a 727 in my job as a commercial shipper. A furious Marine officer ran to confront me and demand that my pilot cut the 727’s engines. The pilot protested–his plane was nearly unloaded, and he wanted to fly to a safer airport as soon as possible–but the Marine permitted no debate. The engines powered down, and in the desert silence, from a distance of a few hundred feet, I could hear the clopping of individual boots as hundreds of Marines filed in to stand at attention and watch the chilled metal box proceed slowly into the belly of the plane.