Last month I was returning home from Baltimore on American Airlines flight 1979. Hauling a bag of dirty uniforms, I was anxious to see my family after a weeklong National Guard Chaplains Conference.
But I wasn’t the only military person on the plane anxious for homecoming. BWI is the connecting airport for returning soldiers from Southwest Asia, and a group of soldiers were filing onto the plane.
As we were buckling seat belts, the baggage outside the plane told us that homecoming would be delayed.
Using the plane’s PA system, the pilot solicited our sympathies, explaining that we would wait until for the soldier’s bags to be loaded. “It was bad enough that troops were risking their lives,” he explained, “I’m not letting them go home without their luggage.”
“The least we could do,” reasoned the woman seated across from me.
“Ba, Ba, Ba,” noted another passenger, not yet teething.
“Everything happens for a reason,” philosophized a third passenger.
As I sat waiting, I searched the faces of the soldiers as they stood pointing out the windows at their loading luggage. I happened to know that one face was missing.
It was the face of PFC. Jesse Martinez – a face I only knew by the pictures on his mother’s coffee table.
Just a few weeks prior I had knocked on the door of Jan Martinez, 49 to tell her that her son, Jesse, was coming home on a different plane – not a passenger plane.
Offering us ice tea and a comfortable couch, she greeted us with all the respect and hospitality that Jesse had no doubt shown his fellow soldiers – the kind of respect he’d been taught by this military family.
But no offer of refreshments would compel us to depart from the words that my colleague had memorized on the hour ride to her home
When offered a seat, Sergeant First Class Delarooz replied, “I’d rather stand.”
“Ma’am, the Secretary of the Army…” he said in a voice impervious to the tears forming in his eyes, “regrets to inform you that your son, PFC. Jesse Martinez, was killed July 14, 2004….”
Suddenly his speech hit a snag, and for a brief second the words were held in the lump forming in the sergeant’s throat. Yet he continued to explain that PFC. Jesse Martinez, 20, died in Talafar, Iraq, when the vehicle in which he was riding overturned as the driver swerved to avoid another vehicle.
Having stood longer than I’d have thought possible, Mrs. Martinez broke our little formation by dropping back into her overstuffed couch.
Over the next hour we huddled in chairs circling her couch as we listened to stories and examined pictures of Jesse’s childhood.
And it was those pictures that had brought to mind Jesse’s face as I watched the soldiers file onto what might have been the same flight on the same week Jesse had planned his surprise homecoming.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” came the pilot’s voice, interrupting my melancholic haze. “If you’ll make sure your seat is an upright position, we’ll be pushing off from the gate.”
At home the next day, I read news accounts of some airline flights had been had been delayed, not by late arriving bags, but by a computer glitch. But in my business, I don’t place much stock in glitches or coincidences. I much prefer the term “God moments.”
And this “God moment” was not just a delay for baggage loading, it was a delay of sacred remembrance — remembrance that people like PFC Martinez would not be simply counted as another casualty in the “total for the week,” but as a real people willing to risk exchanging an earthly homecoming for a more celestial one. And in this exchange, he and others like him, guarantee that the rest of us will continue to have places we can call “home.”