Delta group pays tribute to fallen soldiers

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

A group of Delta Air Lines employees has made a commitment to honor and recognize members of the military who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

The Delta Honor Guard, which has been operating for five years, is composed of approximately 30 men and women who volunteer their time to honor fallen troops whose remains come through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport aboard Delta flights, according to Brian McConnell, coordinator of the Delta Honor Guard.

"These people are dedicated and have no problem rendering honors in the rain, cold, wind and blistering heat on the ramp," McConnell said. "I have people show up on their days off, before work, after work and even on vacation to help."

Beverlee Holderman, a member of the Delta Honor Guard, said she joined the group because she was touched by a ceremony she saw the Honor Guard give a deceased soldier.

Holderman said the Honor Guard inspired her to join the U.S. Army, and that she was recently commissioned as a first lieutenant.

"It was something that I always wanted to do, and it [the Delta Honor Guard] re-sparked what I wanted to do," she said with tears rolling down her cheeks.

McConnell said the guard considers the responsibility of recognizing fallen soldiers, and assisting in assuring they are transported to their final resting place, an important mission. "To me, it's the best program I've been involved in at Delta," said McConnell. "I've done at least 300 of these and I still get choked up."

McConnell said one of his most memorable experiences with the guard was the return of the remains of a pilot shot down in Vietnam in 1968. The pilot's 81-year-old widow was present, along with the escort, he added.

The widow, McConnell said, told him she had waited 41 years for her husband's body to be identified.

"She was in awe that a group of total strangers would take the time to honor a man none of us knew," he said.

McConnell said he has been the coordinator of the Honor Guard for two and a half years, and has been working for the airline for 27 years.

He said that while he was never in the military, his father served for 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, and his son is currently serving in the U.S. Air Force — as a senior airman — and has been deployed twice to Afghanistan.

McConnell said he has always wanted to be a part of the U.S. military, but medical reasons have prevented him from being accepted.

"I do it [honor soldiers] out of sheer passion," he said.

He said most Delta Honor Guard members have served their country, and that two members have lost family members in Iraq.

McConnell said he gathers the members of the group together to render honors to fallen soldiers as they arrive at the airport or pass through on their way to another destination.

He explained that once he receives notice that a soldier's remains will arrive at Atlanta's airport, he sends e-mails and text messages to members of the guard, informing them of the date and time, and at which gate they should meet to honor the soldier.

The Honor Guard meets at the assigned gate approximately 20 minutes before the airplane arrives with the remains, he said.

Once the airplane lands at Hartsfield-Jackson, the Honor Guard marches up to the belt where the remains are unloaded, said McConnell.

McConnell said that as members march, they hold flags that represent the United States of America, the Army, the Marine Corps, the Navy, the Air Force, the Coast Guard and Delta Air Lines.

"We honor all those who serve in the military, in any branch, and in any capacity," he said.

McConnell said that after the remains are unloaded, they are placed in a covered cart on which an American flag has been painted.

He said the cart is then pulled by a specially marked tug that delivers the remains to the next destination.

The hood of the tug is dark blue, and emblazoned with the face of a bald eagle with the American flag waving in the background. McConnell said the remains are usually escorted by a family member or close friend of the fallen soldier.

According to McConnell, the Honor Guard presents the escort with a custom-made Delta Air Lines gold coin, with different inscriptions on each side.

The Delta Honor Guard was created by Tom Schenk, according to McConnell.

Schenk, a fuel-quality assurance specialist for Atlantic Southeast Airlines, said he was a ramp agent for Delta when he created the Delta Honor Guard on May 30, 2006.

Schenk said his inspiration came in September 2005, when he saw a Marine escorting her brother's remains at Hartsfield-Jackson.

He said he joined the Marine, and rendered honors to the soldier.

Schenk, who served 20 years in the U.S. Navy, said that he later approached Delta Air Lines at Hartsfield-Jackson with his vision of creating the Delta Honor Guard, and Delta agreed.

Schenk said there are other Delta Honor Guards around the nation in cities including Norfolk, Va., and Cincinnati, Ohio.

"When I started [it], Delta Air Lines was the first airlines to do that ... The only airlines in the nation that actually rendered honors to our fallen heroes," he said.