The straight-line distance between Washington, D.C., and Dover, Delaware, is less than 85 miles. It takes a helicopter about 40 to 45 minutes to make the trip. I was 19 years old, and it was my first time riding a helicopter. I barely remember any of it. I was distracted.
I was more nervous than I’ve ever been in my life about what was to come next, and so, as this Black Hawk floated above the earth with my casket team, me the youngest and most junior, I could only think: What if I mess this up? What if I fail? How will I live with myself?
That’s how it should be in a moment like this. You should be nervous. You should let that sharpen your focus. Because there is no room for error when handling the remains of a service member returning to the United States after being killed in combat. You should strive for perfection.
The helicopter landed, and my anxiety spiked.
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In retrospect, I recall noticing the silence of the rest of the casket team. These were young men, mostly early 20s, loud and boisterous and chests puffed. Now, they were quiet. It was unnerving.
When you’re a new enlisted soldier in an infantry unit (the FNG) you’re treated like you know nothing. Because you don’t. Everyone around you is older and vastly more competent and confident. Yet, in this moment, despite having done this before, they were all nervous, too. Scary.
We were brought into a holding area near the tarmac on Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the remains of service members who have died in a theater of operations arrive on a C-17 transport plane. We rehearsed our steps. And did it again. And then again. No room for error.
The plane arrived. The ramp was lowered. The transfer vehicle that would complete the next leg of the journey was parked. Our casket team was positioned. We were now each wearing ceremonial white cotton gloves we had held under the bathroom faucet. Damp gloves have a better grip.
We’re a casket team, but these are not caskets. They’re transfer cases: rectangular aluminum boxes that bear a resemblance to a crate for production equipment. Yet, the dimensions are obvious. Any given civilian would take only a few moments to realize that’s for carrying bodies.
It’s called a “dignified transfer,” not a “ceremony,” because officials don’t want loved ones to feel obligated to be there while in mourning. But it is as highly choreographed as any ceremony, probably more so. It is done as close to perfection as anything the military does.
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I was positioned in formation with my casket team, and I could see the transfer cases precisely laid out, military dress-right-dress, in the cavernous space of the C-17, each draped with an American flag that had been fastened perfectly. I remember my stomach dropping.
There is simply no space for other thoughts. Your full brain capacity is focused on not screwing up. The casket team steps off in crisp, exact steps toward the plane, up the ramp (please, oh God, don’t slip), aside the case, lift up ceremonially, face back and down the ramp.
During movement, everyone else is saluting: the plane personnel, the OIC (officer in charge), any senior NCOs (noncommissioned officers) and generals, and occasionally, the president. The family is sometimes there. No ceremonial music or talking. All silent, save for the steps of the casket team.
You don’t see the family during this. You’re too focused. There are other distractions. Maybe they forgot, but no one told me there’d be 40-60 pounds of ice in the transfer case to prevent decomposition over the 10-hour plane ride. You can sometimes feel it sloshing around a bit.
Some of the transfer cases feel slightly heavier, some slightly lighter. The weight is distributed among six bearers, so it’s not a big difference. But then you carry a case that’s significantly lighter, and you realize those are the only remains they were able to recover.
It probably takes all of 30-40 seconds to carry the transfer case from the plane to the mortuary vehicle, but it feels like the longest walk ever each time. The case is carefully placed in the back of the mortuary vehicle, and the casket team moves away in formation.
When it’s over and you’re on your way back to Washington, you’re overcome with a mixture of intense relief that you didn’t screw up and profound sobriety over what you’ve just done and witnessed. I wouldn’t call it a good feeling. Maybe a numbed pain.
Selfless heroes, not losers or suckers
From the outside, the most egalitarian place in America is a military transfer case. They all look exactly the same: an aluminum box covered with the American flag. We didn’t know their names, rank, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation — none of it. All the same.
Whatever cruel and unfathomable politics had brought all of us to that moment, from the killed service member in the box, to those of us carrying it, to the occasional elected official who attends to pay respects, there were no politics to be found during a dignified transfer.
The fallen service members I helped receive and carry during this part of the journey to their final resting place were not “losers” or “suckers.” They were selfless and heroic, and I had the honor of being among the first to hold them when they returned home.
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There are service members around the world involved in caring for our war fatalities. The mortuary specialists, the casket teams, the family liaisons — so many people who work to ensure that this final act is done with the greatest amount of dignity and honor, seeking perfection.
I suppose the one thing we all took for granted is that dignity would always be affirmed by all our civilian leaders to those service members who gave everything. I never would have predicted any official, let alone a sitting president, would insult fallen service members.
I cannot adequately describe my anger at Donald Trump for being so willing to send service members halfway around the world to die on his own behalf and then call them “losers” for doing so. This coward is unfit for his office and the power it holds. He needs to go.
Charlotte Clymer is a writer and transgender advocate who served in the U.S. Army for six years, from 2005 to 2012, the bulk of that in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). Follow her on Twitter: @cmclymer. This column was adapted from a Twitter thread.