When we feel a sense of belonging it is not because we are the same as everyone else, but because we have been accepted as we are.
~ Unknown Author ~
Hello friends. Sharing a beautiful article, about my friend, COL Tomas DeLeon.
Commentary: Making the final journey with a friend, mentor and Soldier.
Written by Lt Col Craig S Heathscott
October 08, 2014
MIAMI – The flight attendant’s voice cracked somewhat, which added to the impact of the words, “… we have the honor of carrying a fallen Soldier on today’s flight—Col. Tomas DeLeon… ”
It had been a simple request that immediately brought tears to the flight attendant and set in motion a chain of events that would ultimately highlight a near 14-month-journey. As the military escort for Col. DeLeon—Tomas— I just wanted the passengers to know they were in the presence of a fallen Soldier and, respectfully requested they remain seated while family exited first. What I got far exceeded my original request.
We worked together on the Joint Staff of the National Guard Bureau, but had known each other for several years. He was a great Soldier, friend and mentor, which made being appointed to escort him and his family to his final resting place in Gurabo, Puerto Rico, such an honor; one that I have never experienced before in 28 years of service. But, my final journey with Tomas began in June 2013, when he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on his brain. It would end on Sept. 17 in Gurabo, Puerto Rico.
Surgeons at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, successfully removed the tumor the same month it was discovered. Over the next several months, Tomas traveled to and from the hospital by himself, at his choice, on Metro most times for treatments while stopping by the Pentagon for coffee on an occasional visit. However, the tumor grew back and the visits became fewer. This Soldier fought the hard fight, but ultimately the enemy overtook him on September 5 at his home in Woodbridge, Virginia.
“ . . . was a 27-year Army Veteran, of the Army National Guard, so we ask that you honor him and remain seated once we land so that the military escorts, and the family can exit first,” the flight attendant said, seemingly relieved that he was able to complete the announcement without breaking down.
Sitting a few rows behind me, Ivette DeLeon smiled with obvious pride and winked at me as the passengers learned about her husband and that they were also in the presence of his wife, son (spouse and child), who serves as a staff sergeant in the Army Reserves, and daughter (spouse). By the time this announcement was complete, the only sound I heard was the lady beside me who was overwhelmed with emotion. It was a very special moment, but nobody on American Airlines flight 1155 could have imagined what lay ahead as we began the approach into Miami International Airport.
As we neared our gate, the silence quickly dissipated as seemingly everyone was excited about something outside the windows on the right side of the plane. Next thing I knew, water began rolling down the windows; literally, they looked like teardrops, which were becoming more noticeable from the inside of the plane. I truly didn’t know what was happening. As we continued to taxi I could see out my window the fire truck that was shooting a stream of water over the plane as a similar stream was being returned to it from the other side—a water cannon salute for my friend, mentor and fellow Soldier.
It was all happening so fast that I felt like I was living a dream as a half dozen more fire trucks were on display followed by 15 patrol cars from the Miami Dade County Police Department. As if this wasn’t impressive enough, I could see in front of the vehicles were a long line of firefighters and police officers standing at parade rest as a sign of respect. Even the ground crew was motionless in reverence to this fallen Soldier. There were no less than 100 people participating in this solemn event.
There couldn’t have been a dry eye on the plane, Soldiers included. The family and I were overwhelmed. Based on my previous experience with airline travel, I couldn’t help but wonder, better yet stress about, how many people would actually jump up to get their bags. I couldn’t have been more wrong, thankfully—no movement. I stood and waved the family forward and as they started to walk down the aisle the passengers broke out in applause. I was so moved by this last gesture that after the family moved past me at the front of the plane I turned toward the back of the plane, in my full dress uniform, and saluted the passengers who returned the gesture with another round of applause.
When the pilot came out of the cockpit to greet me, I learned he was a veteran himself. It was apparent that once he got the word from the flight attendant at the beginning of the flight about what was going on, he reached out to Miami to get everything organized quickly. I’m even told he flew faster in order to give the passengers more time to allow for this spectacle to ensure they wouldn’t miss connecting flights. He escorted Lt. Col. Stephen Holdeman and I to the tarmac so we could receive our Soldier.
As the ground crew started to remove Col. DeLeon from the plane, we rendered and held our salute to honor this fallen Soldier until he was on the transport. Again, another solemn moment as we were surrounded by the large contingent of police and firefighters rendering the same honors. The casket was placed on a special transport carrier decorated with the American flag on one side and symbols representing each of the military services adorned the other. Sadly enough, this is a common practice at airports as many Soldiers have been escorted to their final resting place in this manner.
The transport took the lead across the airport grounds followed by the 15 Miami Dade County patrol cars with lights flashing. I was afforded the opportunity to ride in the middle of the pack, and it was inspiring to watch this parade across Miami International as it almost didn’t seem real. We were passing by larger-than-life planes; some of these aircraft had to yield to our procession. I would learn from the officer I rode with that most of this team had volunteered to participate in the celebration. The call came out a couple hours earlier that a fallen Soldier was being received at the airport, and everyone started calling in that they would be there, she said.
I experienced America and the ‘American Spirit’ on American Airlines flight 1155; and while Col. Tomas DeLeon would have been embarrassed, humbled at this spectacle on his behalf, he would have would been grateful that his family was treated with such respect. He would have been proud to be an American having served his country as a Soldier. I’m sure my friend would join me in giving one final salute to American Airlines and the fine Americans who witnessed and participated in this display of patriotism honoring a Soldier/veteran. We salute you.
What a beautiful article.
Sometimes, in day-to-day things and stuff, we forget to be grateful for family and friends, who truly bless our life, with memories, from those, both on earth and in heaven.
Everyday, we are blessed with memories that provide a smile, a heartfelt laugh, or whatever that someone did for us when we truly needed it.
God is pretty awesome in the way He can bring the most cherished memory to touch our heart as we remember those no longer with us and those who show up when we need friends the most.
When I read the article about Tomas, my eyes watered a little and I thanked God for the honor and privilege to have known such a great Soldier, friend and co-worker.
I thanked Him for old and new friends, who in one way or another, leave me with some great memories and those who help keep me grounded in times that I need friends the most.
Blessings and thank you friends!