Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

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IRAQ: Fallen Angel going home

March 8, 2008 |  3:28 am

I was on a helicopter flight Friday night with Marines and soldiers from Camp Fallouja to Taqaddum with a couple of scheduled stops in between. But when our Chinook got to the Balad air base, the pilots shut down the rotors and told everyone to stand outside.

"Got to refuel," said one crewman. But that was only a secondary reason.

"There's a Fallen Angel on the other bird that needs to be transferred," said another crewman.

Fallen Angel. Military jargon for a troop killed in action. Helos always travel in tandem, so both were ordered to stand down until the metal casket could be transferred to a vehicle from the base mortuary affairs unit.

It took about an hour for the truck to arrive. The soldiers from the Chinook crew talked and joked about things inconsequential as they waited. I was allowed to watch on condition I not take pictures.

The unmarked truck arrived and the casket was lowered from the Chinook and onto the truck's hydraulic lift. There was no flag on the casket; that will come later. There was no honor guard; that too will come later.

I've seen this kind of transfer done before. Somewhere in America a family was about to get the knock on the door that they've feared since the day their loved one left for Iraq. The military prefers to be able to tell the family that the body is already on a plane home.

Nobody gave any orders, but the soldiers went silent as the casket was transferred. I thought their faces, happy just a few minutes earlier, now looked numb. They stood there for a few minutes before going back to the job of moving troops and supplies around a large and still dangerous country.

Tony Perry at Taqaddum