16 December, 2006

Bringing Doc Home

From the same reporter who brought us the heart-wrenching and award-winning "Final Salute," comes this profile of a sailor and the fallen hero he accompanies home to a grieving community:

The last time Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class John Dragneff saw his friend was the same day Hospital Corpsman Christopher Anderson left for Iraq....

Tuesday afternoon, the young sailor stood on the chilly tarmac in Philadelphia. As the casket made its way up the conveyor belt, he snapped to attention, grasping his hands into fists, thumbs at the seams of his pants, trying to squeeze back the tears.

His eyes emptied as he brought his hand to his face in a salute, which he tried to hold steady until the casket disappeared into the plane's belly.

As he turned, the sailor's face melted, and he walked into the embrace of Pamela Andrus, the United Airlines service director. The ground manager took his other side, supporting him.

"I'm so sorry," Andrus said.

Together, they walked back up the stairs, into the plane, where a cheery flight attendant came over with several tissues plucked from the lavatory.

"You can cry," Christine Sullivan told him. "All of us want to send our love and blessings to you and be here for you.

"You're going to do great."

Like any good "Doc," Corpsman Anderson had earned the respect of Marines and Iraqis alike:

In Iraq, he asked to be stationed with the front-line Marines and was assigned to a 12-man unit. One of his first tasks was to memorize each Marine's medical records. His medical expertise stretched beyond his unit to the Iraqi people, who would talk to him "because he was 'the dictor' (as the Iraqis called him). "There were times that nobody would talk to anyone except him," [father and former SEAL] Rick Anderson said.

Read it all, and bring some tissues.

Update: Lex has the airline pilot’s perspective on these journeys.