The Final Journey Home

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Tony LeGree
  • 552nd Maintenance Squadron
Recently, I had the unfortunate honor of escorting a fallen Airman back home.

Airman 1st Class Daniel R. Lockney was finally at peace and surrendered to the senseless act of suicide. This single deed had taken the 552nd Maintenance Squadron to their knees.

No note, no explanation and yet a thousand questions plagued the shadows. Why? It's a simple question that can never truly produce an answer.

Seeing his rigid, compromised shell took me back a mere 24 years to my brother's imprudent death. He, too, felt overwhelmed and hopeless. Words simply cannot express the horrid, gut wrenching pain that I felt and the lingering effects it produced.

As the years have passed, the thought of my brother and his endless smile have provided me relative comfort. Acceptance is a gift from God that denial tries to push away. It took three long years for me to come to grips with his altruistic choice. Airman Lockney's death forced me once again to deal with my own demons. Escorting him back to his waiting family was what had to be done, and in a way provided me a sense of redemption.

As a diamond wearing first sergeant for the past 10 years, I was guided by automatic pilot once the phone call concerning my Airman rang out. I knew that many things had to be done. First and foremost was to address the squadron with my commander and start the process of closure.

As my checklist of items was being worked, a sense of obligation set in. I, like so many others had worked extensively with Airman Lockney the few months prior. We had many conversations about his goals, dreams and upbringing. I knew him and thought we made a connection. Trying to remain stoic brought shivers of fatigue -- not physically, but mentally. The train was starting to roll down hill.

When the moment was right, I arrived at the local funeral home at 3 a.m. Together, we rode to the airport in a hearse. A few hours later we were loaded onto the aircraft and headed to Houston.

Upon arrival, the two of us remained in a cargo-movement warehouse for five hours waiting our connecting flight.

In squelching heat, I sat next to his flag-draped casket on a folding chair in my service dress. As the workers wisped by on forklifts and carts, each paid their respects with a smile, tilt of a cap or a valiant attempt at a salute. The genuine sadness in their eyes will never be forgotten. A young lady bashfully brought me a sandwich. An hour later, an older gentleman approached me without saying a word and set a cold beverage near my chair. As he backed away, he said in a soft voice, "I'm sorry, we are all sorry. Thank you for your service," as he wiped a tear from his cheek.

While loading his casket onto our connecting flight, movement all around the proximity stopped. Our plane and the planes that flanked our jet stopped everything. Positioned next to the cargo hull, I saluted as the casket moved up the conveyer. Once loaded, I was met by the pilot, a retired Air Force C-130 pilot with 27 years experience. He personally escorted me into the plane and put me in first class.

Ten minutes into our flight, he made an announcement saying, "We are blessed to have on board Chief Master Sergeant LeGree, escorting a fallen Airman on his final journey home." I was not expecting nor prepared for the announcement. I felt for a moment that the attention was displaced and was a little uncomfortable because of it. Throughout the flight, I was treated as if I was the only one onboard. The personal attention from the pilot and flight crew was over the top.

Upon landing at Raleigh-Durham, N.C., an announcement was made for everyone to remain in their seats until the military remains were transferred. As we pulled into our final parking spot, water cannons from both sides sprayed long streams over the plane. An instant rainbow produced a threshold of beauty. An unbelievable emotion consumed me.

As I rose from my seat, the passengers throughout the plane erupted in applause. I tilted my head in acknowledgement and headed for the door. The pilot quickly approached and said, "May God be with you."

As the door opened, I was immediately met by the local director of the USO, along with the Raleigh-Durham Army Honor Guard. They snapped to attention and waited for my direction. We exited down the staircase to the tarmac. As the waiting hearse positioned for the casket, the Honor Guard marched into place and waited.

I looked up at the plane and saw every window filled with passengers trying to get a peak and take pictures.

As the casket moved down the conveyer, proper respect was paid.

Surrounding me was a group of 10 Veterans of Foreign Wars members, from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The local news reporter and camera crew was there, too.

As the hearse pulled away, I was whisked into the terminal by an entourage of strangers connected by circumstance. "Make a hole" was announced from the lead member as I was quickly escorted through the terminal to the car rental counter.

Once everything was taken care of, I met up with the waiting hearse. For the next three hours, I followed the American flag peaking through the window of the hearse. The sound of silence was only broken by an incoming phone call. It was a sobering time.

As we pulled into New Bern, N.C., a sign read "celebrating our 300th Anniversary." The beauty of this harbor town not far from the Atlantic Ocean was picture perfect. I settled in for the night and met the family for lunch the next day. I was invited to their home with open arms. As I arrived in service dress, I tried to remain stoic. Immediately, I was put at ease with their genuineness. As we ate, I discussed my relationship with their son, "Daniel." They too relayed some storytelling that provided a better understanding. I pulled from experience with my brother's death to offer David, Daniel's brother, some nuggets of comfort. We talked about grief, acceptance and pain. I could see the extraordinary numbness in his eyes. I knew that feeling.

Upon arrival in New Bern the night prior, the funeral home director told me a story that reaffirmed my faith. As the Lockney family was trying to secure a burial site, they were told that the New Bern National Cemetery was at capacity. There were no slots left and they needed to look elsewhere. As the family was trying to make arrangements, an uncharacteristic lightning storm produced a bolt that struck a tree in the cemetery. The tree was immediately removed for Airman 1st Class Daniel R. Lockney's final resting place. The story shot shivers down my back. I had to see it for myself.

The following day, we met and proceeded a few short miles to the New Bern National Cemetery. This 7.7 acre patch of heaven was simply majestic. Remnants of the Deep South exuded at every angle. The tall oak trees provided a canopy of protection around the perimeter. At the conclusion of the service, I handed the folded flag to his mother. She, in turn, gave it to David as a symbol of his brother. The gesture choked me up and I stepped away. As everyone left the cemetery, I remained behind. I walked the hallowed ground to completion. I witnessed Airman Lockney lowered into the location where the tree once stood.

As I gathered my thoughts, I realized that the cemetery was mostly occupied by members of the Civil War. Inscriptions on tombstones and monuments read like a "who's who" of war heroes. Because of God's choice, Airman Lockney lay among giants of wars past. His contributions to the American way of life are no less significant than any other patriot and merit the same respect.

No matter the reason, I am proud to have known him personally and proudest of escorting him home.

For those who I encountered along the way, an uncompromising reverence of respect was paid that is simply too hard to describe. The American people lost a true patriot from his early demise, but I have gained a resurgence of faith by their actions.

May God continue to bless his family with healing, acceptance and strength. Airman 1st Class Daniel R. Lockney, my Airman, my friend, may you finally rest in peace.