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'This Is My Way Of Serving.' How An Airline Worker Honors Fallen Military Members

Brian McConnell, right, spoke with his wife, Nora, during a StoryCorps interview in Atlanta in 2016, about his "calling": working with the Delta Honor Guard to greet the remains of a military service members killed in active duty.
Brian McConnell, right, spoke with his wife, Nora, during a StoryCorps interview in Atlanta in 2016, about his "calling": working with the Delta Honor Guard to greet the remains of a military service members killed in active duty.

StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military and their families.

Brian McConnell holds a job that many of us might not have even realized existed. He runs the Delta Honor Guard, a volunteer group with Delta Airlines started at Atlanta's Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, that greets every plane that carries the remains of a fallen military member.

At StoryCorps in 2016, Brian, now 59, spoke with his wife, Nora, about why the work is so important to him.

Before shifting into his current position as Honor Guard coordinator, Brian worked as a ramp agent for much of his 38 years at Delta. He loaded aircraft baggage, guided planes to gates and conducted a host of plane servicing tasks.

But in 2005, he was so struck by the care that the Delta Honor Guard brought to their work that he began volunteering with the team. He transitioned to the work full time the following year.

"Driving across the ramp one day doing my job, I witnessed some guys taking care of a fallen soldier," he recalled. "They had a blue cart with all the logos from all the military branches and it said: All gave some, some gave all."

"I had to pull over and collect myself because I thought it was just amazing that total strangers could take care of our military fallen," he said.

The steps taken to honor the fallen go something like this: Brian is notified when the body of a soldier arrives — sometimes days in advance, other times just a half-hour notice. He then relays the alert to the rest of his Honor Guard team and coordinates who will attend that day. The volunteers who are available gather at the arriving aircraft.

"We have folks who come from all over the airport: from the bag points, from the gates, from maintenance, and even the pilot's group," Brian said. "Sometimes there's 20 of us there, sometimes there's two of us there. But there's always at least someone to meet every fallen [soldier] that comes into the Atlanta airport."

First, a U.S. flag is draped over the casket while it's in the airplane. As the casket is lowered from the plane, Delta Honor Guard members march up holding flags from each branch of service. They then move the casket into a special transport vehicle. Someone from the group, usually Brian, walks up to the person who is escorting the casket home and will "present them with a card, a coin and a prayer to give to the next of kin." Guard members shake hands with the escort and then the casket is transported to where it needs to go.

Nora, 58, asked her husband what makes him so dedicated to a job that helps soldiers and their families.

"The number one reason is it's the right thing to do," Brian said. "These folks have made the ultimate sacrifice and the least we can do is take care of them."

Brian and Nora's eldest of three sons is an active-duty member of the Air Force and has served two deployments to Afghanistan and one in Turkey.

"Heaven forbid should something ever happen to our son, I would hope that whoever's caring for him would care for him with the love and respect and the honor that I would care for their sons and daughters," Brian said.

He thanked his wife for being a patient, staunch supporter of his work in the Honor Guard.

"I know sometimes it gets trying when you're sitting in the cell phone lot for three hours past my shift, or coming in early or coming in on days off, but I have never once heard you complain and I truly appreciate that," he told Nora.

Brian's father served 21 years in the Air Force with a tour of Vietnam. Although Brian himself never served in the military, he said, "I tell people this is my way of serving and I'm just humbled beyond belief to be a small part of that."

"Some people say they have a calling in life," he said. "I guess I found mine."

Audio produced forMorning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall. NPR's Emma Bowman adapted this interview for the Web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org .

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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