Every so often, a somber group of Delta employees gathers on the tarmac at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to greet the arrival of a plane with an important delivery in the cargo hold — the remains of a military veteran.
The Delta Honor Guard, as the group of volunteers calls itself, holds a brief ceremony amid the bustle of ground operations at the airport as the casket is unloaded from the belly of the plane.
Volunteers in blue jumpsuits line up holding flags — including one for each branch of service and an American flag — and dip them to a 45-degree angle as the casket emerges. Afterward, they read a prayer, give the escort a special Delta Honor Guard coin to be passed onto the next of kin, and the casket is transferred to a special flag-painted cart.
It’s an effort started back in 2005 by Thomas Schenk, who was a Delta baggage handler and military veteran. After Schenk left Delta, another baggage handler, Brian McConnell, took over coordination of the ceremonies. He has been organizing the group of volunteers from various departments at Delta for the past 2½ years.
McConnell didn’t serve in the military, but he has a very personal connection to the armed forces: His father was a veteran, and his son is serving in Afghanistan in the Air Force.
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“Growing up in a military household, I was always taught to respect those who provide us safety and security,” McConnell said.
McConnell, who has worked for Delta for 27 years, said the most meaningful Honor Guard ceremony he has coordinated was his own father’s final trip home last year, with his son as an escort.
Even now, when McConnell talks about the ceremony, “it still affects me,” he said.
And when handling the remains of veterans who he has never met and knows little about, “I still get nervous every time I do one. I have to catch my breath,” he said.
Though some veterans among Delta’s work force have reservations about participating, after they join, “it’s like therapy to them. They’re the first ones there,” McConnell said. “It’s absolutely from the heart. Nobody gets anything, nobody expects anything.”
After Schenk started the Honor Guard, a veterans group contributed flags and other items. Since then, Delta has given financial assistance to the group, paying for new flags, holsters, hats, a caisson-shaped cart painted with the American flag and the Delta Honor Guard coin. Employees in other parts of Delta — from the paint shop to the maintenance operation – also pitch in whenever help is needed with equipment.
The Honor Guard now has multiple carts in addition to the flag-painted one that was specially designed for transport of the veterans’ caskets.
“Delta supports this wholeheartedly,” said Kay Smith, a coordinator for Delta’s operation at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Before the flight arrives, to help those volunteering for the ceremony, McConnell does research online to try to figure out the deceased’s branch of service and where he or she came from. “The guys like to know what were the circumstances,” McConnell said.
While an escort accompanies the casket, there are often no family members present.
Though most of the caskets the Honor Guard handles are veterans — including some from wars decades ago whose remains were recently identified at a laboratory in Hawaii — sometimes, Delta handles the remains of active military personnel who were killed in action. Recently, the volunteers handled the remains of someone who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
When an Honor Guard awaits a flight, a crew member on the plane may make an announcement onboard. Passengers on one side of the plane sometimes watch the ceremony from above, as the casket in a nondescript container is unloaded and the flag ceremony begins. But in other cases, passengers may never know that the plane is carrying the remains of a veteran.
The Delta Honor Guard conducts an average of five or six ceremonies a week, on arriving or departing flights. Often, the casket is connected onto another Delta flight to its final destination.
Human remains — “HR,” as they are called in airline lingo — are not uncommon cargo for airlines, whether civilian or military. Delta has a department called Delta Cares that works specifically with funeral directors and family members arranging the transportation of human remains. Delta Cares is one of the many departments at Delta that the Honor Guard coordinates with to plan for ceremonies.
“I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful tribute to the fallen — very respectful and very meaningful,” said Mary Lou Austin, CEO of USO Georgia, which has a program for volunteers to escort families of the fallen.
Delta employees at some other airports have also started their own, smaller-scale Honor Guards, including Boston, Minneapolis and Norfolk, Va. Other airline Honor Guards are also in operation at airports across the country, including an American Airlines Honor Guard at Hartsfield-Jackson and other airports. McConnell has gotten queries from other airlines’ employees seeking to start their own Honor Guard operations at other airports.
“It’s kind of taken on a life of its own,” McConnell said. “Especially in the last year and a half, it’s really taken off.”