Miami's Honor Given to Arrival of Fall Soldiers Gains Attention

Feb. 10 -- The body of Master Sgt. Shawn A. Richardson arrived at Miami International Airport an hour behind schedule. It was 1:30 a.m.

He was greeted by firetrucks and a row of Miami-Dade police officers, an impromptu honor guard that carefully draped the American flag over his casket and escorted the sergeant from the runway.

The brief ceremony passed quietly, but not unnoticed.

Touched, American Airlines Capt. Gary Blied wrote an essay and e-mailed it to some friends. They forwarded it to others.

Blied's moving words spread quickly around the world. Thousands of e-mails popped into his inbox. Tearful phone calls came from as far away as Sri Lanka. Church bulletins and newspapers reprinted the letter.

Now, officials may implement a special designation for flights carrying fallen military personnel. And special decorated carts will be used for their caskets at some commercial airports.

Capt. Blied says of his e-mail: "Nobody has been more surprised than me. I've been flying over 20 years. I've never seen a reception quite like this."

About a year ago, Miami-Dade airport officers began noticing military personnel trying to get on the airfield as the caskets were unloaded from planes.

"Sometimes, there wasn't any family. They wouldn't send a hearse," said recently retired Miami-Dade Sgt. Kevin Dougherty, who led the effort. "Or they were going to put the casket on a luggage cart."

Said Miami-Dade Sgt. Mike Kirkland: "I was in the Army. I would hate for someone to treat me like that if I was deceased."

SPURRED INTO ACTION

Dougherty and officers coordinate with the Transportation Security Administration and American Airlines to find out arrival times of bodies.

Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue trucks spray water in ceremonial arches over arriving planes. K9 officers sweep hearses for security.

Airport and federal customs officers form impromptu honor guards to greet caskets, covered with a U.S. flag they bought themselves.

Bodies can arrive on short notice. Officers often stay to help on their own time.

Once a soldier's body arrived, but the connecting flight to Nicaragua was not to leave until the next day. His casket was stored in a warehouse, guarded all night by officers. "Our guys switched out every two hours until he left," Kirkland said.

How the servicemen dies is irrelevant. On a recent ceremony, a Navy seaman named Takuma J. Heath, killed in a motorcycle accident, arrived from Orlando.

"We really don't ask their names," Sgt. Rudy Espinosa said. Some were killed in combat, others were not. "We just do it out of appreciation for the fallen heroes."

The ceremonies were done discreetly until last summer, when a short letter arrived to Miami-Dade Police Director Robert Parker.

"These actions, conducted without fanfare, are both humbling and inspiring. This represents the very best of America," said the letter, signed by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker and Kenneth Preston, Sergeant Major of the Army.

A NATURAL LEADER

Master Sgt. Shawn A. Richardson, Florida son, second-generation Air Force machinist, dog lover, was born at Eglin Air Force Base on Oct. 10, 1971. His father, Charles, also an Air Force machinist, retired a master sergeant.

"He was always kind of joking he was going to outrank Dad," said his mother, Ophelia Lee.

Fond of animals, Richardson toyed with becoming a veterinarian. Instead, in January 1990, he joined the force. His airmen at Kadena Air Force base in Okinawa, Japan called him a natural leader.

Said airman Josh Cordoso, 22: " 'He was the only person who ever gave me recognition. I'd never been up for any awards but he put me up for professional of the month."

On Nov. 25, Richardson told his wife, Maria, he was going to take a ride on his motorcycle before sunset.

Less than a mile away from base, Richardson -- in full protective gear -- lost control and hit his head on the concrete base of a fence. His helmet had slipped off.

NOTES ON THE ARRIVAL

On Dec. 3, Captain Blied was told Richardson would be aboard his flight from Chicago to Miami.

Pre-flight: "I went down onto the ramp and found the long box appropriately stationed off to the side in a luggage cart. The curtains on the cart were pulled. I spent a few moments in prayer with him."

After touchdown in Miami, the plane was met by a Miami-Dade patrol car.

"As we approached the ramp we noticed the lights. There were at least a half-dozen fire trucks, no less than 15 police cars and countless other vehicles.

They were all parked in rows with their lights flashing. As we taxied our aircraft to the gate, the fire trucks saluted our arrival with crossed streams of water shooting over the aircraft."

He looked up into the plane's windows. "Not one of our passengers had moved until our fallen soldier had departed the aircraft."

Capt. Blied typed his account and e-mailed it. Within three days, he said, he was averaging 100 e-mails a day. It appeared in several military and Midwest newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune.

In all, Blied received more than 2,500 e-mails. Phone calls, too. "I can't tell you how many people have called me and were literally crying on the phone," he said.

The essay, which appears on scores of military blogs and websites, reached a Federal Aviation Authority control tower specialist in Rochester, N.Y., where a furor erupted in December when a woman complained she saw a military casket on a luggage cart.

The controller, Brian Blazey, sent the e-mail and a proposal to Washington that would create a designation -- FSP, or "Fallen Service Personnel -- to be added to a flight plan to give airports time to prepare for their arrival.

Now, the FAA is considering officially adopting the designation, a spokeswoman said.

Also, Blied said, American Airlines is painting luggage carts with the five seals of the military, to transport caskets at airports. "The cleanest, best-looking luggage carts we've got," he said.

'THE SILENT MAJORITY'

In late December, Sgt. Russell Barrett, who was mentored by Richardson, walked into the machine shop at Kadena Air Force base. Here is where Richardson oversaw a crew of about 30 machinist and welders from the 18th Equipment Maintenance Squadron fashioning parts for fighter jets and other aircraft.

Barrett held in his hand a printout. It was Capt. Blied's e-mail. He began reading.

"Every now and then you see it: the silent majority that makes this country the best in the world."

A world away from Miami International Airport, his men wept.

Copyright (c) 2007, The Miami Herald Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News. For reprints, email , call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.



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