May 26, 2017
By Chaplain Laura Adelia, Lt Col, USAF (Retired)
For many of us, Memorial Day weekend is the weekend that kicks off summer. A time to gather with friends and family, have barbecues, celebrations, and a long weekend. But as we know, there is much more to Memorial Day…much, much more.
Not to be confused with Veteran’s Day, which honors all our military veterans, Memorial Day is the day we remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice while serving our country.
As a chaplain who served in the US Air Force & Reserves for 26 years, Memorial Day brings to mind invocations, memorial services and other special services. But one ceremony especially sticks out in my mind. The “Ramp Ceremony.”
Every time a service member dies in a deployed setting like Iraq, Afghanistan, or in any combat zone, a “ramp ceremony” is conducted for the fallen soldier / airman / marine / sailor, which honors the service member before their remains are flown home.
Just seeing a ramp ceremony is something you never forget. Being part of one, even more so.
Before the aircraft takes off to head back home to the U.S., soldiers and airmen gather on the tarmac toward the rear side of the aircraft. The ramp ceremony is held on the back door of the aircraft, where it opens downward, creating a ramp into the back of the aircraft. The ceremony is led by a military chaplain and eight soldiers or airmen who carry the casket across the tarmac into the plane. As the casket is being carried toward the aircraft, the soldiers and airmen on the tarmac make a corridor and “present arms” (salute) their fallen comrade. The mood is solemn. There is no band, there is no pomp. Just silence.
Prayers are said. A U.S. flag is draped over the casket, and the aircraft takes off on its long flight home.
Photo: U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik
A ramp ceremony is also held when the plane reaches its destination airbase in the U.S. I remember one such arrival when I was stationed at Luke AFB. An airman was killed in Afghanistan, and his remains were arriving at Luke. It was July, and yes it was hot. Very hot. Most of the base was assembled out there in the blazing sun, waiting for the jet to arrive. Hundreds of us were assembled out on that tarmac, but when we saw the plane in the sky, it suddenly became very quiet.
I was not the chaplain on duty that day, so I watched among the ranks as the plane landed. Another chaplain stood with the family as the plane taxied up to where they were standing. The casket was carried out of the plane and to the hearse. The family was crying, and the chaplain on duty was next to them to help them through this difficult time.
When I was deployed to an airbase in the Middle East, I prayed many times with air crews before they took off on their missions flying over Iraq and Afghanistan. We would form a circle, and pray together. I prayed for their protection and that they would make it back to our base safely.
Most of us got to come home from our various deployments and combat tours and live to tell about it. But many, as we know, do not.
So, in the midst of all of the barbecues, celebrations and fun this weekend, please take a moment of silence to remember those who have fought and died to defend us, our country, and our freedoms.
Let us pray…
As we pause to lift our hearts and minds in prayer, let us be mindful of those who have laid down their lives in service of their country. O God, we ask your strength, that we might dedicate ourselves to protecting your kingdom of peace and justice among nations. Let us give thanks for the many blessings of freedom which we possess, purchased at the cost of many lives and sacrifices. Fill us with courage to fulfill our tasks, and in no way break faith with the fallen. We commend these fallen to your mercy and ask that you give them eternal rest. This we ask and pray in your name. Amen.
[Prayer from “Refuge and Strength-Prayers for the Military and Their Families” Church Publishing, 2008.] [Laura Adelia is an Episcopal priest and served as a chaplain in the USAF and Reserves for 26 years. She retired from the military last summer as a Lt Col.]