Whenever a plane touches down at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to bring a fallen soldier back home, a group of Airport Police officers stands ready to pay its respects upon the arrival.
The law enforcement officers of the Los Angeles Airport Police Honor Guard Detail line up in a military-style formation on the airfield as the plane arrives, awaiting to salute the remains of a U.S. soldier who has given his or her life in service of the country.
As the casket is unloaded to be viewed by grieving family members and loved ones, members of the Honor Guard Detail make sure that an American flag is draped across and act as escorts during a procession, all done as a way to provide a dignified arrival. Members of the detail see the field-side ceremony as a chance to honor the soldiers, who may have died fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan or another area of conflict, during the moment they return home to their families.
“We’re trying to bring honor and dignity to a very tragic incident,” said Airport Police officer Thomas Dye, a seven-year officer who established the airport’s Honor Guard Detail for the return of fallen soldiers.
“It brings honor to the Airport Police that we’re there and we care. We want to let (the families) know that it’s a privilege to be there and we want to make it as dignified as possible.”
Dye, who joined the Airport Police after serving 28 years with the U.S. Navy and earning the rank of master chief petty officer, re-initiated the honor guard in May 2005 following the death of Tommy Scott, the only Airport Police officer killed in the line of duty. Relying on his Navy training, Dye organized and trained fellow officers for the honor guard at Scott’s funeral.
Shortly after, Dye said he noticed how the remains of soldiers killed in action would arrive at the airport with military escorts but without a formal ceremony on the airfield. Los Angeles Airport Police Officers Association President Marshall McClain said police wanted to ensure that a proper service was done for the fallen service men and women and the airlines offered tremendous support.
“We knew that all of us at LAWA (Los Angeles World Airports), not just the police, were concerned about the dignity of the families and the honor of the fallen soldier who had given their life, and that we needed to bring honor back to the arrival of the families,” Dye explained.
Dye received authorization from Airport Police senior command to coordinate with the airlines at LAX to implement the honor guard. The Navy veteran has organized and trained the group in the disciplines and protocols of a military detail in order to be sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Defense for the service.
Approximately 12 Airport Police officers take part in the field-side honors, with assistance from representatives of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and police and fire departments. The detail conducts a ceremony whenever it is notified of the planned arrival of remains by a local casualty officer, but it has recently performed two to three services on average per month, Dye said.
TSA spokeswoman Suzanne Trevino said the agency has about 32 members who have participated in the LAX honor guard and other similar ceremonies, and they are proud to recognize the sacrifice of those who have given their lives for the country.
“We certainly feel it’s an honor to assist the families and show our respect for the fallen soldiers,” she said. “It’s a way for us to really be the first contact for the families as they begin the grieving process.”
Having Airport Police involved in the arrival ceremony allows them to give something back to service members who risked their lives, McClain said. The officers want to pay their respects, while ensuring that the American flag is on display, he noted.
“The part we hold close to us is that we want to make sure that before the coffin comes out, ‘Old Glory’ is draped across it,” McClain said.
For his efforts to establish the LAX honor guard, Dye has received recent commendations from the Westchester Elks Lodge during its Law Enforcement Appreciation Night, and from Airport Police Chief George Centeno at a meeting of the city Board of Airport Commissioners.
Centeno said the department appreciates and respects Dye’s hard work and dedication to the honor guard.
“Officer Dye has provided support and given a sense of honor and dignity to the families, who otherwise would have received the remains of their loved ones without ceremony,” Centeno said. “His actions have brought recognition, respect and gratitude from several branches of the armed forces, as well as the gratitude of the families of the service men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice in protecting our country.”
McClain pointed out how Dye joined the police force as a rookie after spending nearly three decades in the Navy and called his recognition well deserved.
“Tom doesn’t do anything for awards or medals; he just sees a need and says ‘let’s get it done,’” McClain said.
Calling the return of a fallen soldier’s body a private moment for the family, Dye said the honor guard members are proud to do whatever they can to support the families on their path to closure.
“I want them to know that we all understand and we care that their child has given their life in service of their country,” he said. “This is a very private, personal moment and to get permission to share that with them is quite an honor.”