I don’t know much about Army Specialist Justin L. Odonohoe, but I know enough about him and his family to feel very good about America. Until recently, Justin was a cavalry scout with the 10th Mountain Division, serving in Afghanistan.
A few weeks ago, I flew him and his younger brother, Kyle, from Chicago back to their parent’s home in San Diego. Kyle is an Ensign in the Navy who’s finishing up Naval flight training at Pensacola -- an accomplishment of great note that otherwise would have captured a lot of attention on this day (especially since he was wearing a full Navy dress uniform on an airliner, a somewhat rare sight.) Justin, however, was the focus of our interest on this day.
Justin’s impact on my life happened unexpectedly. The Captain and I knew he was onboard, and we knew of his circumstances, but we didn’t talk about him much during the flight. In our private thoughts, we pondered Justin and other brave soldiers like him who fight our nation’s battles so bravely and willingly.
We touched down in San Diego, a little nervous for Justin and his brother, knowing their reunion with their parents would be emotional. We did not, however, expect to participate in something extraordinary.
The Captain and I finished our post-flight checklists and gathered our bags. We stashed them on the jetway and, mostly out of curiosity, walked down the steps to ground level.
There, in the deepening light of dusk, we watched as Kyle stood at attention near the tail of our 757. Beside him were six TSA agents and a cadre of various station personnel, military representatives, and observers. In a few minutes, the young men’s parents drove up and joined the small group.
Kyle, maintaining perfect military bearing, saluted his older brother’s flag-draped casket as the TSA personnel lifted it off the belt-loader and solemnly moved it to the waiting hearse. Kyle's subsequent, tearful embrace with his parents said everything that could ever need to be said. Killed in the crash of a Chinook helicopter on a mountainside in Afghanistan, Justin was home at last. His “homecoming” affected me in a way that I have difficulty explaining. The event was sad, for obvious reasons, but for me it was also an extraordinary honor to have provided him with aerial passage home. I wish I could have done more, but I had only one skill to offer this brave young soldier and his family. I’m not a diplomat, so I couldn’t have worked to secure an end to the war before his accident happened. I’m not a helicopter mechanic, so I couldn’t have inspected the chopper one last time before they set out on their final flight. I’m not a corpsman, so I couldn’t have been on-scene to attend to injuries. I’m no longer an Air Force pilot, so I couldn’t have provided Search-and-Rescue or Close-Air Support. However, I am an airline pilot, and I feel lucky that I was able to use my skills to at least bring him home one last time.
I’m proud of Justin and the sacrifice he made for all of us. I wish I could have known him.
I'm also proud of Kyle who, on that difficult day, epitomized the professionalism and steadfastness of our military. Our safety and security are truly in good hands.
I'm a professional pilot, videographer, writer and entrepreneur. I'm also a fan of technology used for good, not evil. I think uplifting music, photography, and video just might be able to save the world.