We were veterans of one war or another and had come to pay our respects to a fallen soldier.
I have not done that in 40 years.
When I was in the Army, it was required for the person being saluted to acknowledge and return the salute. This was not done. I did not take it personally, nor did the 143 other people who were with me. We were veterans of one war or another and had come to pay our respects to a fallen soldier. I did not know him but in a way I knew the kind of person he was.
I had served with guys just like him in Vietnam. I was 20 years old at the time. Jake Velloza was 22 when a sniper ended his life outside the town of Mosul, Iraq.
There was no “welcome home” committee for me when I stepped off the plane at Travis Air Force base on a cold November day in 1967. No fanfare or American flags held high with their stars and stripes supported by a light afternoon breeze. It did not bother me any.
It was important for me to be there when Jake arrived at San Francisco International Airport by charter aircraft.
His flag draped coffin was slowly unloaded and met by a well-disciplined Honor Guard.
To say it was a sad vision to mentally capture would be a gross understatement. I watched his parents drape the flagged receptacle with their bodies, the father not wanting to leave, or believe, until he was ushered away by family members. Like my other comrades, I held back my tears, feeling unworthy to be part of something so personal. In a way I was paying respect to my own fallen friends who were owed such a return but never received one.
We mounted our flag bearing motorcycles and formed a procession to follow Jake from the San Francisco airport to his transitory resting spot in Petaluma. The road would lead us under multitudes of overpasses with hundreds of other Americans taking time out to forget about their own problems and honor one person who paid the ultimate price for service to his country.
The reality of war will always cost more then the money it takes to fight one.
As I rode, I thought about how one day Jake I and would meet and my salute would be returned.