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Small airports welcome home fallen soldiers
OGDEN - Some days are busier than others, but little separates one from the next at Ogden-Hinckley Airport.
The bums - that's a term of endearment around this small municipal landing spot - arrive just past dawn, bellying up to the diner counter at The Auger Inn, where Irma Andrae has been filling up their coffee mugs for 30 years. Outside, a never-ending parade of small planes drops through as helicopters from a local flight school take to the air, circle round, and return.
But Thursday was different. Dropping in to gas up his plane, Steve Terry looked out his cockpit window to see two rows of soldiers in dress uniforms lined up on the tarmac.
"As soon as I got down I called up to the tower to find out what was going on," Terry said.
The soldiers, he learned, were part of an Army detail with orders to welcome home the body of Eric Sieger, an 18-year-old from Layton killed in Iraq on Feb. 1.
It was a scene new to those at Ogden-Hinckley, but one taking place with increasing frequency at similar municipal airports across the country.
Since Jan. 1, when provisions of a little-known section of a federal spending bill took effect, the military has been delivering home the bodies of slain service members by small charter jets rather than in the cargo bellies of larger passenger planes.
In Utah and other large and predominantly rural states, the change has meant grieving families don't have to travel as far to welcome home their fallen loved ones.
"The large airports have been very accommodating," said Defense Department spokesman Stewart Upton, "but the smaller airports have allowed the families more intimacy, more time to observe the moment."
Indeed, that appeared to be the case on Thursday afternoon as the Dassault Falcon carrying Sieger's body touched down before the slain soldier's family had arrived.
At the Salt Lake City International Airport, through which most fallen service members have been delivered home in the past, the ceremonial removal of Sieger's casket from a plane carrying the luggage of hundreds of other passengers likely couldn't have waited. At Ogden-Hinckley, the small plane idled until the soldier's family arrived.
And rather than fighting the noise and jet exhaust of the tarmac at a large and impersonal airport, the family stood at a relatively quiet place - one of some significance to their departed soldier.
It was the very airport where Sieger had taken his first flight as a Civil Air Patrol cadet, about four years earlier.
"It was nice for us to come here," said Sieger's mother, Krista. "We have such nice memories of this place."
Pilot Mike Kiser, who flew the jet carrying Sieger's remains, said he is pleased to be able to offer such families a little bit of peace.
"It used to be that they would treat them more like cargo or bags," said Kiser, who exclusively has been flying the remains of slain service members for the past month. Now, he said, the fallen are treated as they should be: As first-class passengers.
Watching the scene from the window of her diner, Andrae was struck by the quiet that settled over her "bums," many of whom are former military pilots.
"It was somber, very somber," she said. "No one was talking or nothing, just taking in the moment."
In a place where little changes from day to day, everything changed. And, Andrae said, it was an honor.