In the saddest of homecomings, Marine First Lt. Travis Manion returned to Pennsylvania yesterday, his flag-draped casket borne by a military helicopter to a somber ceremony at Willow Grove Naval Air Station.
A six-man Marine honor guard stood by as the helicopter eased down from the afternoon sky. It carefully transferred Manion's body to a gray hearse waiting outside Hangar 680 - a ritual seldom shown in public.
"Welcome home, warrior," Brig. Gen. R. David Papak, commanding general of the Fourth Marine Aircraft Wing, told more than 200 onlookers invited by Manion's family. "It's absolutely an honor to be a part of your homecoming."
Manion, 26, was killed Sunday afternoon in Iraq, shot in Anbar province near Fallujah. The Doylestown resident will be buried tomorrow.
Manion had begun his second tour of duty Dec. 26, as the war approached its fifth year. By then it had claimed nearly 3,000 American lives, reordered national political power, and even prompted the revision of the process by which his body was delivered from Iraq.
Yesterday's transfer of the flag-draped silver casket was a scene the Pentagon has often taken pains to shield from public view during the Iraq war. It was displayed at the request of Manion's family, who cast the day as a celebration of his return.
"His passion and dedication are an inspiration to us, even as we mourn his passing from this Earth," the family said in a statement.
The handling of military remains has been a delicate subject in the last year. Family complaints of loved ones' caskets left unattended in commercial baggage areas prompted new regulations.
Since Jan. 1, military and military-contracted planes have supplanted commercial aircraft as the primary carriers of the war dead. New policy also requires that an armed forces member of equal or higher rank be with the body constantly until its arrival.
The long journey home for America's Iraq war dead begins with removal from the battlefield to a mortuary in Iraq, and ceremonial mourning by comrades.
Many units hold an emotional final roll call. A first sergeant will call the names of the soldier's squad - with each answering but the deceased, who is called once, twice, three times, with no response.
Taps is played, accompanied by a gun salute, and the troops file by the soldier's helmet atop his rifle, with dog tags hanging down. Behind it are his boots and a picture of him.
A final salute is rendered as arrangements are made for the trip ahead. A military or civilian mortuary affairs specialist carefully collects and wraps the soldier's personal belongings - rings, watches, wallets, photos of spouses and parents.
And the remains are placed in a transfer case covered by an American flag or an "Honor Cover" with a rendering of the flag on top and the Defense Department seal on each end.
Capt. Christina Robertson, 32, a former Burlington Township resident now in Wilmington, has flown the nation's dead from Iraq to Kuwait and recalls the honor afforded them.
"It's like they are tied by cords to all those who have died before them. You want to make sure you treat them with the utmost respect," said Robertson, a C-130 pilot with the Delaware Air National Guard's 166th Airlift Wing in New Castle. "They could be your father, your mother, your sister or your brother.
"You think about how you want them to come home. Everybody should come home walking, but if they can't, then you play a small part in bringing them back to their families."
Robertson recalled loadmasters calling everyone to attention as the transfer cases were taken from her plane after landing in Kuwait.
"The soldiers are being carried off with beautiful red, white and blue colors draped over the coffin and the sand in the background," she said. "Those are moments you don't forget.
"There is a lot of emotion wrapped up in this. Even if you don't know the person, there is still a bond. This person will not be coming home to hug a child or to have a birthday."
Each branch of the military service has its own customs. The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps assign a uniformed member to assist the family, while the Air Force provides assistance through a full-time civilian casualty assistance representative and a family liaison officer.
At Dover Air Force Base, where America's war dead are given autopsies and prepared for burial, "there is a dignified, respectful transfer," said Air Force Lt. Christina Sukach, a base spokeswoman.
Every flag-draped transfer case is removed by hand by an honor guard.
"All military members render a three-count salute for each transfer case" as it is moved to a vehicle that will take it to the mortuary, said Maj. Stewart Upton, a military spokesman.
The deceased are moved to a room where positive identification is made by fingerprints, dental records or DNA. The cause of death is determined and embalming is performed. Then the remains are dressed in a new uniform and provided to the funeral home.
"The overall average time it takes for the service member's remains to be moved from the battlefield to Dover is about 2.3 days," said Upton.
From Dover, Manion's body was flown to Willow Grove aboard a Marine helicopter.
His father, Thomas, a colonel in the Marine Reserve, stood in full uniform and saluted his son's arrival. His mother, Jannette, wept briefly, hand on her heart, while supporters held signs bearing messages such as "Welcome Home Travis" and "Thank You Travis."
Delaware National Guard Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Matwey, a spokesman for the 166th Airlift Wing in New Castle, said the whole system of bringing home the fallen troops had improved. The military has "learned how to do it right and bring them back to their families."
"Everything is done with dignity, taste and honor. It is a beautiful thing."
To sign a guest book for Travis Manion, go to http://go.philly.com/travismanionEndText