Florida sheriffs give 'fallen heroes' last ride home
By Staff Sgt. Angela Ruiz, 6th Mobility Wing Public Affairs
/ Published July 20, 2012
MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFNS) -- The Hillsborough County Sheriff's office, in Florida, in partnership with members of MacDill Air Force Base, conducted a fallen hero's dignified transfer here for the second day in a row July 18.
Over the years, service members have given the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and, since 2009, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department has made it their responsibility to see that all fallen heroes returning home are met by fellow brothers-in-arms and are honorably escorted to their final resting place.
The Sheriff's office has conducted more than 14 of these honorable escorts.
When the fallen heroes land on the flightline, this bittersweet reunion is the first their families will have with their loved one since they departed for their deployment. The sheriff's office supports the families in their grieving process by providing a minimum of 20 motorcycle deputies and six support vehicles to escort them in the procession.
The sheriff's office coordinates with multiple agencies in the state depending on where the hero will be laid to rest, making their last ride home an honorable one. For Army Spc. Clarence Williams III and Army Staff Sgt. Ricardo Seija, the most recent heroes escorted home, the sheriff's office cleared a path through four county lines.
Williams a native of Brooksville, Fla. and Seija a native of Tampa Fla., died July 8, of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked their unit in Maidan Shahr, Wardak province, Afghanistan, with an improvised explosive device.
"This is a service that we provide only if the family wishes, and we've never had a family not accept the offer" said J.D. Callaway, Director of Community Affairs, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
For Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee, who's proudly served the sheriff's department for over 35 years and is a parent to a military member who has served two tours in Afghanistan, providing this service is very close to his heart.
"I think that it's important that our office and our community recognize that there is a real price being paid " said Gee, "These are real people with real families that are affected, we're not ever going to let one of these service members come home without being paid a great honor for the sacrifice that they've made."
As the procession departs the flightline, the streets are silent, lined with service members standing at attention and rendering a final salute. Traveling through the city of Tampa people wave their flags, hold their right hand over their hearts and make signs to show their sympathy while the local fire departments, port authority and even helicopters line the path showing support in their own unique way while also securing a safe path with the motorcycle riders who drive ahead to stop traffic.
For the deputies that volunteer to conduct this honorable detail, some memories will stay with them forever.
"Once we escorted a fallen hero out to a funeral home; he had two young children, and our honor guard had the honor of carrying the fallen hero from the hearse that day," Callaway said. "As the widow and children watched the honor guard carry the flag draped casket past them, the little boy looked up at his mother and said, 'Is that daddy?' That one I'll never forget."
The sheriff's department provides every fallen hero's honorable escort free of charge to the families. They also produce a video of the procession for the families and the general public.
"The families really cherish those [videos]. I've had a lot of families call me and tell me how much they appreciate it. Sometimes they don't even remember the day" Gee said. "We're doing this because it needs to be done and we have the ability. But it's the community, that's what makes it special for the families to see the community come out. We see ourselves as the facilitators of that."