Many years ago, I was working as a TWA flight attendant on a flight out of Kansas City to Albuquerque, N.M.
I had a young military courier on the flight, sitting in the last row of coach in full dress uniform. This was unheard of back then, as the Vietnam War was in full swing. Military personnel did not wear anything that resembled a uniform because of public harassment.
This young man was quiet and very thoughtful, looking out the window of the aircraft. I spoke to him and asked if he was headed home. He said, “No, I’m escorting a soldier home.”
When we landed in Albuquerque, I said my goodbyes to him and continued with my on-ground duties. I looked out the airplane window and saw a draped coffin being taken off the aircraft. I sat down and watched as I did so many times in my 30 years of flying. Some of the baggage handlers saluted and some just continued with unloading the airplane.
I looked at my wrist and wondered if this was the soldier whose name I wore engraved on my silver bracelet. Back then, many flight attendants wore silver bracelets engraved with a soldier’s name who was missing or a prisoner of war.
Some time later, we took off from Albuquerque to Los Angeles. Now this story starts to get really interesting. This particular aircraft was then supposed to go non-stop to New York’s Kennedy airport but instead, we were headed back to Albuquerque under a new flight number.
Lo and behold, boarding the aircraft in Albuquerque was the same military courier, who was now carrying an American flag. He sat in the same seat and his demeanor was the same, looking out the window. I asked him why he was carrying the flag and why it was not given to the soldier’s family.
He said, “This soldier had no family.” He asked if I would like his burial flag.
I felt stunned and saddened, but I was also very honored. I took the flag and asked what the soldier’s name was. He told me Pvt. John Sanchez and that he was 19. I wrote his name down and put the flag in my suitcase. After landing in Kansas City, I said my goodbyes to the courier and thanked him for the flag. With that, we never saw each other again.
Through the years on certain holidays, I flew John’s flag but I worried it would get dirty and torn, so I bought a flag case and displayed it in my living room, where it still is today.
In 2005, the Vietnam Memorial Wall traveling display came to Parkville. I decided to try to find John’s name on the wall, but there were so many, I didn’t know where to begin. A very nice gentleman approached me and asked if he could be of service to me. I told him my story about John and that I needed to find his name on the wall. He listened intently to my story, then he motioned and several gentlemen came over, who I soon learned were Vietnam veterans. He asked me to tell my story to them. There was not a dry eye among us.
Soon, they directed me to a trailer and said the information I was looking for could be found there. When I got to the trailer, I began to cry again and could not tell the lady what I wanted. I sat down to compose myself and thought about the long journey John and I have taken together. The stories I’ve told about him and how I came by his flag. So with some composure I gave the lady all the information I had on John — his first and last name, city and state he was from and his age.
After a few minutes came a computer printout. He had been in the military four months when he was killed by small arms fire. He had turned 19 while serving his country.
The lady asked if I was a relative and I said no. Then I thought, well, he could have been my brother, my father, my husband or maybe my son. John had become part of my family over the last 35 years. What is for sure, he was never forgotten. Not for one day! So, John Sanchez, I salute you, I thank you and I will never forget the day you came into my life.
Hopefully, we’ll meet again some day.
Vivian Hatfield (1964 - 1995) served as a Flight Attendant, Flight Service Manager and Union Officer.