The somber task of honoring the fallen

The aluminum boxes, in ordered rows, are bound by clean white straps on freshly scrubbed pallets. American flags are draped evenly over the boxes. Uniformed honor guards form on either side of the pallets as they move from the tarmac to the entryways of the cargo planes. There are prayers, salutes and hands on hearts. Then the caskets are carefully placed in cargo holds for a flight to Germany.

In recent weeks, military and civilian contract crews have loaded scores of these caskets onto planes departing the U.S. military area of Kuwait International Airport, south of Kuwait City. And the rituals are repeated over and over again.

"The way everyone salutes with such emotion and intensity and respect. The families would be proud to see their sons and daughters saluted like that," says Tami Silicio, a contract employee from the Seattle area who works the night shift at the cargo terminal.

For U.S. troops, April has been the worst month of this war, with at least 94 service members killed by hostile fire.

"So far this month, almost every night we send them home," Silicio said. "... It's tough. Very tough."

The remains arrive at the Kuwait airport accompanied by a soldier, sometimes a comrade from the same unit. On one occasion, the comrade was also the victim's father. Another time, the comrade was the wife.

Silicio knows what it is like to lose a child. The mother of three sons suffered the death of her oldest to a brain tumor when he was 19. "It kind of helps me to know what these mothers are going through, and I try to watch over their children as they head home," she said in an interview conducted by telephone and e-mail.

Silicio, who grew up in Seattle and Edmonds, is used to hard work. After a decade of events-decorating work in the Seattle area, she went to war-torn Kosovo, where she worked on the transportation crew for a contractor during the NATO peacekeeping mission in 1999.

"Nothing scares her," said Silicio's mother, Leona Silicio.

Tami Silicio first went to work at the Kuwait airport in March 2003, before the start of the war. She then returned home but found it tough to get a job in an economy still sour from the recession. So by last October, she was back in Kuwait and her airport job for a contractor that works with the military to coordinate and process airport cargo.

The crews help move thousands of tons of supplies onto the Iraq-bound flights that support the U.S. military forces. Much of Silicio's job is handling paperwork to track the cargo. But she also might drive equipment to help load cargo, or make a quick run to a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet to secure a few savory buckets to offer a soldier just in from Iraq.

Around Christmas, she helped handle a rash of incoming cargo from the United States — candy, shaving cream, razors, baby wipes and other items in care packages headed to Iraq. "Thank God, no fruitcakes," she e-mailed her mother. "The soldiers would just give it to the Iraqis, anyway."

Just after Christmas, there was a marathon of work as medical supplies to aid Iranian earthquake victims moved through Kuwait.

And now, the crews are helping to coordinate the departures of dozens of U.S. civilian contractors who, with the recent violence and kidnappings, no longer want to risk being in the region.

More time also is devoted to the dead. The fallen come into Kuwait on flights from Baghdad. Before they are loaded onto the outbound aircraft, soldiers in full uniform form parallel lines along the tarmac. There is a prayer. Then loaders lift up the coffins, which are joined on board by soldiers who share the final journey. After going first to Germany, according to the military, they fly to Dover Air Base in Delaware.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, photographs of coffins as they return to the United States have been tightly restricted. And few such photographs have been published during the conflict in Iraq.

On the April day depicted in the photograph that accompanies this story, more than 20 coffins went into a cargo plane bound for Germany. Silicio says those who lost loved ones in Iraq should understand the care and devotion that civilians and military crews dedicate to the task of returning the soldiers home.

Silicio says she shares her motto, "Purpose and Cause," with colleagues who appear worn down from the job: "We serve a purpose and we have a cause — that's what living life is all about."

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or