By Jim Sheeler, Rocky Mountain News
December 15, 2006
Chris Schneider © News
Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class John Dragneff walks down the conveyor belt after helping secure the casket of Christopher Anderson at Denver International Airport. "Even though we're best friends, this isn't for me," Dragneff said. "This is for the family." Anderson was killed Dec. 4 in Iraq.
The skinny sailor sat in the Philadelphia airport terminal in his deep-blue dress uniform, cracking his knuckles, shifting in his seat, waiting for his best friend.
A woman from the airline walked over and motioned for him to follow. She saw the nervous look on the sailor's face and stopped.
"Wait," she said. "Is this your first time doing this?"
"Yes, ma'am," the 22 year-old said, his voice cracking.
"Well, unfortunately, it's not the first time for me," she said. "Not even the first time this week."
She led him toward the gate and gave him a soft smile.
"You'll do fine," she said.
Inside the airport, the public-address system pumped out Peggy Lee's Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree. A nearby group of passengers loaded up their ski clothes, readying for a vacation. Suit-and-tied businessmen with premier privileges watched as the sailor was led in front of them all.
None of them knew his mission.
On board the nearly empty plane, a flight attendant was one of the first to shake his hand.
"I understand you're escorting today," he said. "Is this the fella from Longmont? I live in Boulder. I've been reading about him in the papers."
"Yes, sir," the sailor said in a warbled voice that sounded like an eighth-grader.
"I'm sure you'll do yourself and your service proud," the flight attendant said.
After speaking with the crew, the pilot walked over and offered his hand.
"I understand he was your friend," the captain said.
The sailor nodded. He carried his soft, white hat in his hands. The patch on his left shoulder signified his status as a Navy hospital corpsman.
The captain then looked at one of the crew members.
"Are there any seats in first class? I'd like to bring him up here."
After the sailor stowed his bags, the woman from the terminal walked him back out to the jetway, where he waited as the other passengers boarded the plane. As they filed past, some stole glances at him, some smiled at him, and he tried to smile back.
As the sailor waited, another flight attendant, a Vietnam veteran, walked over.
"Hello," he said, grasping the sailor's hand. "Thirty years ago, they didn't say thank you to us. I wanted to say thank you now."
The sailor nodded again and managed a grin. Then the chief of the ground crew opened the door to the stairs that led to the tarmac.
"OK," he said. "We're ready."
In cardboard box, a casket
Underneath a whining jet engine near the rear cargo hold, baggage workers lifted the tarp on a cart, and the sailor swallowed hard. He checked to see if the name on the cardboard box matched that of his best friend.
An American flag was printed atop the box, which encased the polished hardwood casket, protecting it during transit from Dover Air Force Base to the airport, and then to Denver, where the box would be removed before anyone saw it. On each end, the box was stamped with a large official seal of the Department of Defense.
The last time Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class John Dragneff saw his friend was the same day Hospital Corpsman Christopher Anderson left for Iraq. They talked endlessly that day, about taking care of each other's families, about taking care in general. That was, after all, what they had in common.
Often in restaurants, the waitperson would ask the sailors, "Are you brothers?" The first few times, they laughed it off. After a while, they started answering without hesitation, "Yes."
The two men had met at field medical training school, and they clicked right away. They soon studied together, went to the beach in Camp Lejeune, N.C., where Anderson surfed, and just generally hung out, talking about where life was headed for both of them.
More recently, they spent time talking about what it meant to hold somebody's life in your hands — and to lose it.
Tuesday afternoon, the young sailor stood on the chilly tarmac in Philadelphia. As the casket made its way up the conveyor belt, he snapped to attention, grasping his hands into fists, thumbs at the seams of his pants, trying to squeeze back the tears.
His eyes emptied as he brought his hand to his face in a salute, which he tried to hold steady until the casket disappeared into the plane's belly.
As he turned, the sailor's face melted, and he walked into the embrace of Pamela Andrus, the United Airlines service director. The ground manager took his other side, supporting him.
"I'm so sorry," Andrus said.
Together, they walked back up the stairs, into the plane, where a cheery flight attendant came over with several tissues plucked from the lavatory.
"You can cry," Christine Sullivan told him. "All of us want to send our love and blessings to you and be here for you.
"You're going to do great."
Corpsmen have long history
On Dec. 4, Chief Hospital Corpsman Kip Poggemeyer wasn't supposed to be in his office at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora. It was his day off, but the 37 year-old was busy trying to finish medical reports that would send another batch of Navy reservists from Colorado to Afghanistan.
Only last year, the Navy corpsman had returned from Marine Corps Air Station Al Asad in Iraq, the closest medical base to some of the heaviest fighting in the country — a base that shook with mortar attacks 26 times during his deployment.
Within his first week, he saw massive combat wounds while performing the same job that his grandfather held during World War II, the same job he knew he wanted since he was a little boy.
The history of the Navy hospital corpsman dates back to the Spanish-American War. The Marines needed a field medic, and looked to the Navy to provide one.
According to Navy historian and Hospital Corpsman Mark Hacala, the Navy hospital corpsman has provided front-line medical care that has saved countless lives on the battlefields of every conflict since, earning a disproportionate share of accolades and awards and suffering a similarly large percentage of casualties.
Despite both services living under the umbrella of the Navy, Marines and sailors hold an intense traditional rivalry. When new hospital corpsmen are assigned to Marine units, the Marines may tease them as "squids" — or worse. Still, the hospital corpsmen have to learn to think, act and react with the speed of their Marine unit.
When a hospital corpsman is first attached to a unit, the Marines will call them by their last name, or maybe just "corpsman." Eventually — only when corpsmen earn the Marines' respect — they earn the nickname "Doc."
"The first time they call you 'Doc,' it's like, 'Yes! I have arrived,' " Poggemeyer said. "It makes you feel like you're part of the team."
Once the fighting begins, the corpsman's duty is usually one of the riskiest — carrying their own weapon along with medical gear.
The Marines say they will take a bullet for the corpsman, because he's the only one who can take it out.
"If they yell, 'Corpsman up,' they know Doc is going to be right there," Poggemeyer said. "When the Marines call you 'Doc,' you know you'll never let them down, you'll never leave their side. That bond between a Marine and a Navy corpsman is something that will last forever. We call them 'My Marines' — they call us 'My Doc.' "
Somewhere near Ramadi on Dec. 4, Christopher Anderson's Marines called on their Doc. Details of the attack have not been released by the military, other than the information Poggemeyer received in his office that afternoon.
"They told me it was a corpsman, KIA (killed in action) in Ramadi from a mortar attack. . . . It brought back all the memories," he said. "I had come full circle. I was in Iraq and saw people die. But I had never seen this side."
That afternoon, Poggemeyer and another casualty-assistance officer met the Navy chaplain in Longmont. The chief carried with him a sheet with the name of 24-year-old Hospital Corpsman Christopher A. Anderson — and his parents' address in Longmont.
Together, the sailors drove to the modest home with an American flag flying from the porch, and another special flag in the window.
After they parked the government sport-utility vehicle at 5:30 p.m., Poggemeyer saw the blue-star flag, signifying the family had a loved one overseas.
"Doc Anderson," it said underneath the star.
"When I saw that, my heart just sank," he said. "My mom and dad had one of those flags up while I was gone. My wife had one up."
Still, he made his way to the door.
"I pushed the doorbell," he said, "and I felt like a horse kicked me in the stomach."
Debra Anderson opened the door and saw the men in uniform.
"Oh, honey," she said with a smile, calling to her husband.
"The sailors are here. The recruiters are here."
Rick Anderson came to the stairs and his face paled. A former Navy SEAL, he recognized the uniforms.
"Honey, we need to sit down," he said.
"These aren't recruiters."
With service came emotion
In the first-class section of United Airlines Flight 271 from Philadelphia to Denver, the sailor looked through a booklet called Manual for Escorts of Deceased Naval Personnel.
"It's weird. I think back, and I was never an emotional-type person until I joined the military," Dragneff said. "In the past, I've had relatives who died, but I never really cried. I guess that since I've been in, it all means a lot more."
He thought back to one of the last times he saw his friend, Chris, when they went to visit Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, and Dragneff found the grave of a sailor he had trained with.
"When we went out to Arlington, standing there, I just started crying, and I couldn't understand why. I didn't really know the guy that well," Dragneff said.
"Chris just grabbed me and hugged me and let me sit there and cry. As we were walking away, a man walked up and shook my hand and said, 'Thank you.' So then, Chris started to cry. So there were just the three of us standing there, crying.
"A few minutes later, just trying to cheer me up, he made up some story about a squirrel on crack. Just like that. He could make you smile."
Dragneff was the responsible one, relatively shy, the designated driver who didn't drink or smoke. He was the one happy in a sweat shirt and jeans, while Anderson would change clothes five times before going out, a neatnik who splurged on Armani and Ralph Lauren.
At 6-foot-2 inches tall, with short-cropped, jet-black hair and hazel eyes, the muscular, outgoing 24-year-old never lacked in self-confidence.
"Damn, I look good," he wrote on one of the photos displayed on his
MySpace.com account. On the Web site, Dragneff posted regular updates about his friend while he was in Iraq. He was also the one to inform them of Chris' death.
"Dec 5 2006 12:56P," he wrote.
"Christopher Anderson, you weren't a 'real' brother, but you were still my brother. A person could not ask for a better friend or brother. You will be greatly missed. Love your brother, John.
"Rest in peace."
Brother gets a phone call
On the evening of Dec. 4, Kyle Anderson wound through the remote roads of Weld County, making his regular rounds in his Schwan's food-delivery truck, when he realized he had a message on his cell phone.
"It was my dad, saying that he had a problem and he needed my help, and that he wanted me to come home right away," he said.
The 22-year-old shook his head.
"My dad is a Navy SEAL. There's nothing he can't handle. I knew something was wrong," Anderson said.
"When I called back, the first thing I said was, 'Is my brother alive?' And he said 'No.' "
He hung up the phone.
On the other end of the line, his parents worried. The notification team offered to go and pick up the young man who was now their only son.
When Kyle called back, his parents asked him to pull over, saying the sailors would meet him to help drive back. He parked his truck at the intersection of Interstate 25 and Colorado 66, and waited, crying alone in the dark.
"It was so surreal. I wondered, 'Is this really happening?' " he said. "As I waited longer, I thought, 'Maybe they won't show up. Maybe it's not real.' "
When the government SUV arrived, Kyle dropped his head.
"It was about 25 degrees outside, and we were standing on the side of I-25 telling him about his brother," Poggemeyer said. "And giving him hugs."
Once back at the home in Longmont, the family talked to the notification officers about their son, breathing life into the name on the casualty list.
"We spoke to him on Dec. 3," his father said. "He talked about the Christmas presents he wanted us to buy for a neighbor, and that he wanted us to send out Christmas cards for him."
At his funeral service today in Longmont, the family plans to hand out their son's Christmas cards to everyone who attends.
He asked that the card end with a single phrase: "Please Remember Our Troops!!!!"
When Christopher Anderson enlisted in the Navy in 2005, the Longmont High School graduate became the fourth generation in his family to do so. At boot camp, he was voted the "honor graduate" in his class. After that, he wanted to excel in everything.
Before he left for Iraq, Christopher and his father mined military supply shops, looking for any equipment that might help him in the field. He looked for anything that might help him blend in with the Marines, since he knew corpsmen were prime targets.
"I have to be able to do this in the dark," he told his father.
In Iraq, he asked to be stationed with the front-line Marines and was assigned to a 12-man unit. One of his first tasks was to memorize each Marine's medical records. His medical expertise stretched beyond his unit to the Iraqi people, who would talk to him "because he was 'the dictor' (as the Iraqis called him). "There were times that nobody would talk to anyone except him," Rick Anderson said.
Once, he told his parents, an angry crowd had mobilized, but it was quashed when a woman recognized the corpsman and stepped in.
"She said, 'This is the one who helped my baby,' " Rick Anderson said, "And that dispersed the group, and everything was OK."
After some of his weekly early morning calls home, it was impossible for the couple to fall back asleep.
"One time, he called us at 5 a,m. My wife heard some funny noises and heard shouts of 'Where's that coming from? Where's that coming from?' " Rick Anderson remembered.
The Andersons, still in bed, listening with the phone between them, heard gunfire.
"I'm going to stay down here," he told them. "I'll just belly-crawl down the hallway so I can talk to you."
In one mortar attack, he was blown across a room, bruising him. Not long afterward, after another attack, he was in the back of a Humvee, his hands covered with his sergeant's blood, speeding toward a field hospital, tying tourniquets and offering encouragement.
"The sergeant told him, 'Tell my wife and kids I love them.' He told him he wouldn't need to do that, while he was pinching off an artery because the tourniquet came loose," his father said.
That sergeant is now recovering at Walter Reed Army Hospital, the family said, and plans to attend Anderson's burial at Arlington National Cemetery on Dec. 21.
Before he left, Christopher and his father talked about the possibility that he wouldn't return, and Christopher had asked for a burial at Arlington.
He had only one other request:
"If something happens," he told his father, "I want John there."
Word spreads through plane
At 31,000 feet, the word slowly slipped through the plane about the sailor in first class — and his mission.
When the passengers found out, their emotions spanned the debate that continues to split the country. Some cursed President Bush by name. Others cursed anyone who says they support the troops without supporting the war. Despite their political leanings, they all said they appreciated the sailor that most of them called "the kid" in the front of the plane — and, even more, the one in the cargo hold beneath them.
Seat 33F, Patrick Mondile, Philadelphia:
"I look at my own situation — I'm 24 years old. I think about, it very well could have been me, if I'd chosen that path. I have friends over there right now," Mondile said. "I don't understand why we're there (in Iraq), but I feel for the families — not just for this soldier, but the thousands who have died."
Seat 14A, Pam Anderson, New Jersey:
"God bless him. God bless him," she said of the sailor in first class. "If he wants any free hugs, just send him back here," the 62 year-old said. "I'm serious. I'm completely serious. I joined the Air Force as a flight nurse, and my squadron is taking a lot of men and women out of the field right now."
Seats 8D, 8E, Dave and Lindy Powell, Monument:
"To me, it's a sense of honor. We didn't know him, but he's part of the Colorado family. We're from Monument. So he's part of our family, too," Dave Powell said.
"Our nephew is a C-130 pilot who's flying into Iraq and Afghanistan. Kids in my Scout troop joined the Marines and went right to Baghdad."
His voice broke.
"They all came home safely."
Seat 22D, Terry Musgrove, Ontario, Ore.:
"If we don't support them, then it's going to embolden the terrorists," he said, fuming as he spoke about a new poll indicating that support for the war is declining. Before the flight took off, he was the only passenger to shake the skinny sailor's hand at the terminal.
"It breaks my heart to know that he's on the plane. I had no idea," he said, as he began to cry. "But I'm proud to tell you, I'm proud."
Seat 16F, Michael Lipkin, Aspen
"I think it's extremely sobering. This is a war where few of us have family and friends over there, and despite the fact that it dominates the media, I think most of us don't feel the cost, the real cost of this war. And we're going to be paying it for a long time," Lipkin said.
"I'm just chilled that that body is on here."
Inside the cabin, flight attendant Christine Sullivan walked back after visiting with the sailor again.
"It just makes it real," she said. "It's separated from politics at this point. It's just about the humanity."
Airline pilot pays tribute
As the plane began its initial descent, Captain George Gil's voice crackled over the intercom.
"Ladies and gentlemen, pardon the interruption, but if I could have your attention," he said, and then paused.
"The great song from Francis Scott Key says that to live in the land of the free, it must also be the home of the brave. Today, we're bringing home two brave men: Petty Officer 3rd Class John Dragneff, and, in great sadness, a fallen hero, Hospitalman Christopher Anderson."
He asked the passengers to let Dragneff off first to meet the casket, then addressed the escort:
"Please know that our prayers and blessings are with you and the family. Thank you for your courage."
A phalanx of pallbearers
As the plane taxied to the gate at Denver International Airport on Tuesday evening, the passengers saw the flashing lights of the police cars, the hearse parked on the tarmac, and they spoke in hushed whispers.
As Dragneff left the plane, a phalanx of pallbearers — three Marines and three sailors — walked toward the plane, for the sailor who died saving Marines.
Inside the belly of the plane, ramp workers removed the cardboard box protecting the casket, while sailors arranged the American flag.
The family embraced as the casket was lowered on the conveyor belt. Some of the plane's passengers watched from their windows. Some watched from the windows inside the terminal.
The pallbearers loaded the casket into the hearse, and Dragneff hugged the family before climbing into the passenger's seat.
As the motorcade made its way toward Longmont, the three sailors who served as pallbearers jumped into a white van, which pulled in behind the limousines.
As they left the airport, police officers and firemen stood in salutes, bathed in the flashing emergency lights.
"This is so cool that they do this," said Storekeeper 3rd Class Ben Engelman. "This is so amazing."
At the Erie and Dacono exit, firetrucks and ambulances, lights flashing, were parked on the overpass. As the procession turned toward Longmont, the lights burned even brighter.
"He deserves this. He was doing good," said Petty Officer Rick Lopez.
On Colorado 66, cars pulled over, along with firefighters, who continued to salute.
Then there was Longmont's Main Street.
At 20th Avenue and Main, the flags began. Kids holding plastic flags, Korean War veterans holding worn American flags, bandana-clad Vietnam veterans holding POW/MIA flags.
At 18th and Main, groups held candles and signs. "God Bless Your Son. Thank You." A boy held his candle to his mother's to light it, as the hearse passed.
At 17th and Main, hands over hearts. Hats over hearts.
"Dude, this is giving me chicken skin," Lopez said, shivering. "I've never seen anything like this."
At 15th and Main, people came out of a restaurant to watch the procession. Police cars with blue lights and medical cars with red lights shone on the Christmas decorations wrapping the trees of downtown.
Outside, it was about 40 degrees. Still, the crowds continued to line the streets. More children with wobbly salutes. A woman in a walker. A couple that embraced in a hug as soon as the hearse passed.
They drove in silence for a few minutes, then Lopez spoke again.
"You know," he said, "sometimes I wish they would do this for us when we come home alive."
A 'smile in his voice'
Inside the funeral home, a few feet from her son's flag-draped casket, Debra Anderson held tight to a single photo.
"I had to have my picture of my smiling Christopher," she said, staring at it, then at the casket.
While Christopher was deployed, his parents talked with him at least once a week — mostly for only a few minutes. The last time they spoke, the day before he died, he ended his conversation the way he always did, telling his parents, "I love you."
"You could hear his smile in his voice, you could hear it on the phone," his father said. "He was going back to work, back to do his job, back to doing what he wanted to do."
Inside the funeral home, Debra Anderson leaned into her husband of 26 years, wiping her face with a tissue.
"My boy, my boy," she said. "Christopher said he'd be OK. He promised he'd be safe, Rick — he PROMISED me. I miss him. I miss the phone calls. I miss him terribly. I want to talk to him."
"Hey," Rick Anderson said softly, "now we can talk to him anytime we want."
"Ooooh," she moaned. "My heart hurts. My heart hurts. It was my job to take care of him. I shouldn't have let him go. I shouldn't have let him go."
"You were going to stop Christopher?" his father asked. "Since when?"
They both managed a smile, and their eyes again fell on the casket.
As the family told Christopher stories from chairs in a corner of the room, Kyle Anderson stood at the foot of the casket, refusing to leave his place, patting his hand on the rough, wrinkled flag.
The brothers had grown up as opposites — Christopher the well-dressed go-getter, Kyle the rebel who shopped at thrift stores. They fought like most brothers fight. Sometimes, they fought worse than most brothers fight.
Since his brother's death, Kyle now says, they talk all the time.
As the family continued to share stories, sniffling and laughing, Kyle Anderson refused to move from the casket.
"Why don't you come over here with us?" Rick Anderson asked him. "Why are you standing there all alone?"
Kyle looked at his father, his eyes red, and patted the casket again.
"I'm not alone," he said.
More than 16 hours after John Dragneff's day began, the skinny sailor walked into the room, after finishing his final paperwork, and handed Christopher's parents a condolence card.
"Instead of saying, 'I'm sorry for your loss,' I wanted to say 'thank you' for Christopher. We claimed each other as brothers."
"You did good, John," Rick Anderson said. "You did good."
As they sat together in the quiet room dominated by the casket, Debra Anderson grasped the young man's hand and looked into his eyes.
"I'm glad you came with him. It's what he wanted. You did a good job. You got him home," she said, gripping his hand even tighter.
"Thank you for bringing him home."
MEMORIAL SERVICE Funeral services for Christopher Anderson will be at 2 p.m. today at Grace Evangelical Free Church, 2415 Lake Park Drive, in Longmont.
The family asks that contributions in Christopher Anderson's name be made to the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society c/o Ahlberg Funeral Chapel, 326 Terry St., Longmont 80501.