On the airfield, one cart is reserved for heroes.
For the families of the fallen, the cart with American flag curtains and the insignia of the five branches of the military — the most visible part of the Alaska Airlines Fallen Soldier Program — means their loved ones will be surrounded with respect and honor from those who accompany them on their final journey. And they will not be alone.
When a flag-draped coffin is carried off a plane and placed on the cart, the flight, maintenance and baggage crew members all stand at attention on the tarmac — a powerful sight for a grieving family, says Julia Schmidtke, an Alaska flight attendant whose 25-year-old son, Hunter Schmidtke, died in 2018 while serving at Fort Riley, Kansas. “It was amazing and meant so much to see all the working groups come together,” Schmidtke says. Her son’s body was flown to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on one of Alaska’s “Honoring Those Who Serve” planes custom-painted as a tribute to members of the military. “To have him brought home on the honor plane was a really big deal,” she says.
The experience was so important to Schmidtke that she became a program volunteer. This month, she was in Phoenix when the tenth Fallen Soldier cart was delivered to Sky Harbor International Airport. “It’s important to know what a Gold Star mom looks like,” she says.
The carts are crafted by a team of Alaska’s Mechanical and Engineering department, and available to honor members and veterans of all branches of the military. Alaska maintenance technicians delivered the cart to Sky Harbor with a motorcycle escort from the Patriot Guard Riders. Some veterans traveled on as part of the cross-country “Run for the Wall” event that ends at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day weekend. “I get wonderful hugs from these big, burly motorcycle guys,” Schmidtke says.
Alaska’s Fallen Soldier Program employee training now includes this video shared by the Schmidtke family. In addition to photos from Hunter Schmidtke’s life, it shows the “Honoring Those Who Serve” plane that carried their son to Sea-Tac.
The interior of the Phoenix cart is customized with a metal crafting of the Arizona state flag. During the ceremony to hand off the cart, Arizona resident Joe Burdolski exchanged a special baggage tug he crafted for the Fallen Solider program. Burdolski redesigned the tug and painted it to match Alaska’s military-themed livery. The tug was transported back to Sea-Tac, where it will be used exclusively with the Fallen Solider cart.
In addition to Phoenix, Alaska Airlines has dedicated carts in Anchorage, Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Washington, D.C., Dallas and San Francisco. The eleventh cart will be delivered to Fairbanks on the Fourth of July. While the carts remain under Alaska’s care at each airport, they are available for any airline to use when transporting remains.
Brian Bowden, a line aircraft technician and Air Force veteran, helped create the Fallen Soldiers Program in 2011. In addition to creating the carts, the program established protocols for employees to follow when a service member’s body is traveling. Bowden notes that program volunteers include veterans and non-veterans. “We all wanted to take care of those who take care of us,” he says. “Freedom isn’t free. It comes at a price.”
“We are just trying to have soldiers’ backs and provide them with this service on their final journey home, so their loved ones know that people cared about what they did,” Bowden says. “You can never take away their pain, but you can show you care.”
As she volunteers with the program, Shmidtke often talks — and listens — to fallen soldiers’ families as they’re taking their loved ones home. “I think it provides some comfort to have someone sit with them who’s been through what they’re going through,” she says. And volunteering has helped her, as well: “It’s been a real healing experience, and I’m so glad I opened myself up to it.”
The KING 5 News team in Seattle also recently produced this story on the Fallen Soldier Program: