A fitting tribute for a murdered Coast Guardsman... thank you to Sheriff Karl Leonard and all of the law enforcement in the Central Virginia area for helping recognize this Coastie's service!
Things observed …. Good, Bad, and Ugly.
Some facts remain indisputable, regardless of your political affiliation. One such fact is this: We live in a fallen world. Most days it doesn’t touch us, so we mindlessly go about our daily lives oblivious to the crime, evil, and discontent that seems to occupy every minute of our newsfeeds. And then, there it is — in our face, front and center. Today I will put on my service dress uniform for the first time in five years to attend the funeral of Petty Officer Caroline Schollaert, who grew up just a few miles from my hometown. She was ruthlessly killed last week in Jacksonville by a thief caught breaking into her car. Caroline was 27. He was 22. A common thief, likely looking for pocket change to buy his next fix. The obvious irony is that Caroline’s final duty station was HITRON, the U.S. Coast Guard’s elite airborne counter-drug interdiction unit.
I heard about the killing a week ago today from Sheriff Karl Leonard, who is a retired Coast Guard reserve officer. I live in his county. Caroline will be laid to rest this afternoon just up the road from us. As a gesture of honor bestowed only to fallen military and first responders, he offered to provide a police escort for Caroline’s body when it arrived at our local Airport last Tuesday. To that end, he requested that I reach out to my former colleagues at LANTAREA to get the arrival details. In my mind, I envisioned a few police cars in a short motorcade, perhaps a motorcycle or two, following a black hearse. It would be a journey of about 25 miles into the rural Virginia Countryside. I sensed that people would pay it little mind as they saw it pass, many of them grumbling under their breath as they impatiently glance at their watches over the extra minute or two they would have to spend at an intersection. I would be proved wrong.
The Sheriff made a few calls and graciously picked me up at my house in a squad car on Tuesday afternoon; we immediately proceeded to the airport to wait for the Coast Guard C-27J carrying Caroline’s body. What happened over the next two hours will forever be etched into my memory, and every Coast Guardsman who witnessed it should thank Karl Leonard for pulling this together. The scene was this: At the entrance to the airport were a litany of law enforcement vehicles from multiple jurisdictions, all parked in perfect formation — facing the road, with blue lights flashing. Everyone new something important was about to happen. Waiting in a the parking lot were even more of them: scores of local, state, and county police vehicles from all over. Then no less than 150 Harley Davidson’s manned by “Patriot Riders” came roaring in — among them were veterans of all military services — colors flying proudly. In a nearby hanger, temperatures hovering in the upper 90s, was a contingent of Coast Guardsman in full Service Dress, waiting to line up and render a salute to their fallen shipmate as she was carried out of plane, proceeded by her mother, father, brother, and fiancé. The hearse was loaded. Few words were spoken. People got into their vehicles and the Harley Davidsons fired to life.
As the procession pulled out of the airport, led by flashing blue lights and motorcycles extending as far as the eye could see, the officers and firefighters staged along the way all snapped to attention and rendered salutes. The local fire station had prepositioned a ladder truck, boom extended. Hanging from it was a giant National Ensign — the same ensign that the other part of America now denigrates. But not here — not today. The state police would not let a single car pass as we creeped along at half speed, even on the four-lane highway. Respect was due. Respect would be rendered.
As we started to draw near the small rural community of Powhatan, we began to see citizens lining route 60, hands over hearts, holding flags, silently honoring a mother and father who’s precious daughter lay in a flag-draped coffin in the hearse ahead. The closer we got, the denser the crowd. It was indeed a sight to behold. I saw an old man solemnly holding a Coast Guard Ensign as we slowly turned into the funeral home parking lot, now overflowing with more cars and Harleys than it had likely ever held. Then I turned to the Sheriff and said “Thank you Sir. I will never forget this.” He turned and said, “No, this is what we do for each other.”
Petty Officer Schollaert’s tragic death was bad. It was ugly. But in it we found some real Americans who are still good, and humble, and God fearing.” No riots, no fires, no looting. Just grief.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” — Matthew 5:4
W. D. Lee
VADM, USCG (ret)