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Veteran's family upset by lack of honors when casket arrived at National Airport

By LORI ARATANI | The Washington Post | Published: September 20, 2018

Col. Lewis Henry Dunagan, 94, a decorated Air Force pilot, died in May. On Wednesday, his body was flown from Dallas to Washington, where he is scheduled to be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday. Six members of his family, including wife Judy and daughter Sydnee Harlan, accompanied him on the American Airlines flight.

However, several mix-ups, including a missing special escort and confusion over who was responsible for the mistakes made an already traumatic trip under the circumstances even more difficult, according to the family.

Harlan said the family thought arrangements had been made that included having a special escort meet Dunagan's casket when they landed at National Airport. But when the family arrived at National, there was no special escort and none of the crew members aboard the flight seemed aware they were a military family traveling with the remains of a loved one.

Harlan said the family was angry and distraught.

"My mother was in tears," she said. "There was no military escort."

Harlan said they also thought they would be allowed to see their father's casket as it was unloaded from the plane. Instead, she said, they were stuck on the jet bridge trying to sort out what had gone wrong. By the time arrangements could be made to take them down to the tarmac, her father's casket had been taken away by the funeral home.

Officials at the airline apologized for the incident.

"On behalf of the American Airlines team, we extend our condolences to the Dunagan family," spokesman Ross Feinstein said. "We apologize profusely for the confusion that transpired."

The cause of the confusion is not clear.

Feinstein said the problem was caused by a miscommunication between the airline and the funeral home, which is responsible for making the arrangements to have a body transported.

Jim Kennerly, chairman of Greenwood Memorial Park in Fort Worth, which handled the arrangements, said the funeral home "verbally communicated" to the airline that Dunagan was a veteran. American, however, disputed that account and said it had no record of the funeral home informing the airline of Dunagan's special status.

When requested, American offers special honors when it transports the bodies of veterans for military burials. A team of airline employees who volunteer to take part, stand planeside as the remains are loaded and again when they are unloaded. At the captain's discretion, military families flying with their loved one are recognized and allowed to leave the plane first.

Feinstein said that the airline's manager of military and veterans programs immediately reached out to Dunagan's widow Judy, to apologize. The airline also offered to upgrade the family to first class for their trip back to Texas.

"We can't get [Wednesday] back," Harlan said. "It was the last flight we would be all on together and we can't get that back."

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