Carmel Valley couple’s book details battle to ensure honorable airport reception for fallen soldiers
By Pat Kumpan
Stacey and John Holley know a thing or two about grief, but even more about the battle to guarantee an honorable airport reception for their son and other fallen soldiers, during the final trip home.
After their successful, but painful quest five years ago to change military policy regarding transportation and handling of such caskets, they have written a book, “Medals, Flags and Memories,” now available at Amazon.
Thanks in large part to the Holleys’ protest, the military has now begun to charter small jets, such as Kalitta Charters out of Michigan, instead of commercial aircraft, for the final flight of a fallen soldier.
The standard practice now includes military honors at the airport closest to the soldier’s hometown.
The ups and downs of the Holleys’ journey began with the loss of their only son, Army Specialist Matthew Holley, a combat medic who died Nov. 15, 2005, when his Humvee struck an explosive device killing him and two others with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq.
Their book chronicles how they handled grief, the 10-month fight to change the transportation policy, their quest to help other Gold Star families (military families who have lost loved ones in combat) and the establishment of the Matthew Holley Foundation. All profits from the book go to the foundation, which provides various scholarships including one for karate students. For details, go to www.matthewholleyfoundation.com.
As Matthew became a teenager, the Holleys suspected their son would be Army-bound. As former military police officers, both Stacey and John Holley knew his reasons for enlisting.
When he made the decision, Matthew told his parents, “I’ll be serving a cause greater than me.”
Maybe something about the decision rang true for them, but they also knew he was probably headed to a war zone — and ultimately he was.
When the doorbell rang that November day in 2005, the reality sunk in that John Holley was going to be told that Matthew died in combat, he said.
After being notified, the Holleys started making arrangements for a funeral and asked the casualty office assigned to assist them, about their son’s transportation home.
They were outraged to learn his casket would likely be left in an airport warehouse, transported by fork lift like cargo, before being driven to a San Diego mortuary.
That mental image was almost too much to bear, knowing their son, often called “Doc” by others in his unit, had given his life for his country.
The Holleys were told they could not be on the Lindbergh Field tarmac, it was not allowed; and there would not be an honor escort to greet their son, render a salute, or guide his flag-draped casket into a waiting hearse.
None of that was acceptable to the Holleys, who, along with their casualty officer, started making phone calls to arrange for the kind of honorable greeting they felt their son, or any other combat serviceman killed in action, deserved.
Within eight hours prior to the flight with Matthew’s casket touching down in San Diego, people listened, including Senator Barbara Boxer, and everything the Holleys asked for became a reality.
An honor guard arrived in full uniform wearing white gloves, saluted the 21-year-old Army medic as his casket was off-loaded from a commercial jet and guided his flag-draped coffin into a waiting hearse.
Despite their grief, the Holleys decided that parents of fallen soldiers should never have to accept anything other than a fitting tribute to those who have given their lives while serving their country.
The Holleys persevered through angry reactions from those who wondered what the couple was so upset about, some calling them “un-American.”
“After we got Matthew his due, we could have said nothing, but it’s not about the politics, but honor,” John Holley said.
Congressman Duncan L. Hunter, who at the time was chairman of the Committee on Armed Services, pushed for the change in policy, now called the Holley Provision, which allows for a dignified, honorable reception of military caskets containing those killed in action.
The provision was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006.
The Holleys now live in Carmel Valley, but previously resided in Rancho Penasquitos from 2002 to 2007, during which time Matthew became a U.S. AAU National champion in karate, after studying with Sensei Ferdie Allas at his studio in Poway, thus the karate scholarship available through the Matthew Holley Foundation.
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