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The Final Journey Home of...Pvt Francheska Velez

Private Francheska Velez was one of the 13 soldiers killed in the Ft. Hood shooting, as one of two who were from the Chicago area. In fact, Francheska was from Chicago itself, and lived not far from my neighborhood. She was also carrying her first child...being a few months pregnant...another life that died with her as the 14th victim of that terrible day.

She was better known as Cheka...the happy-go-lucky young woman who was always smiling that pretty smile and making her friends and family laugh.

These two Facebook pages are poignant reminders of how fleeting life can be.

Shortly after hearing the news of Francheska's death...friends and family gathered at her home in Humboldt Park for a candlelight vigil, with songs dedicated to her and all those killed and wounded at Ft. Hood.

President Obama shares national condolences with Francheska's father at the memorial in Washington.

On Monday, November 16, 2009...Private Francheska "Cheka" Velez made her final journey back to her family, escorted by her family, soldiers, police and the Patriot Guard Riders (PGR)...I was among them, as Francheska what a fairly close neighbor to me. This one hit particularly close to home!

Around 9am, Patriot Guard and various police officers from Chicago and the suburbs assemble.

PGR Captains discuss the escort plans.

Over the next 45 mins, PGRs arrive and greet friends as we wait in the cold morning breeze for Francheska's arrival.

This Chicago Police Officer will be leading the procession.

Her plane will soon arrive, so we assemble for a short briefing of the details of our assembly before we enter the hangar.

After the briefing, we begin to assemble our lines of Honor.

Various Police Officers also gather, who will greet the plane outside prior to it entering the hangar.

Francheska's family arrives.

Around 10:10 am...the small charter plane carrying Francheska's body and military escort arrives at Midway Airport in Chicago.

The hangar door to the National Guard center at Midway Airport opens as the plane nears.

Although I was at Attention and unable to take a picture, one of the most touching moments and one that causes several of her family members to shake with tears, is when the plane pulled up to the hangar. The Chicago Fire Department had two trucks on each side of the hangar doors and blasted water cannons into the air, which created a water arch for the plane to drive under. This is a tradition...a Water Cannon Salute, reserved for Heroes, as well as pilots on their final flights when they retire.

The Military Honor Guard, Francheska's pallbearers, wait patiently.

The plane is pushed back into the hangar and secured, as Francheska's Military Escort departs from the plane and the pilots prepare for Francheska's arrival to her family.

Francheska arrives...the most painful moment!

After she is placed in the funeral car, the guard depart, mount up and prepare for the slow, 1.5 hr, non-stop procession from Midway airport on the far Southside of Chicago, through Francheska's neighborhood in Humboldt Park, passed her Kelvyn Park high school, to the funeral home at Belmont near Harlem in far NW Chicago. She will be buried at Mt. Olive Cemetery at Narragansett and Addison (where my brother who was killed in Vietnam lies).

PGRs preparing for the slow, cold, non-stop ride through the city streets from Midway airport to the far NW side of the city.

People lined up on the street waiting to pay their respects.

The procession begins (that's me just leaving the lot...wearing the white headband).

Francheska departs.

As the long procession winds through the city and Francheska's neighborhood, people line the street to pay their respects, traffic pulls over as the entire procession passes, people pull over and get out to salute or place their hands over their hearts.

Each Fire House we passed had their ladder truck out with ladder extended over the street flying an American flag, as all the Fire Fighters in the house at that time stood in quiet attention on the street in full gear and saluted.

The most incredibly touching moment...for me at least because I lost it and choked up so much I could hardly see/breathe to ride...was when we turned the short corner at her former High School (Kelvyn Park, where she graduated in 2006) and saw hundreds of people lined up at her school with members of the ROTC, of which she was once one, saluting her.

After a long, slow, and quite cold journey, we arrive at the funeral home. I was near the beginning and am now parked, so I stop to take photos of the long procession behind me...that keeps coming...

...and coming...

...and coming.

Cheka's honor guard awaits her arrival.

PGR members dismount and gather flags again to stand in her honor as she rejoins her family for the last time.

As her family watches (lower/right) and PGR and Women Veterans Assn members stand in honor, as do police, Francheska is removed from the hearse and taken into the funeral home, accompanied by her family for some private time together.

Her honor guard departs.

PGR, Women vets and police linger to share thanks to each other for their participation...then we depart. But we'll be back to stand in her honor for her wake on Wednesday and her funeral on Thursday.

At Cheka's wake on Wednesday, many of her friends wore shirts in her memory. Yellow was Francheska's favorite color.

The Patriot Guard stands vigil throughout the day/night.

American flags encircle the funeral home parking lot.

Ever present media.

Sorry I forgot her name, but this woman showed to the Patriot Guard. Welcome! You don't have to be a vet, nor a hardcore biker, nor even ride a motorcycle to help stand in respect for our brave soldiers.

Ride Captain, Eric, discusses the rest of the plans.

I believe these may be members of the Kelvyn Park High School ROTC paying their respects.

Some of the Police Officers who helped out throughout.

Members of the VFW had a small coffee booth at the side of the parking lot to help out the Patriot Guard with hot coffee and snacks, if needed. (The guy in the back, sitting down, was also in Operation Prairie in Nam as a Marine in Oct 66...which is where/when Donny was killed there. First time I've ever met anyone who was there with him.)

Another Kelvyn Park student come to pay her respects.

Friends remembering fun times with Cheka.

The morning of the Funeral on Thursday, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn shows up to pay his respects (as he does for all Illinois Fallen soldiers).

Construction in front of Mt. Olive Cemetery meant traffic was a bear the morning of the funeral. I didn't think I'd make it to the funeral home in time, so I waited at Mt. Olive...where Donny is also buried.

Guard standing in honor as we wait for the procession to arrive.

And...the ever present media.

Neighbors begin to assemble along the street outside Mt. Olive.

I'm positioned just inside the gate with flag and bike.

After MANY Patriot Guard go by, I prepare to jump on the bike to join the procession.

Francheska is buried just a short distance from Donny. I visit him now I'll bring two flags and stop by to visit with Cheka, too, to ensure she always has a flag.

Happier times

As I told a friend..."This girl really touched my heart. Not exactly sure why? Maybe because she was so young? Maybe because she was excited about becoming a mom and never got there? Maybe as a fellow Chicagoan? Maybe from being close to my home? Maybe because I awoke this morning to the mention of her return home on the news...which seemed like a reminder of my day's events? Maybe because she said...'you have to appreciate what you have in life cos' you never know how long it'll last?' Maybe because she'll be buried in the same cemetery as Donny? Maybe because her coffin was so small? Maybe because it broke my heart to see the other soldiers in her family break down as she arrived?

Whatever reason...this girl touched so many hearts in her life...and still touches more in her death, including mine!"

Rest easy now're home.

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