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Originally published Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 4:16 PM

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Bearing witness to a fallen soldier’s journey at Sea-Tac

A chance encounter with military sacrifice has columnist Kate Riley grateful that U.S. foreign policy is moving increasingly in the direction of diplomacy rather than deployments.

Times editorial page editor

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Late Monday evening, I flew into Sea-Tac Airport from Washington, D.C., and I’ve been thinking about military sacrifice and the legacy of 13 years at war ever since.

The pilot had alerted passengers on the full Alaska Airlines Flight No. 3 of another passenger in the cargo hold, a fallen soldier, and asked people to allow his military escort to exit first. As the plane taxied to the gate, several emergency vehicles clustered with lights flashing. A row of, I presume, firefighters stood at parade rest.

The plane stopped. Within minutes, the seatbelt sign went off. But instead of the familiar cacophony of seat-belt clicks, excuse me’s, carry-ons sliding out of overhead bins and people telling their rides to meet them under Skybridge 5, the cabin was quiet as people watched what unfolded on the right side of the plane. Somber. Respectful. Whispers: “Is that the wife?” “Are those the parents?”

A woman and man stood next to the hearse. Slowly, a group of six soldiers emerged from the shadows and, walking in unison, disappeared under the front of the plane. Minutes later, the pallbearers reappeared, carrying the flag-draped coffin in a wide arc to the hearse.

As I suspect was the case for most others on that plane, this was the first time I was confronted so closely by military sacrifice, because of the voluntary nature of U.S. military service. Except for a second cousin from Montana who is an Army officer, I don’t know anyone in active military service — an odd thing considering we have been militarily engaged in Afghanistan since 2001.

But many families and communities know the toll of war and sacrifice intimately. U.S. forces have lost 4,485 service members in Iraq and 2,869 in Afghanistan. According to The Associated Press, 90 Washington state residents have perished in Iraq and 53 in Afghanistan. The numbers do not include those wounded physically or mentally.

Monday night’s ceremony was an affecting end to a day that started in a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry at a State Department briefing for the Association of Opinion Journalists.

As a 28-year-old spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971, Kerry famously asked the question before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

As a U.S. senator in 2002, Kerry voted for the resolution authorizing President Bush to use military force to disarm Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In a floor speech, he urged diplomatic options be exhausted first. As an unsuccessful presidential candidate two years later, he strongly opposed the Iraq war, criticizing the administration for misleading the public about weapons of mass destruction.

Now, as America’s top diplomat, Kerry deftly ran around the world in a 25-minute briefing on Monday, touching on North Korea, Iran, Egypt, Israel, the phenomenon of the Arab awakening and Syria. The administration recently acknowledged the Syrian government had crossed the “red line,” citing evidence it had used sarin gas on its people.

Kerry’s approach is heavy on diplomacy rather than deployments.

“Nobody is talking about American boots on the ground, I assure you,” the secretary said. “Not in the cards.”

Noting that drones, SEAL teams and deployments will not keep America safe, Kerry outlined initiatives, in collaboration with other nations and businesses, to invest in emerging or troubled countries to provide opportunities for individuals to succeed and avoid being disenfranchised.

But it was what Kerry said at the end of his briefing that I recalled as I watched the fallen soldier’s coffin carried across the tarmac.

U.S. involvement in Iraq is much diminished and troops in Afghanistan are coming home as the country transitions to Afghan leadership.

“We are actually less engaged, I’d say, with our forces in risk than we have been in many years,” Kerry said. “Needless to say, we would like it to be that way and to get even better.”

The back door of the hearse closed, and I stood up to get my carry-on.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is kriley@seattletimes.com On Twitter @k8riley

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