West Virginia native Zachary Riffle was so intent upon becoming a Marine that he purposely graduated from high school early, so he could enlist.
Following boot camp, Pfc. Riffle had become a landing support specialist with Combat Logistics Battalion 24, Combat Logistics Regiment 2, 2nd Marine Logistics Group. Then tragedy happened – on January 19th, 2022, less than a year after he entered active duty, he was killed in a crash involving a military vehicle near his base in North Carolina. Zach Riffle was 18 years old.
Pfc Riffle’s remains were sent home from Camp Lejeune as per his family’s wishes. On January 27th, he was transported on American Airlines, with Marine escorts accompanying his body. However, his mourning parents claim they were grossly mistreated by the airline.
His stepmother, Jennifer Plum, said, “We went up there expecting to be able to watch the plane land, as well as watch Zachy deboard the plane, along with his escort, and receive him on the tarmac.”
Unfortunately, as per the family, none of that happened.
As per Pfc. Riffle’s family, when they arrived at the airport, the airline ushered his four parents (divorced, both his parents had remarried) and four siblings into a small, windowless room with a couple of chairs. Marine Casualty Assistance Calls Officers had to intervene for them to be allowed into a break room of the building. It still had no windows but at least there was adequate space and seating for 8 people.
“Once we got settled in there is when we learned that, due to what was identified as COVID policy changes and staff shortage, we were told we would not be able to be on the tarmac at all to watch the plane land or to see Zach deboard the plane,” Plum continued.
Disappointed, Plum then asked the tarmac manager that the moment be recorded for them, but she said her first request was denied. She said an American Airlines representative claimed an employee with the footage could share it inappropriately.
“We obviously weren’t going to settle for that answer, so I told them at that time we would be going public with the treatment that we were receiving, and that we would sign a waiver of liability, whatever it took to get this moment recorded because they would not let us see it,” said Plum.
An airline employee was finally allowed to record the deboarding by using a cell phone that belonged to one of Pfc. Riffle’s Marine escorts. The family, however, was still not allowed to leave the break room during this time.
But wait, there’s more!
“Finally, when we were able to receive Zachary, we were taken into a cargo terminal alongside of other boxes and crates, etc., and that is where the Marines performed their ceremony,” said Plum.
The general feeling of the family was that Pfc. Riffle, a fallen Marine, was treated like luggage.
Needless to say, the family was NOT happy. So they followed up on what they said they’d do and the next day, they wrote an open letter to Doug Parker, the current American Airlines President and CEO, and Robert Isom, who will soon be taking Parker’s place.
Besides the events described above, they were also disappointed in how Pfc. Riffle’s Marine escorts were treated:
Zach’s escorts had a significant layover in Charlotte, NC. Since they cannot leave Zach’s side, they stayed in the cargo terminal there with him from approximately 9am – 5pm. While we do not know the policy of the airline, we were disappointed to hear that despite knowing a fallen Marine was being escorted and knowing the length of the layover, no one from AA offered them any opportunity to obtain anything to eat. Basic human decency should have prevailed, at the very least.
To add insult to injury, his Marine escorts’ checked bags were sent to baggage claim at their final destination. Because, again, they couldn’t leave their fallen comrade, the escorts couldn’t get their bags. So they were stuck in a hotel, 100 miles from the airport, without their belongings.
The family also claimed there was no announcement on the plane that it was carrying a fallen service member or to allow his escorts to deplane first so they could go back to Pfc. Riffle’s side. Plum also says Zach’s body was not unloaded from the plane first (American Airlines disputes both of these claims).
Regardless of the final two complaints, wow. So much disrespect for a fallen member of the armed services, his family, and his escorts.
American Airlines released a statement to Clarksburg, WV TV station WBOY on Monday:
We are committed to honoring our fallen heroes. We are sorry we fell short of the family’s expectations and are reviewing the matter internally. A senior member of our team has reached out to Pfc. Zachary Riffle’s family to express our condolences and hear more about their experience.
The family has since said they’ve received a response email from Eric Mathieu, Customer Experience Managing Director for American Airlines. He said that the situation had been escalated to the highest members of the leadership team, and he was personally investigating the details of the situation.
I don’t know how they would do it, but I hope they make things right.
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