Daniel Rubin: A sad but necessary trip to Dover Air Force Base

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Trudy and Sal Corma of Gloucester County with a photo of their son, Army First Lt. Salvatore Corma III, who was killed by a mine in Afghanistan. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)

The medical team had assembled to give Sal Corma the bad news.

There was no way he could make the trip to Dover Air Force Base that night to receive his son's remains.

Too dangerous, given his stroke the week before. Too stressful.

Corma, 78, had been at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital for more than a month, learning how to get around after losing most of his right leg to diabetes. Twice complications had sent him back to a hospital.

"You can't tell me I can't see my own son," he replied.

Alex Kobb, a physical-therapy team leader, stepped forward. Three times Kobb had worked with Corma. They'd bonded. He said he would do whatever it took.

"All he ever talked about was his son, how he was a West Point grad," Kobb said later, "how he was very proud."

Sal and Trudy Corma had their only child together late in life. She was 43; he was a decade older. They named the boy Salvatore Simplicio Corma II, or Sal for short. In Italian, the name means "simple savior."

From the start, the boy was a fighter - a tiny, towheaded bantamweight who loved Batman and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He graduated to karate at age 5 and within two years had earned a black belt. By 12 he wore a third-degree black belt in two martial arts - tang soo do and tae kwon do.

He ran track at St. Augustine Preparatory School in Richland, Atlantic County, and at West Point captained the karate team, a 5-foot-6, 140-pound spark plug with a dimpled chin and Pepsodent smile.

First Lt. Corma became an Army Ranger.

"What do they call them?" his father would ask.

"Oh, Dad," the young man would sigh. "Bad asses."

Along with the toughness, the father prized his son's tenderness.

"When anything would happen - I'd lose a toe, I lost my leg - he'd say, 'It'll be OK, Dad, it'll be OK.' "

The opportunity arose to switch assignments with a friend and go to Afghanistan, and Lt. Corma leaped. In October he shipped out, and was posted to Forward Operating Base Bullard. The job, Capt. Jacob White wrote the Cormas later, could involve bringing food and supplies to the Afghans one moment and orchestrating battles with the Taliban the next.

Corma's 20-man platoon - the Punishers - had wrapped up its patrol in the Shajoy district on the night of April 29 and were heading back to base. They were about to cross a bridge, the sort of choke point where the Taliban was known to bury improvised explosive devices.

One of the paratroopers saw that the ground looked different, softer. He radioed Corma, 24, who ordered everyone to find cover. He was going to investigate.

Standard procedure required him to flag the area with a piece of orange fabric so demolition experts could swoop in and remove the threat.

He was planting the marker when he stepped on a pressure plate. An antitank bomb exploded. He died instantly.

The next day two officers went to the Cormas' home in Wenonah, Gloucester County, to break the news. They found Trudy Corma at the hospital where she worked as a nurse. Her supervisor took her to a conference room. "As soon as I saw those green uniforms, I knew," Trudy Corma said.

Telling Sal Corma was going to be harder. The staff at Magee conferred with his wife about how to cause him the least distress.

Still, he could only cry, "No, no, no!"

When the medical team learned how important it was for him to be at Dover when his son's remains arrived early May 1, they had to figure out how to make it happen.

The Army offered a limo, but Corma needed an ambulance. He'd also need a therapist to monitor him around the clock. The flight from Afghanistan was due in after 2:15 a.m. Bad weather might delay it as much as half a day.

And one more thing: Insurance would be unlikely to pay for any of the trip. Traditionally, patients healthy enough to travel should be discharged and treated as outpatients, said Lane Brown, head of Magee's stroke-rehab program. Magee agreed to absorb the trip's costs.

The medical team called an ambulance service, JeffSTAT, which provided a paramedic and an emergency medical technician. They picked up Alex Kobb, the physical therapist, who would accompany his patient on his own time.

"I'm a father, too," he explained. "He's 2 years old. I can't imagine . . ."

In the Cormas' living room, still filled with boxes of their son's belongings a month later, the couple described what happened that early morning in Dover.

They arrived just after 2 a.m. for what the military calls the "dignified transfer." "It was beautiful," Trudy Corma said. "It was a clear night. The C17 transport had its back end dropped down. It was floodlit."

"If you looked inside," her husband added, "you could see Sal's flag-draped coffin. From where we were standing, it was this big." He held his thumb and index finger an inch apart.

Posted behind the coffin were representatives of each branch of the service. The honor guard marched up from the right, stood on either side of the coffin. All joined in prayer. When they got down to the tarmac, they saluted slowly, taking several seconds to complete the gesture of respect, then they loaded Lt. Corma's body into a white van and headed for the medical examiner's office.

His mother said, "He was never alone."

The Cormas have planted 60 American flags around their home for Memorial Day. A sign tacked to the front door says, "Land of the Free, because of the brave."

Sal Corma hasn't spoken publicly of what happened until now. He hasn't been up to it.

"I just want him to get his due," he said of his namesake, now buried at West Point. "He's a hero - not because he killed people. He's a hero because he saved people. So young. But he had a purpose."

 


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.