United crew is all smiles after landing in Milan.

I was glad our plane had already safely landed when one of the flight attendants told me she thought our flight was cursed.

First, there was the strange announcement at the gate. United flight 968 to Milan would be delayed. A new tire was needed but there were none of the right kind at Newark Liberty Airport, so four would have to be replaced so they were all uniform. And that would take time. I was traveling with nine Arizona State University students on a study abroad program. All of them had taken early morning flights from the west in order to make the evening connection. They were already fried.

Then people started peering out the window. There in the setting sun on the tarmac stood a lone soldier in full military dress saluting a square steel box being loaded onto our plane. It was an eerie and somber moment.

We were finally ready to board a couple of hours later. I was talking to a gate representative when I heard a huge thud behind me. A passenger in line passed out cold. The thud was the sound of the back of his head hitting the floor. People started shouting, “Is there a doctor?” The gate rep called for paramedics. A nurse from New Jersey about to go on her honeymoon in Lake Como was a first responder.

Midway through the flight I asked the flight attendant about what I had seen on the tarmac. She said that the remains of an American soldier were flying with us. He was born in Italy, she said, and his mother wanted him returned to the place of his birth.

We were an hour away from landing in Milan. A woman stood just a few feet in front of me while waiting to use a lavatory. And then she just fell down. Face first. Hard fall. She did not move for a few frightening seconds. Then a familiar plea: Is there a doctor aboard? That same honeymoon nurse was pressed back into service: directing the flight attendants as they dug out the oxygen, bandages for the cuts to her face, the device to take blood pressure, an intravenous bag. And they were doing it all right next to me because that was the closest available seat. The woman eventually started to breathe normally, regained her color, resumed a normal pulse and eventually started talking to me about the book I was reading, about her business trip to Milan, about the now cancelled plans she had to take a train to Venice for the weekend. As we came in for the landing, I was holding her IV bag aloft so she could continue to get hydration. As the paramedics rushed aboard, she apologized to passengers for holding them up after such a long flight.

It was not a cursed flight for this woman. She emailed me about two weeks later to tell me that other than low blood pressure and stitches to her chin, she was fine. She also said she was grateful to everyone who came together to make sure she was OK.

But as I was walking to Customs in the Milan airport I saw that same solider from the tarmac at Newark Airport. He was carrying a folded American flag. The hardest part of his journey was about to begin.