Charleen Shakman sat in her car outside the St. Louis airport on Friday afternoon, incessantly refreshing her flight status app until she saw the plane had landed.
It had been 115 days since her father, Charles Pyles, died of COVID-19 in the Philippines. Now, she hoped, her father would be coming home on that flight.
But the Iraq war veteran was still nervous that a last-minute problem with customs or some other glitch would hinder her sorrowful reunion.
To get to this point, she had tangled with a Filipino funeral home, hit a bureaucratic wall with the U.S. Embassy in Manila and despaired at the thought of her beloved father’s cremated ashes sitting on a shelf more than 8,000 miles away.
It took the full weight of a U.S. senator’s office, along with media attention and other pressure, to get this far. She went to the cargo pick-up area, filled out some paperwork, and had her father back in her arms.
“He’s here!!” Shakman said in an email Friday night. “He’s finally with us.”
She took him back to her car, where she called her mother, Doris Pyles, with the news. “She couldn’t believe it had finally happened,” Shakman said in a phone interview with USA TODAY, which first wrote about Shakman’s plight on Aug. 27.
Shakman herself was overcome with sadness and elation.
“I just don’t even know how to feel. It’s just mixed emotions,” she said. “I’m still processing the grief, but I’m elated that he’s here.”
Mainly, she said, she feels gratitude for all the people who helped make it happen.
After USA TODAY wrote about her situation, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., “moved mountains” to get her father back to the United States.
Hawley’s staff pressed top officials at the State Department on her behalf, mobilized United Airlines lobbyists to arrange flights and even contacted the White House for help with Customs and Border Protection issues.
“We were honored to play a role in helping to reunite Mr. Pyles with his family,” said Kyle Plotkin, Hawley’s chief of staff. “There were a lot of moving parts.”
Shakman first learned on May 12 that her father had died, receiving a blunt text message that read: “Your dad is dead. To much sick.”
Pyles, 77, a lifelong Kentuckian, had been in the Philippines when he grew ill with COVID-19 and succumbed to the virus. His wife Doris had remained in Kentucky, where they lived and where Shakman grew up.
When the pandemic emerged, Shakman asked her dad to come back to the USA. But he had become an avid traveler after retiring from his job as a civil servant at Fort Knox. He loved the Philippines, making it his home-away-from-home with a circle of friends in the expat community.
The State Department has helped bring home thousands of American travelers who became stranded amid the global shutdown when the pandemic began.
The agency does not keep statistics on how many Americans have died of COVID-19 abroad. Hundreds of U.S. citizens die annually of various causes – from car accidents to drownings to homicide, an agency database shows.
Normally, when Americans die abroad, embassy officials can help with a gamut of tasks – from notifying next-of-kin to repatriating remains.
But in this case, Shakman ran into one hurdle after another. The pandemic had slimmed down U.S. embassy services and slowed global travel. The funeral home seemed unresponsive, as did U.S. officials.
Once Hawley intervened, Shakman said, a representative from the U.S. Embassy in Manila called her, and her situation received high-level attention at the State Department. Even her boss, the CEO of Johnson Controls, George Oliver, called to ask how he could help and put the company’s government affairs team on standby.
“So, so so many people have (helped) in making this happen for us,” she said. It will take weeks, she said, to thank them all.
In the meantime, she’ll be driving to Kentucky this weekend to put her father to rest. He made it clear that he wanted his ashes scattered over his parents’ grave. So she will be gathering with a small group of family members to fulfill that final wish.