Eagle's release honors memory of Wichita soldiers

It was the moment for Spirit to fly free again.

There she was — a rescued bald eagle, a symbol of the nation and now a balm for grieving parents — clutched in the hands of Ken Lockwood.

Lockwood rehabilitated her after two teenage brothers from Cheney found her wounded Christmas Eve with a shotgun pellet in her leg and severely ill from lead poisoning. Lockwood named her Spirit, after Christmas Spirit.

Hundreds gathered Saturday in the mist along the riverbank across from the Mid-America All-Indian Center to watch her being released back into the wild.

The ceremony honored the families of Army Sgt. Eric Nettleton and Army Spc. Thomas Moffitt, two Wichita soldiers who died in recent months while fighting in Afghanistan. Nettleton, 26, was a 2003 graduate of West High School. Moffitt, 21, was a 2008 graduate of Northwest High School.

Now, down by the river west of downtown, it was time for the two soldiers' fathers to undo knots securing a hood over Spirit's face.

When the soldiers' mothers pulled off her hood, the feathers on the back of the eagle's white head stood erect. Her beak opened as if she were about to latch onto prey. Her piercing eyes, ringed in yellow, took in the crowd.

And seeing this natural beauty and power suddenly exposed, people around her gasped.

Lockwood, her handler from Eagle Valley Raptor Center, gave his cue to the crowd, who chanted, "One, two, three, set her free."

As he let her go, Spirit rose from his gloved hand.

She briefly dived down toward the water's edge, flapped her wings and rose higher, higher. She flew over the river before gliding onto a cottonwood perch 50 yards down the bank from the crowd.

It showed Lockwood that she had regained her ability to dive for a fish and soar up with her catch. It showed her chest muscles were again strong enough to propel her wings.

Standing by the river, John Moffitt briefly shared the feeling of losing a son and the experience of seeing such an impressive bird go free.

"I have other friends who have lost children, and they say you never get through it.

"But it's a beautiful day and an honor for Tom.

"Tom was quite an outdoorsman. And he would have loved this."

As Lockwood and the soldiers' families lingered, Spirit flew on west, away from downtown, out of sight.

Where will she go?

"She's just going to want to get away from people, as far as she can," Lockwood said.

"She should follow the path of the river."

Now, Spirit and her kind can be a comfort for the soldiers' families, Lockwood said.

"I want them to know: Every time they see an eagle flying, that's their son watching over them."