Three slain Kiwi soldiers got a sombre and emotional welcome when they were returned to New Zealand soil today.
Corporal Luke Tamatea, 31, Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, 26, and Private Richard Harris, 21, died instantly when a 20kg roadside improvised explosive device destroyed their Humvee in Afghanistan's northeast Bamiyan Province on Sunday.
Their bodies were flown home today in an RNZAF C-130 Hercules which touched down at Christchurch International Airport at 2pm, greeted by distraught family, friends, comrades and military brass.
The three families wept, hugged and supported each other as they followed two army padres onto the tarmac, through a guard of arms by 2nd and 1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, and into the plane where their loved ones lay in coffins.
They spent 15 minutes grieving alone, while outside three hearses backed onto the tarmac, and around 100 other soldiers - comrades of the fallen trio - gathered to extend the guard of honour.
Other members of the armed forces, including air force and navy, extended a human perimeter around the plane.
The white caskets, draped in New Zealand flags and regimental hats, were carried down the ramp by pallbearers, followed by the families, some of whom were carrying framed portraits of their fallen sons, daughters, siblings and parents.
One of Lance Corporal Baker's nine female 2nd Health Support Battalion colleague pallbearers, close friend and fellow medic Lance Corporal Leanne Corbett, wept as she carried her late mate.
The soldiers burst into a mass, highly-charged haka that army spokesman Major John Gordon said represented their "outpouring of emotion".
"Our military is a small organisation and people tend to all know each other," he said.
"Many soldiers don't tend to show their emotions. But today, you saw their collective grief. Their personal grieving will come later."
The caskets were lifted into the hearses.
The families, which started in three distinct groups, merged into one mass of grieving and filed away from the plane.
They will hold their own private funerals next week once the military gives them its final send-off.
Discussions are still being held over if and when a military commemorative service will be held. It's believed it will be held at Burnham Military Camp on Saturday.
Chief of Army, Major General Tim Keating, said it was an honour to attend the ramp ceremony and give them "the dignity and respect they deserve".
"I pay tribute to their selfless courage and sacrifice that they have made in the name of world peace," he said.
Major Gordon said while the army pulls together in times like this, the families will not be forgotten.
"The soldiers all understand the families' pain, because they feel that pain also," he said.