The Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations mission is slowing down – at least compared to the tempo they worked in the decade after the turn of the 21st century. Despite the change, the Mortuary affairs Airmen and civilian staff provide the utmost dignity for the fallen and emotional support for families.
(U.S. Air Force Video by Jimmy D. Shea)
The Memorial Wall is the first thing visitors see as they enter the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. Etched in the glass are moments in history:
“USS Liberty – Mediterranean Sea – Jun 8. 1967 (27)”
“Air Force C-141 – Chinook, Montana – Dec 21, 1989 (13)”
“Operation Iraqi Freedom – Mar 3, 2003-Aug 19, 2010 (4,421)”
Each line represents a named operation or mass fatality incident handled by the Dover Port Mortuary, including the number of lives lost. The current operation, Freedom’s Sentinel, has been added to the wall, but as of yet it remains unfinished.
At the moment, the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations mission is slowing down – at least compared to the tempo they worked in the decade after the turn of the 21st century.
Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. declaration of a War on Terror, the number of service members dying in the line of duty climbed sharply – peaking in 2007 with 847 killed in action.
Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Bartow, the AFMAO education and training manager, remembers how the increased operations in 2001 impacted mortuary affairs at Dover AFB. An airman basic at the time, she’d been working at base lodging, but after the attacks on American soil, she was needed in mortuary affairs.
“After 9/11, and even into the years following … it was extremely busy, where every day there was a case — multiple cases — of fallen heroes coming through,” she said of the daily mission. “And now we have very few, which is a great thing.”
Though the numbers of inbound casualties have reduced considerably in recent years, AFMAO’s training program remains highly emphasized. Regardless of the slower operational tempo, the people in the organization strive to maintain a level of readiness enabling them to react to any contingency at a moment’s notice.
“We never know what’s going to happen, so we want to ensure we’re still training on a daily basis,” Bartow said, delving in to some of what that training involves. “We’re constantly practicing for the dignified transfers. We’re doing carries. We’re practicing folding flags. We’re practicing everything that entails in a mission as far as a dignified transfer goes, so when it’s time for that mission, its second nature to them and they are 100 percent ready.”
The port mortuary provides mortuary services to military members, their dependents and Defense Department personnel from Overseas Contingency Operations. AFMAO also maintains readiness to respond to homeland mass fatalities and other current deaths, when requested.
“Our motto for the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations is care, service and support for our families, and dignity, honor and respect for the fallen who come through here,” said David Sparks, a chaplain with AFMAO. “Those words actually guide what we do, what we say, and how we interact with families when they are here.”
Family members usually arrive at Dover’s Campus for Families of the Fallen within 24-48 hours of receiving the notification of their loved ones death, Sparks explained. They come here feeling broken and coping with an unimaginable loss. While on site, the families witness a solemn homecoming.
During the dignified transfer, the deceased service member is flown to the base and solemnly moved from the plane to a waiting vehicle for transfer to the Dover Port Mortuary. An honor guard walks silently across the flightline bearing a transfer case between them, an American flag draped over it. Sparks said, it’s at this moment the family members fully comprehend their loved one has passed away.
“It‘s not unusual for families to be in such grief that there is wailing, there is a loss of physical control, or falling to the ground. For folks who have never experienced that, our Air Force members particularly, that (has) a huge impact on their own psyche and their own spirit,” Sparks said.
He noted the need for the robust resiliency program throughout the port mortuary. Though the efforts of chaplains, mental health workers and others, the visiting family members and AFMAO employees have ready access to people they can work and speak with to understand and accept their emotions.
Close to 100 people – permanent party and those who are deployed to assist with the mission – work at the Dover mortuary. Many are young and unaccustomed to the emotional challenges of preparing the remains of a brother or sister in arms for burial. Prior to their arrival at Dover AFB, some may not have even been to a funeral. As such, AFMAO tries to ease their transition into mortuary affairs. The new arrivals are slowly guided through the work, from the preparation of uniforms to assisting the families of the fallen.
It is a job that opens people up to situations of loss. Even though it isn’t an acquaintance or family member being received for burial, deaths can have an effect on everyone in the mortuary. Bartow experienced this particularly poignantly during a joint service deployment to a mortuary in Kuwait, where she worked with U.S. Army soldiers. One day, an 18-year-old Marine’s remains were brought in to the mortuary; he’d only been in the military for six months before his death.
“For some reason that really hit me hard,” she said. “I think what helped me out was just talking with the others that I worked with … just knowing they have been through similar experiences, and they were able to understand.”
The reactions to the emotional aspect of the job vary from person to person.
“It’s hard not to tear up when you see the family member tearing up,” Bartow said. “In some ways, I think we have to take our emotions out of it and just handle the mission. Some of us do cry and just let it out. Others, we stand strong. We want to be that strong person there for the family, (to) take care of them and be that shoulder to cry on.”
Since being introduced to AFMAO at Dover AFB, Bartow has been able to perform related details at several different locations, such as F. E. Warren AFB, Wyoming, where she was previously assigned as a mortuary technician. While there, she assisted families with making funeral arrangements. That assignment helped her to see the kind of impact she had on the families of fallen service members.
“I was helping them (during) a really hard time in their lives and assisting them, taking that burden off their shoulders, getting them through a tough time. That personal level of helping the family out really showed me that this was the career path that I wanted to continue down, she said.
Many others, like Sparks, find themselves drawn to the work done by AFMAO.
In 2001, the chaplain was activated for a short deployment to mortuary affairs at Dover AFB in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. His time with the organization was slated for 30 days, but it ended up lasting much, much longer.
Discovering individual value in the mission, he pushed for more deployments to Dover AFB for six years and, after retiring from the Air Force Reserves in 2007, he became a permanent member of the AFMAO team. As a chaplain on-site, he provides spiritual and emotional support for the families of the fallen service members as well as his coworkers.
“I personally found the work I do here, the interaction with families and with the young people who work at the mortuary, is some of the best work, the deepest work,” he said. “Being able to interact with folks who have given their all and are proud of what they do, that has flowed to me as well.”
Sparks said watching people step forward to take care of each other, putting the needs of others before their own is another aspect of the job that touches him.
The chaplain recalled a day past when a little boy who’d waited in the Center for Families of the Fallen for the dignified transfer of his father’s remains. The child was about 6 years old and preoccupied with the thought of what life would be like without his dad.
“Who’s going to play catch with me now?” the boy asked.
“You could hear the air leave the room from all the adults … from his mother to the casualty assistance folks who were here, as well as our team,” Sparks said. “Fortunately, in that case, the casualty assistant (representative) that was with them was from their hometown, from their base, and he spoke up almost immediately to say, ‘I’ll play catch with you.’”
Many emotional stories like this are at the heart of the chaplain’s responsibilities. What he wants to see happen most for families suffering through similar heartbreak is some relief and healing. This healing usually takes days and sometimes months, but occasionally he gets to see it more immediately.
Sparks knows that at some point, there will come a day where he will no longer be able to fulfil his vocation at mortuary affairs. It is an ending he will find bitter-sweet.
“What I will take with me is that there was a period of time in my life where every day I was impacting history … impacting families who will remember this forever,” he said. “There will be very few that will remember me or anyone else who works here. They will not remember our names, but they will know what we did to care for them and how we made them feel as we took care of them in this process. That will be something I can tell my grandchildren.”
So for now, as the ops tempo tapers down at AFMAO, the people who work at the mortuary are doing anything but slowing down. They continue to train to do their very best for all service members and families that come through their doors, because they understand the importance of their job at mortuary affairs. They are giving final honors to men and women who gave their lives, “so that others may live.”