“Dignified Transfers”– Bringing Them Back

The Mortuary Affairs Operation Center at Dover and the Dignified Transfer of the Fallen


The Air Force, your Air Force, operates an Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operation Center (MOAC) at Dover AFB, known as the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs. The Carson Center was opened in October 2003, replacing a 1948 facility. We’ll take a
closer look at it in a moment.

At a top level, its job is to receive the remains of a Fallen member, identify those remains, prepare them and transport them to their final destination. Under most circumstances, a family member directs the disposition of the remains. Identification of those family members has a priority order; e.g., surviving spouse if not divorced, then children over 18, then father or mother if not divorced etc.


Charles C. Carson served as a civilian mortician with the USAF in 1958. He was the deputy mortuary officer at TanSon Nhut Air Base, Republic ofVietnam and Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines from 1964 to 1970. He covered mortuary affairs in Thailand, Taiwan, and Hong Kong and administered mortuary contracts in New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia. Mr. Carson had supervised mortuary preparation of remains in every major disaster involving American military and civilian personnel since 1971.

He was assigned to Dover Air Force Base August of 1970 as a mortuary inspector and was promoted to Chief Port Mortuary Officer a year later. He handled a number of disasters, including the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the Jonestown cult mass suicide in Guyana. He also supervised the processing of the remains of victims in the NASA Challenger mission and Desert Storm as well as the air plane disaster that claimed the life of then Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown. He retired in 1996 and died August 8, 2002.

Back in 2003, Meg Falk, director of the Defense Department’s Office of Family Policy, said this about Carson:

“He was revered in the mortuary community. Not only for his extensive knowledge but for his total dedication to treating every single casualty with the utmost dignity and respect. He was constantly seeking improvements to apply new and better processing to mortuary operations.”

I want to talk about the MAOC and address the Dignified Transfer process. I should say up front that officially, the Dignified Transfer process occurs only at Dover. Unofficially, the process of removing a Fallen from the battlefield or hospital through the system is a dignified transfer start to finish so far as I am concerned.

I should present the Air Force’s description of what the official Dignified Transfer process is:

“A dignified transfer is the process by which, upon the return from the theater of operations to the United States, the remains of Fallen military members are transferred from the aircraft to a waiting vehicle and then to the port mortuary. The dignified transfer is not a ceremony; rather, it is a solemn movement of the transfer case by a carry team of military personnel from the Fallen member’s respective service. A dignified transfer is conducted for every U.S. military member who dies in the theater of operation while in the service of their country. A senior ranking officer of the Fallen member’s service presides over each dignified transfer.

“The sequence of the dignified transfer starts with the Fallen being returned to Dover by the most expedient means possible, which may mean a direct flight from theater, or a flight to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and then to Dover. It is the Department of Defense’s policy, and AFMAO’s mission, to return America’s Fallen to their loved ones as quickly as possible. Once the aircraft lands at Dover, service-specific carry teams remove the transfer cases individually from the aircraft and move them to a waiting mortuary transport vehicle. Once all of the transfer cases have been taken to the transport vehicles, they are then taken to the port mortuary.”

Let’s take a closer look at the Dover MAOC. The Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs is a 70,000 square foot facility. It is a joint military facility, with people from all services working there, often from the Reserves and Guard. It’s mission is this:

“It is the center’s mission and privilege to fulfill the nation’s sacred commitment of ensuring dignity, honor, and respect to the Fallen and care, service, and support to their families.”

This is a Google Earth view of most of the Dover AFB. The base is located in east central Delaware on the Delmarva Peninsula close to Delaware Bay. It is the home of the 436th Airlift Wing, the “EagleWing” and the 512th Airlift Wing, an Air Force Reserve Associate, the “Liberty Wing.” The Eagle Wing is subordinate to the 18th Air Force located with the HQ, Air Mobility Command at Scott AFB, Missouri. The yellow arrow points to the location of the MAOC at Dover, on the south side of the base. It’s worth noting that it is very close to the taxiway west of the main runway.

This is a closer view. You can see it is a substantial facility. You can note the driveway straight to the taxiway, a location where transport aircraft carrying the Fallen can park for the Dignified Transfer.

I want to show you more of the facility. I am using magnificent photography presented by crypto me eyeball series on the web.

The Wall of Fallen Heroes greets each visitor as they come through the front entry. Photo credit: William M. Plate, Jr.

Entry foyer, MAOC. This view is looking from the foyer area out to the entry door. Note the curved wall in the center. The first photo showed the other side. USAFphoto.


The fingerprinting area. Photo credit: William M. Plate, Jr.






Full body X-ray unit. Photo credit: William M. Plate, Jr.


Autopsy stations. There are 23 such stations. Photo credit: William M. Plate, Jr.

This facility houses everything needed to properly dress the Fallen. Photo credit: William M. Plate, Jr.

With the new Gates policy on the press covering the arriving Fallen, the following is to happen once they arrive at Dover:

“The primary next of kin will make the family’s decision regarding media access to dignified transfer operations atDover;

“Families of deceased service members will be briefed on the option to allow media coverage of the dignified transfer at the time of notification of the member’s death or as soon as possible thereafter;

“If the primary next of kin permits media access atDover, reporters will be given the name, rank, military service and hometown of the ‘believed to be’ casualty. Amore complete identification of the deceased service member, including unit, place, date and circumstances of death, will be released following the confirmation of the casualty’s identity at the Dover mortuary, and then only24 hours after the last of the deceased’s next of kin have been notified of the loss; and

“Primary next of kin and two other family members may travel to Dover at department expense to observe the dignified transfer operation. The services may fund the travel of additional family members on a case-by-case basis.”

This new policy was implemented effective April 6, 2009. Whitman has described the policy this way:

“The core of the policy is built around the desires of the family members, and it will be the families that decide whether or not media have access to any of these dignified transfers.”

My purpose here is to describe the dignified transfer operation. I want to underline, underscore, and highlight the seriousness with which our military forces treat the Fallen during the dignified transfer.

I am reminded of two stories I’ve done associated with this subject to which you may some day wish to refer.

Marines with Company A, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, fire against terrorists operating in Fallujah, Iraq April 7, 2004. Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Matthew J. Apprendi, presented by Defend America

The first was done as part of my description of the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq in November 2004. I wrote the story, “Battle for Fallujah, our warfighters towered in maturity and guts,” and added a section at the end of this report entitled, “’Major Zarnik, these are my Marines, and I am giving them to you.’ A concluding story.” This was a story about how Major Zarnik and his USAF KC-135R tanker crew were on their way to Spain after refueling some F-16 fighters in the area of Turkey. Zarnik was abruptly turned around to go to Kuwait City. His mission was to retrieve the first 22 American military forces killed in the Battle of Fallujah. Major Zarnik tells the story of what he and his crew did to bring these men home. It’s at once a heartbreaker and an injection of enormous pride.

The chief places the uniform blouse inside the casket. The chief lays the uniform blouse carefully inside the casket, over the remains, which are wrapped in a blanket below He then places the lieutenant’s uniform pants in the casket, placed properly under the blouse. Credit: Photo clip drawn from the video, “An Ocean Away,” produced by Arrowhead Film & Video and commissioned by the Discovery Channel.

The second story was published in February 2006, entitled, “The reality is, no other country does this: Bringing America’s missing
home.” This is the story of the return of US Marine Lt. Donald Matocha’s remains from Vietnam to Smithville, Texas many years after the war ended. I assembled a photo gallery that demonstrates the respect and honor given the remains of our returning military by those associated with the US Joint POW-MIA Accounting Commandin Hawaii, the JPAC.

For the current two wars our sons and daughters are fighting, Dover is the first stop in the US for those deceased military members returning home. The men and women at this center have not changed a thing since their actions have been made open to the public. Everything they do now, they did when the photographers were not there.


An example of a dignified transfer conducted once the aircraft arrives at Dover AFB is the case of Spc. Israel Candelaria Mejias, USA, 1-66th Armor,killed in action (KIA) by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq on April 5, 2009. He is shown here.

A C-17 Globemaster III aircrew from the 14th Airlift Squadron was on crew rest at Spangdahlem AB, Germany when alerted that it would fly a dignified transfer mission from Ramstein AB, Germany to Dover. It has been reported that the crew remained silent while
riding the bus from Spangdahlem to Ramstein to get their aircraft — “Unspoken Silence.”

This is a 14th Airlift Squadron C-17 Globemaster III which in the photo was in Jordan. Its worth remarking that these transport aircraft, in a time of war, are scarce and heavily used. But by hook or by crook they are available for the dignified transfer.

TSgt. Erin Manley commented this way as the crew approached their aircraft:

“You go out to the jet and reality sets in.”

About the flight, SrA Airman Stephen Adams, a loadmaster, commented:

“It taxes on your emotions. We have a lot of time to reflect about the sacrifice of the individual.”

TSgt. Manley said this:

“With as much grief as they are feeling, you hope they can see the care and the attention to detail; there is more sense of pride, the jet’s clean, the flag’s on straight. There’s nothing you want to go wrong, because this guy deserves everything.”

Adams added:

“It’s pretty emotional. We try to return our military service members with honor, and that’s what we did.”

The aircraft landed at Dover, taxied and parked. The aircrew must run through its shut down checklist and then prepare for the dignified transfer of the remains from the aircraft to the mortuary center. The family was present at Dover when the aircraft landed.

About an hour after landing, an eight member Carry Team from theArmy’s Old Guard in Washington, arrived.

OldGuardA OldGuardB
The Old Guard is the the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment, the 3rdInfantry. It is the oldest active-duty infantry unit, serving our nation since 1784. It is the Army’s official ceremonial unit and the escort for the president. In short, it is the Army’s official Honor Guard. It has two companies, the 1st and the 4th, the 1/3 and the 1/4 Infantries. The1/4 provides the Fife and Drum Corps. Both companies guard theTomb of the Unknown Soldier and conduct burials at Arlington National Cemetery. It should be noted that infantry is infantry — the 3rd Infantry is a combat organization which has received 50 combat streamers from the Battle of Fallen Timbers of 1794 that is considered the final battle of the Northwest Indian War through WWII. In addition to its ceremonial roles, it is presently tasked to provide security for Washington, D.C. in time of national emergency or civil disturbance.

Back to Spc. Mejias’s return to the US.



Army and Air Force troops stand guard around the body of Spc. Israel Candelaria Mejias at Dover Air Force Base on nighttime arrival. Photo credits: Leo Shane III, Stars and Stripes.

By the time the Old Guard Carry Team arrived at the C-17 carrying Mejias, the aircrew that brought him home and an Army colonel and captain had the ramp down, and placed his case near the aircraft ramp exit. They are standing at parade rest, awaiting the Carry Team.

The Old Guard’s “Carry Team,” in uniform fatigues, wearing white gloves, marched in formation up the ramp and into the cargo hold. Photo credit: Susan Walsh, AP


Photo credit: Leo Shane III, Stars and Stripes.
Three from the Carry Team stood at attention on one side of the casket, the other three on the other side. You cannot see him in this photo, but there is a seventh Old Guard, the ranking member, standing at the head of the case. The case bore the American flag draped over it, the field of stars over his left shoulder, his feet pointed to the outside, the flag tied down to the case.

Once in place, three officers arrived and marched in unison up the ramp. They included Army Brigadier General Walter Davis, director of Army Aviation; Air Force Colonel Robert Edmondson, commander of mortuary affairs operations; and Chaplain Major Klavens Noel. Chaplain Noel said a prayer.

A senior ranking officer (SRO) of the Fallen member’s service always presides over each dignified transfer. It is my understanding that in most circumstances, the SRO is a general or flag officer.


Photo credit: Leo Shane III, Stars and Stripes
Following this, the Carry Team picked up the case in unison.


Photo credit: Leo Shane III, Stars and Stripes
With precision, the Carry Team carried Spc. Mejas down the ramp to a waiting vehicle. As it started, in a quiet tone, the order was given to those remaining on the aircraft, “present arms” — salute. They popped to attention and saluted as Mejas made his way down the ramp. The family was at the bottom of the ramp waiting.

I want to show what happens at the vehicle waiting to take Mejas to the Mortuary.

This photo is of a Carry Team taking Pfc. Nicholas H.J. Gideon, 1/40Cavalry to a waiting mortuary truck, taken on July 8, 2009. Photo
credit to Jason Minto, USAF.


In this photo, an Army Carry Team transfers the remains of Army Spc. Issac L. Johnson, July 8, 2009. Spc. Johnson was assigned to the1st Battalion, 108th Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Acquisition Squadron, Georgia Army National Guard. Photo credit
to Jason Minto, USAF.

In this photo, you see airmen transferring the remains of Air Force SSgt. Phillip A. Myers, April 5, 2009. I wanted to point out that the vehicle driver is standing by, shooting a salute until the Fallen is completely in place and the Carry Team is finished.

Once the Carry Team has loaded the Fallen aboard the mortuary vehicle, it braces at attention and salutes the Fallen, in this case, Lance Corporal Blaise A. Oleski, USMC, April 9, 2009. Photo credit: Tim Shaffer, Reuters.

An airman closes the door on a transport vehicle with the transfer case containing the body of Spc Mejias. Photo credit: Tim Shaffer, Reuters

Once all souls are aboard the vehicle, the driver shuts the doors securely, with dignity and respect, and drives to the nearby Dover mortuary. How long does this all take? As an example, the Dignified Transfer for Spc. Mejias took about 12 minutes from the time the transfer case is placed at the ramp to the time it is loaded aboard the vehicle.

To my knowledge, the media is not allowed to see what goes on in the mortuary, even to this day. The morticians and staff must go through a very careful, methodical, and scientific process. Their number one task, among many, is to be sure they have an 100 percent positive identification of the remains. They employ DNA, dental and fingerprint analysis and autopsy the remains to determine the cause of death. They then prepare the Fallen member for transport to the family.

Allow me to pause for a moment to address the identification process.Interestingly, people well trained in anthropology can play a major role.


The famous “dog tags” are important to the identification process, but there is sufficient concern about how they were issued and worn that they alone do not do the job. The military member does not always wear them, either forgetting or deliberately leaving them behind because of an exceedingly dangerous mission. Some soldiers exchange their tags before a mission — why is hard to ascertain. There have been times when the enemy has exchanged them to confuse us, or to be simply mean. Finally, the tags must be found on the Fallen and must remain with him through the process for them to carry any validity. While a bit gruesome, one must recognize that the tags are often pushed into the body as the result of an explosion or the like. Sometimes, they are hard to find, they are missed, or they are destroyed beyond recognition.

Hollywood often shows men tearing the tags off their Fallen — they are not to do this for reasons outlined above.

Wallets, photos, keys, rings, watches and other such items also helpthe identification process.

The skull and jaw are among the most important means of identification.


This is a CT scan of a skull showing multiple skull and facial bone fractures resulting from fatal blunt trauma to the head. In this case, it was a car collision, but you get the idea.

Dental and facial features provide good leads.

Often, when a Fallen’s body is beaten up badly, the morticians will layout the bones to create a “biological profile” which can help identify sex, age, race, and manner of death. Sometimes, the mortician will find duplicates, which then says he-she is dealing with two individuals.

If the Fallen is recovered by his comrades and medevacs quickly after battle, the flesh will probably be in tact and fingerprints can be taken. This can be a very complicated process. The photo presented is an FBI photo. I do not know whether the Dover people use this kind of technology, though I do know it is state-of-the-art. But I wanted to show this to you to affirm in your minds that new technologies are employed for identification purposes. This happens to be a spectral imaging technology that uses infrared spectral responses plotted over an area to produce images. On the left you see the fingerprint. Photo B is an expanded area of one portion of the fingerprint. Photo C is a spectra of the components.

Finally, lately DNA analysis has been of great value. Both nuclear and mitochondrial analyses are used.

It should be said that the data base of identifications and along with the empirical and analyses supporting those identifications have played an important role. The mortuary team can do a lot of crosschecking in more complicated cases. Furthermore, many advanced computer technologies are now available to help in the broad spectrum of identification approaches employed.

The identification process is often as certain as certain can be. That said, mistakes are made. Families have the right to challenge the findings. Most often, an explanation of the process alleviates their fears. Sometimes not.

One thing is for certain: the men and women assigned to this center at Dover are serious people who take their jobs very seriously.

I’d like to introduce you to some of them. Prior to doing that, I wanted to point out that the morticians do not get the Fallen untilothers have had a chance to get organized to receive the Fallen from the mortician. Several activities occur as soon as the remains are
brought into the mortuary, before the work begins on the remains.

You will recall that the remains were transferred in a body bag that was placed in an ice lined transfer case. The body bag and body are removed from the transfer case. The body is removed from the bag and placed on a metal table and digitally photographed and archived. If the Fallen arrives in parts, each is barcoded.

The Personal Effects Team takes custody of any personal items. This team takes the personal effects to their section and inventories, photographs, barcodes each item, and cleans them. If an item cannot be pinned down to the Fallen member, it goes to the Joint Personal Effects Depot at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland.

This is a good chance to introduce you to some of those who work at the Center and provide you a sense for how seriously they take their jobs.


TSgt. Latersa Frazier, a personal effects supervisor in the Air Force Mortuary AffairsOperations Center polishes a watch April 1, 2009 to demonstrate the cleaning process used on personal effects during preparation of remains, part of the dignified transfer process. Photo credit: SSgt. Bennie J. Davis III, USAF

The cleaning process is very important. They clean all the items, and prepare them to be returned to the family. TSgt. Latersa Frazier is the personal effects supervisor and has said:

“We’ll try our best to clean them the best we can so they can go back with the escort to their families. Our goal is to make them look better than brand new … I could be working on a broken watch for hours, but it may still have the smell of cologne, and I know that I can get it back to the families. It could be the one item a child has to remind him of his father or mother. That means everything to me.”

Frazier said she spent a day and a half on a belt buckle:

“It was from a crash and was pretty charred. When I finally finished it, it was a bronze gold color; really beautiful. We still talk about that belt buckle … We put in the extra work when dealing with personal effects because we want to be able to give back to the family just a little something for their loss. If this was my love done, I would want the person working on my items to do the best job they can … My motivation is this person who has served our country, who paid the ultimate sacrifice. This is something I can do for them because they sacrificed their lives for us. Just cleaning a simple dog tag, even if I had to stand here half the day to clean it to get it back to the family, I would do that. Not only is the service member making that sacrifice, but also the families, the loved ones, and the children. They are as well. Being able to support that person — that family – it’s
an amazing feeling.”


A1C Rontera Powell works is a personal effects specialist. She is shown here in her dress uniform as an USAF honor guard, a position I might add, of distinction. She has said:

“Every case has touched me in some way. When you work in my section, you stop seeing them as remains, and you start seeing them as people who had personalities. And even though these people are no longer here in body, they’re still here in spirit through their effects.”

SSgt. John Cabral, USAF, closes the door of a transfer vehicle containing a transfercase containing the remains of Shawn D. Sykes Friday, May 8, 2009.

Another personal effects specialist, SSgt. John Cabral, said this:

“I remember my first case. He was only 19. When I saw him in triage, he was pretty messed up. Once I started looking through his personal effects to clean them up, I saw photos of him and his girlfriend; pictures of how he looked. It was just very hard for me. It takes a strong person to be able to do the job and put your emotional feelings to the side. It affects you.”

U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Jimmy Toro steam cleans the uniform of a Fallen solider during preparation of the dignified transfer of remains process March 31,2009. Sgt. Toro is on his third year-long voluntary deployment assisting the Air ForceMortuary Affairs Operations Center. Sergeant Toro is deployed from the U.S. ArmyReserve, 311th Quartermaster Company in Puerto Rico. Photo credit: SSgt. Bennie J. Davis III, USAF

As soon as the Fallen member arrives at the mortuary, the men and women from the uniforms section are there. SFC Jimmy Toro, USA, said their job is to take measurements:

“We get sizes as soon as (the Fallen heroes) arrive in the building. We put together their uniforms and take (the items) to the alterations shop, getting the patches and stripes sewn on the uniform. We verify the proper awards and decorations for that (service member), and we put it together.”

These uniforms are meant to be the final uniform the Fallen member will wear.

SSgt. Charles Bell walks through rows of military service dress uniforms that are stored there for every rank and size. Sgt. Bell is the Air Force noncommissioned officer in charge of logistics and oversees ordering and stocking service dress uniforms and items for dignified transfer of remains. Photo credit: SSgt. Bennie J. Davis III, USAF

This section stocks the uniforms, rank insignias, ribbons, patches, everything that is to be worn by each Fallen member. SSgt. Charles Anthony Bell has been a mortuary technician with the center since June 2008. He has said:

“I want everything to be as perfect as possible. Even though the shirts are covered by the jackets, we still take the time to clip the strings on all of the buttons, around the collars and the pockets, making sure there are no strings. We polish the devices on the ribbons, making sure they’re equally nice and shiny. We check every detail, making sure the uniform is 100 percent correct.”

Petty Officer 2nd Class Danielle Van Orden irons a U.S. Navy uniform March 31,2009 for a Fallen sailor. Van Orden is the Navy and Marine Corps liaison for the uniform section of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center. Service liaisons prepare uniforms for Fallen heroes and work with military escorts for the dignified transfer-of-remains process. Photo credit: SSgt. Bennie J. Davis III, USAF

PO2 Danielle Van Orden is a hospital corpsman and adds:

“Everybody, everybody is treated with respect, dignity and honor. We know that when the uniform leaves here, it has our stamp of approval, our name on it. We know that people are going to be viewing their loved ones at funerals. When they open that casket, they see the military creases; they see that we took our time.”

I should comment here that the mortuary works as hard to get their work done as professionally and quickly as possible. There is no time to dally about. Teams often work around the clock.

Lance Corporal Adam Knebler, Marine liaison for uniforms section, hangs Marine service dress uniforms into inventory. The uniform section of the Charles C. CarsonCenter for Mortuary Affairs, Dover Air Force Base, Del., prepares uniforms for remains and works with military escorts for the dignified transfer of remains process.Photo credit: SSgt. Bennie J. Davis III, USAF

LCpl. Adam Knebler, USMC, has commented this way:

“Everyone is taken care of here to the 100 percent-levelof everyone’s ability. Sometimes I’m here 12 to 14 hours. I don’t want to leave until the mission’s accomplished. Istay until the mission’s done. The mission is first here for everybody.”

Toro adds:

“This is an honor for me, having this opportunity to serve those (service members) who have given their lives in combat. That’s my satisfaction. I will do it for as long as I can. It’s the best job I’ve ever had in the Army, serving these past two years at Dover. I feel I’m doing something for service members and their families who await the return of their Fallen heroes back home.”

Specialist Xavier Gonzalez polishes the decorations of a Fallen soldier. Specialist Gonzalez is deployed from the Army Reserve, 311th Quartermaster Company, PuertoRico. Photo credit: SSgt. Bennie J. Davis III, USAF

Spc. Xavier Gonzales feels the same, even though he had only been at the mortuary for four months when he said this:

“I’m here for a reason, for the mission. This mission is the most respectful thing I can do for a service member who’s died in combat. It’s an honor. I’ve got to do something for the United States; they always do something for us in Puerto Rico; it’s important for Puerto
Rico. Most importantly, it’s important for the families of the Fallen.”

Once the measurements are taken, the alterations made, the ribbon racks assembled correctly, everything ironed and steamed, the team then dresses the Fallen.

Of course, the morticians must prepare the remains prior to putting on the uniform. I have already covered this.

Among their most important tasks is to prepare the American flag.

TSgt. Millard Rico feeds a U.S. flag into a pressing machine March 3, 2009 at theCharles C. Carson Center. The press irons the flags wrinkle free that will be placed over caskets during the dignified transfer of remains. Photo credit: SSgt. Bennie J.

They remove the flag from its packaging, unfold them, and feed them through an industrial steamer to be pressed. The flags are 5×9 ft. The machine has been designed to be sure the flag never touches the ground in the process. They then drape the flags over a rack until needed.


SSgt. Star Samuel’s, shown here hanging up a freshly pressed flag, has said:

“We’re taking care of someone’s child, mother, father, husband, wife. They passed away protecting this country; we try to make everything perfect to give them and their families the utmost respect … I have so much respect for my Fallen heroes. These heroes have families, loved ones, who could’ve talked to them just a couple of hours ago. Just one mistake, one trip down the road, anything can happen. I take nothing for granted.”

Shipping Specialists SSgt. Star Samuel’s (front) and TSgt. Willard Rico place a U.S. flag over a casket March 31, 2009 during a dry run of shipping process procedures for the dignified transfer of remains at the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs. Sergeant Samuel’s is deployed from the 43rd Force Support Squadron at PopeAFB, North Carolina. Sergeant Rico is deployed from the 60th FSS, Travis AFB, California. Photo credit: SSgt. Bennie J. Davis III, USAF

Once a casket is ready for the flag, each airman stands on either side of the casket, they slowly pull the flag off the rack and onto the casket. One airman stands at the foot, the other at the head. They work silently but in harmony, coordinating through eye contact, to drape the flag over the casket. They work slowly and in silent synchronization. They watch everything on the casket to be sure the flag is draped over it correctly.

They draw the flag taut. The Fallen is ready for burial and transportation home.

TSgt. Willard Rico, USAF, shown above with SSgt. Samuels placing the flag over a casket, has said:

“These men and women who gave their lives for their country for the sake of freedom deserve the utmost dignity, honor and respect … We’re here for the families. I’m privileged to be working here, giving dignity, honor and respect to the Fallen for their families. It’s the most rewarding job I’ve ever done so far in my career.”

Both Rico and Samuels are shipping specialists, their Air Force specialty code descriptor. But they are far more than people working in a freight and shipping center. They are part of the final process for Fallen military prior to their beginning their trip home. Mortuary staff prepare the remains. People such as Rico and Samuels inspect the caskets, and perform the final checks to be sure the dog tags, ribbons and flag are correct and up to standards. They get the final look before sending the deceased home. Samuels has commented:

“We make sure everything is perfect. Our mission is to send them out the way they’re remembered, not how they came in.”

The 2007 National Defense Appropriations Act directed the Office of the Secretary of Defense to provide military or military-contracted air transport for all military people who die in a combat theater of operations. This means the US has taken responsibility for transporting the Fallen directly from Dover AFB to the nearest airport of the Fallen’s final destination.

This law also requires that an honor guard escort the Fallen to their final resting place. A family can ask that the honor guard be excused from this duty, and can request commercial air. This might be done when the closest airport to the family is a small one where USAF aircraft cannot go.

Note that the carton, with the casket inside, rests on a wooden pallet as it is loaded aboard the commercial jet. Ground-crews are trained to handle such human remainswith extreme and respectful care. Credit: Photo clip drawn from the video, “An Ocean Away,” produced by Arrowhead Film & Video and commissioned by the Discovery Channel.

The military requires that each coffin has an honor cover, a reinforced cardboard cover that fits on top of the airline industry’s standard air tray for coffins. The cover is embossed with an American flag and the Defense Department seal at both ends. These covers are used only once. They are treated to be waterproof.

The more stories I do about our men and women at war, the more I have come to appreciate the military’s chaplains. In this case, the toll on those in the families of the Fallen and those in the mortuary affairs center can be high in terms of emotions. This is where the chaplains step forward.

SparksDavid Ortiz NoelKlavens
Left to right, Lt Col. Sparks, Lt. Col Ortiz-Guzman and Maj. Klavens Noel

At this writing, mortuary chaplain staff consists of retired Lt. Col. David Sparks, Lt. Col. George Ortiz-Guzman, Maj. Klavens Noel,
and chaplain’s assistant Master Sgt. Timothy Polling. They provide counsel to the families throughout the dignified transfer. They must provide the same to the mortuary staff and the escorts.

Chaplain (Lt. Col., ret.) David Sparks counsels a fellow Port Mortuary team memberat Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs. Chaplain Sparks believes achaplain goes through three stages once he assumes Port Mortuary duty: the horrorstage, sadness stage, and focus stage. Photo credit: TSgt. Kevin Wallace, USAF

Most of us can imagine the grief of the families. But we must not forget the emotions of those working in the mortuary. They can be constantly exposed to Fallen heroes coming home. Many thoughts run through their minds. Sadness can be on onerous burden. Furthermore, many of the Fallen come home in bad shape, and they can only wonder what their deaths must have been like. The chaplain must help them deal with their emotions and at the same time, hold themselves together.

Chaplain Ortiz-Guzman has said:

“Remaining strong and sane for the sake of the mission isa defense mechanism humans use to perform amongst all that horror. But, we try to be as real as we can with our troops. They know when you are ‘snowballing’ them. We cry with them and laugh with them. We are part of the team and they all know it.”

The chaplains themselves must often seek counsel from other chaplains, and let their emotions burst out in private.

Chaplain Sparks has said:

“Port mortuary troops have various, but certainly significant stress issues. We are where they are. I’ve been out at bars at midnight, drinking a cola and talking things through with team members. This is the duty of a chaplain. We are there when they need us, not when it is convenient … With the constant human toll in front of us, the mortuary staff feeling the stress of this work and an increase in the number of grieving families, a sustainable focus is the only way a person can function here.”

It’s worth noting that chaplains must train for the Dignified Transfer.

In this photo, Army Chap. (Capt.) Joseph Odell salutes as a U.S. flag draped transfer case is prepared to be carried aboard a C-17 Globemaster III by Charleston Air Force Base honor guard members on the flight line during training for dignified transfers of human remains July 14, 2009, at Charleston AFB, S.C. More than 170 Army chaplain candidates traveled to Charleston AFB from Fort Jackson, S.C., to take part in the the training. Photo credit: Staff Sgt. DanielBowles, USAF. Army Chap. (Maj.) Robert Hart has commented:

“Imagine if you’d never done one of these before, The very first one I got tasked with, I had never done before and I was in Iraq. They said, ‘Chaplain, we took losses, and we want to do the right thing.'”

At the time, Hart said the Army did not have standards for them to follow. He also added:

“Many times there will be a formation of people who were close to the (individual). It’s a great opportunity to minister to those who might be grieving.”


Colonel Edmondson, the commander, holds his chaplains in high esteem:

“I have the greatest admiration for these loyal chaplains. As a commander, I place the highest priority on the safety, health and well being of all those in my charge. For this mission, our chaplains are the sensors, confidants, caregivers, and friends that keep us all safe and healthy and sane. Each member of the AFMAO team bears a very personal and unique responsibility; our mortuary staff and the families of the Fallen depend on these dedicated chaplains for their mental and spiritual well being.”


Originally Posted http://www.talkingproud.us

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