By Capt. Jennifer Gerhardt, 446th Airlift Wing
/ Published March 19, 2006
McCHORD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash., --
The national news reports another warrior has died. For a fleeting moment, sadness and anger mix with a feeling of disheartenment. Yet, in the next moment, most of us move forward with our lives without stopping to think of our fallen comrade’s final journey home.
Most of us, but not all of us. Not five Reservists from the 446th Services Flight.
Five 446th Services Flight members recently returned to McChord AFB after a solemn 120-day deployment to the DoD Port Mortuary at Dover AFB, Del. A deployment that weighs heavily on the soul. But it is a weight they volunteer to bear.
"Our wartime mission is to deploy to Dover and prepare human remains to be returned to their families with the dignity, honor and respect they deserve.” We have deployed to Dover in support of aircraft crashes, the embassy bombings in Kenya, the Space Shuttle Columbia crash and the 9/11 Pentagon attack,” said Maj. Bruce Simpson, 446 SVF commander.
Out of respect for families' privacy, defense officials do not allow media coverage of deceased military personnel returning to Dover. However, the fallen military personnel do receive a private, “Dignified Transfer” where honor guard members help transfer the remains in flag-draped metal cases from the aircraft to the Port Mortuary.
Once the transfer is complete, the Port Mortuary team members meticulously handle every part of a 15-stage mortuary process that includes thorough identification, autopsy and embalming as well as preparing full dress uniforms and caskets. From Dover, the remains are shipped, with personal escorts, to various funeral homes across the country.
“What we do is for the families,” said Master Sgt. Anita Barnes, 446th SVF. “We help get their loved ones home, and we take painstaking measures to make sure everything is perfect.”
The entire process can take 24 to 36 hours. The nature of the business can produce high levels of stress for those involved.
“You feel bad because your fellow military members have died; but at the same time you feel good about the mission you are doing at Dover. Then you sort of feel bad for feeling good,” said Major Simpson. “It can be an emotional rollercoaster at times.”
To help with those emotions, chaplains and other people trained in Critical Incident Stress Management are on hand to help. The chaplains and CISM staff give deployed teams an opportunity to talk about feelings and realize others have the same exact feelings about experiences on the deployment.
“You have to detach yourself from it,” said Sergeant Barnes. “But everyone is going through the same thing, so you have people to talk to. You become a close-knit family and get the support you need,”
Dealing with emotional toll and stress eases slightly with each deployment.
“My first deployment was for a National Guard aircraft crash in 2001,” said Major Simpson. “On the first day I felt sad and uncomfortable because I viewed the bodies almost as if they were alive. On the second day, I felt different. I saw the bodies more as human remains and realized that everything that made them alive was gone. Then I felt bad for not feeling bad. But as I talked with others, I realized I could still care about them, but in a different way. I just couldn’t continue to feel like I did on the first day or I would not be able to do my job effectively. Looking back, I was making the transition from novice to experienced.”
Training makes the transition easier. Not only do they learn the technical side of their work, but they develop the mental skills to help handle the stress and strain of this emotional mission.
“Our mental preparation is based on training. It is kind of like asking a Soldier how he mentally prepares to go to combat and he says he hopes his training will take care of him,” said Major Simpson. “Even though it’s not the same as combat for us, you hope your training is successful to get you through.”
Consistent rotating schedules also help the Port Mortuary teams mentally prepare for their mission.
“In the past, when a mass casualty event happened, it was more of a last minute deployment and you didn’t have much time to mentally prepare,” said Major Simpson. “You just got on the plane as quickly as you could to get to Dover. Now we have Port Mortuary AEF cycles to support the Global War on Terrorism so we know when we’ll be going (to Dover) in advance and we can be mentally ready.”
Another aspect of mental preparation, for some, is not paying attention to news reports.
“We try not to listen to the news because we don’t want to get a connection,” said Sergeant Barnes. “Once you have that connection with a person, it makes it really hard to go and do your job. If I do hear about past incidents on the news, I get choked up because I know that person and I remember how they looked. It can be really tough at times.”
Not only does the mortuary affairs team prepare mentally to deploy, they also must prepare their emotions for the trip home.
“My last deployment was hard because I have a 16-year-old son at home and I was working on 19-year-olds who were shot,” recalled Sergeant Barnes. “I thought to myself that this could be my kid someday. In order to deal with it, I went into mother-mode. I fussed over these boys and made sure everything was neat, tidy and perfect for their return to their families.”
Mortuary Affairs is a tough job. However, the people who work mortuary affairs take their job seriously because they know a tiny detail may mean the world to those who have lost a loved one.
“No one ever forgets that we are working with someone’s son, daughter, mom, dad, or spouse,” said Major Simpson. “That’s why we work hard at getting everything perfect.”
The final perfect touch delivered by these caring Reservists comes in the form of a salute.
“Rain or shine, we line up outside and render a final salute each time a hearse leaves the Port Mortuary. It’s our way of saying goodbye as we send them off to their next destination,” said Major Simpson.