Air Force Mortuary Ensures Dignity, Honor for Fallen
(March 11, 2010)
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del., March 8, 2010 - Under a deluge
of rain, the 757 touched down here late at night, returning
Army Staff Sgt. Michael David P. Cardenaz home. He had been
killed just a few days before in an enemy attack in
|An Army carry team places
a transfer case containing a fallen
servicemember's remains into a vehicle during a
“dignified transfer” at Dover Air Force Base,
Del., Feb. 22, 2010. The vehicle will transport
the case to the Air Force Mortuary Affairs
Operations Center, where all U.S. servicemembers
killed in combat are prepared for burial. USAF
photo by Roland Balik
With family and friends near, an Army carry team marched in
slow, measured steps to the aircraft, undeterred by the
whipping wind. Their hands clad in stark, white gloves, the
soldiers slowly moved the transfer case from aircraft to
waiting vehicle. Only the sound of distant aircraft and the
anguished cry of a loved one cut through the silence. |
As the driver pulled away slowly, all military members in
attendance raised their hands slowly in salute.
The responsibility, and honor, of preparing the 29-year-old
for his final journey home now rested on the shoulders of
the staff of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations
It's a mission they will undertake with dignity, honor and
respect in mind, and with only one acceptable goal:
“It's a heavy toll our nation has paid on this, and these
are the men and women who have borne the cost,” said Air
Force Col. Robert H. Edmondson, the center's commander. “We
owe our best every time and in every way.”
The center's mission is to receive a servicemember's
remains, prepare them for final disposition, then secure an
expedient passage to the place of burial -- all while
ensuring “dignity, honor and respect to the fallen and care,
service and support to their families,” Edmondson said. The
staff tends to every seemingly minute detail, from the tight
crease on a U.S. flag draped over a casket to a carefully
built ribbon rack on a perfectly fitted uniform that may
never be seen.
The center, while Air Force-led, is a joint effort among all
services, a reflection of the people it serves. All U.S.
servicemembers who die in support of a contingency operation
overseas will process through here, as well as the U.S.
victims of a mass casualty incident, such as the devastating
earthquake in Haiti.
The number of returning fallen servicemembers varies, but
Edmondson said he's seen up to 20 remains in one night.
Though the center can accommodate about 50 remains in one
day, he added, that's a scenario he doesn't want to witness.
The center stood up about a year ago to consolidate Air
Force mortuary operations in a central location as well as
to oversee the port mortuary, the only one of its kind in
the Defense Department. The port now is one of the center's
three divisions, along with mortuary affairs and operations.
Port mortuary division
The port mortuary is tasked with preparation of fallen
members for transport to their final destination. This
process begins at the time of death notification in the
combat theater. Upon arrival of the remains, usually within
48 hours, staff from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner
System conducts the processes of identification and medical
Army Spc. Xavier Gonzalez snips a thread off of a uniform shirt at the uniform shop of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center at Dover Air Force Base, Del. Gonzalez prepares uniforms for fallen soldiers' remains. USAF photo
||Experts obtain fingerprints and compare dental charts. After
the autopsy, the embalming and restoration begins, said
Randy Keel, director of the port mortuary division. This
involves preparing a new, custom-tailored uniform, equipped
with the most up-to-date awards and decorations, and
cleaning and restoring any personal effects, such as wedding
bands, watches and wallets, he explained. Each task is
undertaken with exacting care, he added.
“Everything is done with a high attention to detail,” Keel
said, from snipping loose threads off of a uniform to
painstakingly restoring a beloved piece of jewelry.
The division's staff also prepares the casket, or the urn if
the family chooses to cremate. Those services also can be
provided here at the Defense Department's sole crematory,
After the remains are dressed and a quality check takes
place, the remains are carefully prepared for placement into
a casket, with a U.S. flag draped on top. Meanwhile, an
administrative team is working behind the scenes to arrange
for transportation and to complete a plethora of necessary
documentation, Keel said.
“[The staff is] here doing a mission that's largely unseen,
and that's the way it ought to be if you're doing it right,”
This division has a weighty mission on its
shoulders, but Keel said he's proud
to bear that burden. “I can't think of anything else I'd rather do,” he said.
Mortuary affairs division
All three divisions work together to ensure fallen
servicemembers and their families get the best care
possible, Edmondson said. Although it's been just a year
since the center stood up, it's since made huge inroads into
the care of the fallen and their families with new
facilities, technology and partnerships, he said.
While the port mortuary serves military members from all
branches, the mortuary affairs division is a bit more
service specific. This division is responsible for the Air
Force's mortuary affairs on a global scale.
Only about 5 percent of Air Force deaths worldwide come
through this facility, said Todd Rose, director of the
mortuary affairs division. “The rest of the deaths the Air
Force experiences over a year's timeline occur throughout
the world,” he said.
Rose's division is tasked with the care, service and support
of the deceased and their families. This includes training
mortuary affairs officers and technicians assigned to Air
Force bases worldwide.
“My staff is responsible to make sure everything the
deceased is entitled to receive and the support that the
families are entitled to receive is extended to them,” Rose
The division also oversees the Center for Families of the
Fallen, a new, 6,000-square-foot facility here that offers a
comfortable waiting area for families that have traveled to
Dover to witness the dignified transfer of a fallen loved
one. The center features sitting areas designed with privacy
in mind, a stocked and fully equipped kitchen, meditation
room, nursery and even a room where teens can watch a
wide-screen TV or play a video game.
“We wanted to create a comfortable, beautiful environment
for the families who have sacrificed so much,” Rose said.
While the missions of the port mortuary and mortuary affairs
divisions are more visible in nature, the operations
division takes on more of a behind-the-scenes role. But
without this division, the other two would be unable to
carry on, said Trevor Dean, deputy to the center's
This division is the support mechanism for the other two,
responsible for functions such as budget, resource
management and manpower, just to name a few, said Air Force
Lt. Col. Mason B. Pigue, the division's director. The
division also coordinates the movement of the fallen out of
the area of operations, he said, through a 24/7 command,
control and communications hub called HRC3.
Upon notification of death, the HRC3 staff starts the
information-gathering process to learn as much as possible
about the family's wishes regarding the return of remains.
They then track the return flight, from the mortuary
collection point overseas through Ramstein Air Base,
Germany, and then here.
“We track to see if the aircraft is on schedule and watch
for issues that might affect arrival time of the fallen or
family,” Pigue said.
After the remains are ready to transport home, the division
takes on the reverse role, arranging for travel to the final
destination and tracking every step of the way until the
remains are home.
This division also oversees the dignified transfer of
remains from the aircraft to the transfer vehicle, a solemn
event that's conducted in honor of the fallen servicemember.
A dignified transfer is conducted for every servicemember
who died in a contingency operation overseas, Dean
explained, and also is enacted for civilians involved in a
mass fatality or for those attached to other federal
agencies, such as the State Department or CIA.
“If you were to come here pre-9/11 and asked how many people
are on this staff, the answer would have been eight,”
Edmondson said, noting that there now are about 150 people
on staff. The port mortuary was a surge operation then, he
explained, with a primarily peacetime mission. When a
national emergency occurred, operations would ramp up and
then return to the former steady-state operations.
A change in policy last year further changed the face of the
center here. The defense secretary authorized media to cover
a dignified transfer, with the family's permission, and also
allowed funding for up to three family members to attend.
Since then, more than 1,700 family members have traveled
here to attend a dignified transfer, and “we've only been
doing this for 10 months,” Edmondson said. “A tremendous
amount of family members want to come.” The increase in
families drove home a need to increase the support
capabilities, resulting in facilities such as the Center for
Families of Fallen.
“The new policy allowed our new, fledgling organization to
show the Air Force and other services how deeply involved
[we are] and how much we care,” Dean said. “It's given us
the ability to serve each of the services and provide
additional services to our families that now come here.”
All of the effort the center undertakes circles back to its
ultimate mission: to care for the fallen and their families.
“Our mission is important, because those men and women died
in service of their country,” Edmondson said. “They not only
made that ultimate sacrifice, but their families did.
“People are working very long hours, very meticulously, with
lots of love and care to make sure it's perfect so the
families can have their final honors,” he added.
By Elaine Wilson|
American Forces Press Service
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