DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. (AFNS - 12/6/2012) --
"These quilts are for anyone who's been touched by war, and
outside of a direct combat unit in Afghanistan--you have
been touched by war more than anyone in the United States
Staff Sgt. Caitlin Jones salutes on the flightline at Dover Air Force Base, Del., prior to a dignified transfer on June 30, 2012. Jones just returned from a six-month rotation documenting dignified transfers for fallen servicemembers at Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations. U.S. Air Force Photo/Roland Balik
Those were words I had heard a few times
during my deployment to Dover Air Force Base, Del. Only this
time, they were words being spoken directly to me as I
prepared to return home to Tucson. I was standing at
attention in dress blues in the atrium of our hallowed
building receiving my Quilt of Valor.
"My name is
Caitlin Jones, I'm an Air Force broadcaster for public
affairs, and I just returned from my deployment in Dover,
It's a phrase I've repeated a lot over
the last month as I've gone through in-processing briefings
alongside Desert Lightning Airmen who were deployed to
places like Bagram, or Al Udeid. And more times than not,
I'm met with a blank stare, sometimes even a stifled giggle
or a sarcastic smile.
"Deployment? Don't you mean
TDY? Or manning assist? Or a six-month vacation?"
an Air Force broadcaster for public affairs, and for the
last five months, it was my responsibility to capture video
of dignified transfers of fallen service members. It was my
honor to produce a DVD of the dignified transfer that would
then travel in the hands of a military escort until it
reached a family on the same day their fallen loved one
arrived at their final resting place.
I can't blame
anyone for being oblivious to what goes on inside the walls
of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, or AFMAO. Before
my deployment, I was one of those people. I had been
preparing for the deployment I had wanted -- a 270-day tour
through the provinces of Afghanistan with the U.S. Army,
hearing stories about how we were aiding the Afghan people
and sharing stories of heroism from all services. To my
dismay, that deployment was cancelled and I was re-routed to
I arrived with a bad attitude, no idea what
to expect, and a complete and utter ignorance of the
mission. Not the way that an NCO in the Air Force should
approach a deployment.
That all changes, and the
change happens almost immediately, from the moment you step
foot inside the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary
Affairs. My metamorphosis began my first day, with three
transfer cases coming home to American soil on a perfect
east coast summer night. I thought I would be nervous,
scared of my emotional response, apprehensive about hearing
a family's reaction to seeing a flag-draped transfer case
carrying their loved one, skittish about kicking a camera or
forgetting to hit "record". But instead, I was hyper aware.
Like an Olympian getting ready to compete, a musician on
stage, a Soldier in battle.
It was a process, a
routine, a methodical dance between our public affairs
office, a chaplain corps, carry teams from sister services,
and countless other volunteers, service members, patriots,
and heroes. I repeated the process 210 times from June 11
until my last dignified transfer on November 10, 2012. A
process that is completed in the same admirable way whether
there's a camera recording the slow steps of a carry team
carrying a flag-draped transfer case or not.
to capture the dignified transfer called us out of bed in
the middle of the night, ordered us onto a flightline that
was bathed in humid East Coast heat, pelted by a late-summer
downpour or blasted by a mid-Autumn nor'easter. It didn't
matter if the plane that carried the fallen home touched
down at Dover at 2 p.m., or 2 a.m., -- we were there. I was
I was there, looking through the camera's
lens -- trying to focus on the mission at hand instead of
letting the sometimes horrific sounds of a grieving family
on the other side of the van affect my ability to do my job.
I would repeat a slow and emotionless mantra in my head,
"Focus on the screen. Focus on the numbers, the shot
composition, the basics of what you've done your entire
career. This is important, this cannot be recreated, this is
not an exercise -- this is real world."
and nights throughout the summer seemed to blend together as
I stood next to AFMAO's commander, Col. John Devillier,
during my Quilt of Valor ceremony in November surrounded by
my best friends and compassionate professionals.
don't want you to say, 'I worked at Dover,' Devillier would
say. "But, I want you to say 'I worked at Dover and I did
this. We want you to be proud of your service here to your
nation, and to your nation's fallen and their families."
I looked around the room, at the crew that had become my
brothers and sisters, and realized that the sacred mission
of taking care of America's fallen could not have been
entrusted to a more committed group of professionals. Our
leadership should write a book on how to take care of your
Airmen. The young NCOs and even younger Airmen who work
behind the scenes should all be given medals for the work
they do on a daily basis to ensure our nation's fallen are
quickly and honorably returned home to their loved ones. The
Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who are faced with the
task of taking care of the families on the worst day of
their lives -- everyone across America should know their
While I carry around a secret pride for what
I did during my deployment to AFMAO, my heart swells with
immense pride for the men and women I witnessed taking the
burden of this complex and challenging mission on their
It all begins with a name -- a name that
echoes through the halls of the mortuary, a name that
appears on boards and slides through the center of AFMAO, a
name that is connected to a horrible event in a distant
land. You'll receive a name, and slowly you'll start to hear
bits and pieces -- you'll receive a stack of papers that
spell out their career, that list the people closest to
them, and a small paragraph that will encapsulate in the
simplest of speech how they departed from the earth in the
dirt of a foreign country.
AFMAO personnel will
clean, sort, and remove the rags of combat to replace them
with a dress uniform that might not ever be seen. They will
take ID cards, money, pictures, hand written notes, and
coins that once jingled in the pockets of living, breathing
human beings and return them to a family who is in a black
ocean of grief, struggling to stay afloat.
assigned such a grim and heavy task. I was merely a
broadcaster behind her camera, struggling with the honor of
a mission, the guilt of their sacrifice while I slept safely
in Delaware, and the weight of wanting to do more. I was an
Airman who wasn't prepared for the responsibility of a
deployment to Dover AFB, but who begged to stay even after
my tour was over.
There's a routine, there's a
methodical sequence that begins and ends with a metal box.
You want to do more, you want to help them, you want to make
their lives matter. Make their deaths matter. Make their
sacrifice matter even more.
There's a tradition --
the tradition of bringing the fallen home. The tradition of
leaving no man or woman behind, and sometimes it falls to an
Air Force broadcaster. I was unwavering, whole-heartedly
committed and deeply dedicated to that tradition for the
last five months. A month later I still meet the eyes of
those who don't understand what a deployment to Dover AFB
means, and I tell them a story. I take a deep breath and
ignore the laughter, and I tell them how many fallen I
brought home this summer. I blink away tears that come out
of nowhere when a sarcastic comment cuts too deep, and I
tell them about the incredibly professional service members
who dedicate themselves to the mission of mortuary affairs.
My name is Caitlin Jones; I'm an Air Force
broadcaster for public affairs. For the last five months, I
was deployed to the mortuary at Dover AFB and every day of
my deployment, I did my best to provide dignity, honor, and
respect to our fallen warriors -- while trying my best to
care for, support, and provide service to the ones left
behind. My deployment is over, but my mission goes on -- the
mission to honor, respect, and remember.
By USAF Staff Sgt Caitlin Jones
355th Fighter Wing Public
Air Force News Service
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