Media endures storm to honor fallen one click at a time

  • Published
  • By by Christin Michaud
  • AFMAO Public Affairs

In the spring of 2009, Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, received the first fallen service member under the Department of Defense media policy change, allowing coverage of dignified transfers.

The dignified transfer is a solemn movement of a fallen service member in a flag-draped transfer case from the aircraft to an awaiting vehicle for transport to the mortuary.  

The sacred mission continues more than 8 years later, in fair weather or foul. Whether it’s a hot sunny day or a cold winter night, media representatives from outside the state travel to the base to honor and recognize the fallen through their visual documentation allowing Americans to see the true cost of military service and sacrifice.

During a winter storm last week community members may have been emptying the shelves at local stores stocking up on staples like milk, bread and water. They bunker down at home and nestle under a blanket or in front of the fire waiting for the snow to stop and roads to be cleared.

Behind the scenes, there are others who don the uniform or warm winter attire and brave the elements to support the of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations mission – one that stretches beyond the walls of the sole port mortuary.

The snow didn’t stop the media from covering a dignified transfer alongside the AFMAO and 436th Airlift Wing public affairs teams.  

The change in the media policy allowed the primary next of kin the option to elect media coverage of their loved one’s return to American soil – it’s a choice made more than half the time.

Regardless of the weather or time of day, when approved, Air Force public affairs professionals document the transfer and escort various media outlets on base to capture the dignified transfer.

The snow during a dignified transfer was a first for AFMAO’s Public Affairs NCO in charge, Tech. Sgt. Holly Roberts-Davis, who served as a media escort.

Some of the reporters she escorted said they were impressed how the mission continues in spite of the snow, said Roberts-Davis. 

Most media representatives travel more than 100 miles to Dover, some leaving hours in advance to make sure they don’t hit traffic or encounter other delays. For the transfer Wednesday night, it was in preparation of hazardous driving conditions.

One of those is freelance photographer Steve Ruark, who has been covering DTs since early May 2009, for the Associated Press, who has committed to sending a photographer to every transfer open to media.

Ruark’s first dignified transfer was following the birth of his daughter. He said he remembers it vividly, because it is linked to his daughter's age – a thought-provoking connection of life and death.

"I remember being unsure of where to go and what, exactly, was going to happen," Ruark said of his first trip to Dover to photograph the dignified transfer for the AP.

Since then, he's covered the return of more than 500 fallen service members, at times, multiple times in one day. Each has their own story.

The pace has slowed down considerably, but when there is a fallen service member arriving at Dover, he, like the others, weather the storm to do their job – fulfilling the family’s wish of honoring their hero – one click at a time.