AFMAO adapts to unique challenges amid COVID-19

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Holly Roberts-Davis
  • Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations

Personnel assigned to Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, are used to unique conditions that can arise when caring for fallen service members and their families. While a large portion of the nation is practicing physical distancing and staying home, the mortuary mission doesn’t stop and AFMAO members must adapt more than ever.

The AFMAO Commander, Col. Brian Eddy, said his top priority is balancing the safety of his team with mission requirements.

“To the max extent possible we are teleworking as an organization,” said Eddy. “However, we do have mission sets that require our personnel to come in and execute, and if that’s the case we practice physical distancing, the wearing of appropriate personal protective equipment if distance can’t be maintained and overall good social hygiene.”

One example is the 24/7 operations center which serves as AFMAO’s focal point for casualty notifications. Controllers track the entire process starting with the initial notification of a death until the service member reaches their final resting place. They also work with branch of service liaisons to organize and track information to ensure each mission flows as smoothly as possible.

In addition to the measures put in place to protect members of the organization, AFMAO had to find alternate ways to support family members who travel to attend dignified transfers while still following the CDC recommended guidelines for physical distancing.

In an effort to ensure the safety and health of family members and the mortuary staff, family travel to attend the dignified transfer is on a case-by-case basis during the national emergency.

“We, in conjunction with our sister services, have implemented a screening process for families prior to their departure from their homes and upon arrival at Dover,” said Eddy. “Additionally, we screen all those involved in the dignified transfer to ensure everyone is healthy ... ensuring the safety of everyone.”

Other changes put in place include requiring families who attend dignified transfers to practice physical distancing and wear masks when in common areas of the Fisher House for Families of the Fallen.

“It can sometimes be difficult to avoid the typical ways you may show support to a grieving family member,” said Tech. Sgt. Michelle Johnson, Fisher House for Families of the Fallen NCO in charge. “Some families need that physical interaction or display of affection in order to feel comfort. Our mission will never change and we are committed to providing our families a warm ‘home away from home’ atmosphere where they can focus on coping with the loss of their loved one.”

Even with new guidelines in place, Johnson emphasized AFMAO is still committed to completing the mission to the highest standards.

“Continuing to provide the care, service and support for the families of our nation’s fallen is paramount,” said Johnson. “We will do this with the precautions set in place and continue to keep our Airmen as healthy as possible.”

Changes to the dignified transfer process include formation distance and requiring the carry team to wear masks. Even with the changes, the mission will continue, assured Eddy.

“The level of care has not and will not change,” he said. “Our mission to provide dignity, honor and respect to our fallen is constant, and we are all committed to ensuring we continue to meet our sacred charge and the standard set before this national emergency.”

Joy Clifford, a resource advisor with the readiness division, said there are challenges daily, but through it all, one theme sticks out: people are adopting a mindset of collaboration, not frustration.

“We’ve become more aware of our environment and have had to adjust to how we do things on a daily basis,” said Clifford. “People are adapting very quickly, and we’ll continue to honor our fallen and their family’s needs – it’s pretty amazing to see us focused on that one promise.”