From beginning to AFMAO - C3 coordinates the return of fallen service members

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Alyssa Day
  • | Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations

Dover Air Force Base is home to the sole port mortuary, a place where fallen service members returning from overseas are prepared before they go to their final resting location. A common question asked is how do they get here?

Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations’ Command, Control and Communication section, also known as C3, is a 24/7 operation center that tracks and disseminates information regarding the return of fallen service members.

“We’re like the middle hub,” said Senior Airman Amber Saunders, AFMAO C3 controller deployed from the 512th Memorial Affairs Squadron, Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. “We get the notifications and make sure we disseminate that information out properly to all the need-to-know people. Basically, anyone who’s involved in the DT. ”

C3 consists of both deployed total force Airmen and civil service employees. The team has a large role in tracking aircraft carrying fallen service members, keeping communication lines open for AFMAO leadership and ensuring a fallen service member arrives to their final resting location.

“We’re the first point of contact in terms of knowing when there’s a [human remains] mission,” said Staff Sgt. Danielle Christie, AFMAO C3 controller deployed from the 911th Airlift Wing, Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station, Pennsylvania.

There are three ways C3 controllers find out about a fallen service member. The first way is through the Mortuary Affairs Reporting and Tracking System, second is through AFMAO service liaisons and in some cases they learn about casualties from watching the news, which is always displayed on a video wall spanning across the controllers’ desk spaces.

“When we first receive a notification … we go based on the information we have, so immediately we start working on our checklist,” said Christie.

The checklist consists of 13 to 15 pages of items to complete, depending on the instance in which the fallen service member has died. The checklist typically contains information from the beginning to the end of the process to return the fallen to their final resting location.

“We document everything – tracking all information – from when the aircraft is coming, if family members are coming, what their media choice is and so on,” said Herb Welday, AFMAO C3 controller.

Within the first few steps includes contacting the Aerial Port Control Center to get more information on the expected timeframe for the fallen service member’s flight to Dover AFB, according to Christie. Other steps in the first few pages ensure coordination with respective service liaisons for family information and decisions made so this information can be disseminated to AFMAO, the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System and 436th Airlift Wing senior leaders.

“Our job essentially is to ensure that the information is being relayed accurately and in real time,” said Christie. “Before we send the initial notification, we try to figure out the aircraft type, what time frame it will be arriving, and from where, and we track all of that through [the Global Decision Support System].”

Once they have enough information to begin the checklist, C3 controllers will send out the initial notification to those who are considered need-to-know, which includes the respective service liaisons and the fallen service member’s branch of service contacts.

“If any of the information significantly changes, we send update emails,” Welday added. “If the aircraft arrival time now is delayed 10 hours, that pushes everybody back. We have to funnel that information back out to everyone who got the initial email to keep everyone in the loop.”

Primary Next of Kin decisions have an impact on the checklist, continued processes toward their loved one’s return to their final resting location and who needs to be notified about the changes.

“There are 22 different distribution lists,” said Welday. “The circumstances of what happened will determine which distribution list gets that information to support that particular DT.”

A DT pre-brief is held before the aircraft is set to arrive. During this pre-brief, representatives from several agencies including the aerial port, logistics readiness, security forces and other organizations that provide DT support are invited to discuss the upcoming mission.

“We invite all of the wing partners, and everybody associated, such as the Friends of the Fallen and USO volunteers, so they're in the loop on what's going on so they can support us in their role for the DT mission,” Welday said. “We keep all that communication and document it on the checklist.”

Once the aircraft is inbounded for Dover AFB, C3 controllers send the final email.

“A majority of the time, those aircraft take off in Germany, so we have eight hours lead time,” said Welday. “Once we get notified that it's taken off, we send out our inbound email.”

C3 controllers continue to track the aircraft through the air, relaying updated estimated time of arrival until the aircraft lands at Dover AFB. Day or night, whether it is a weekday, weekend or even a holiday, C3 controllers work around the clock and are trained and ready to track the fallen from in-theater to their final resting place, ensuring they are receiving the appropriate dignity, honor and respect.