Friends of the Fallen volunteers provide light to families in their darkest hours

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Katie Maricle
  • | Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations

Jennifer Miller’s journey to her work with Friends of the Fallen started with her morning drive to work.

Miller passed Dover Air Force Base every day on Route 1 on the way to her job in Wilmington, Delaware – but one morning three years ago, the cars in front of her painted an unfamiliar picture.

“There was a hearse and two cop cars in front of me, and I could see the flag-draped casket,” she said.

Miller asked her husband, who was stationed at Dover AFB at the time, what was going on, and he explained that a fallen service member was being transported home from the mortuary. She said learning about the mission at Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations brought her to tears.

Several weeks later, she learned through a friend of a friend about a group of volunteers called Friends of the Fallen, a non-profit organization that provides care and assistance to families of the fallen during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base.

“It was meant to be,” said Miller, who joined Friends of the Fallen that year and now serves as the public relations coordinator.

Currently, 31 volunteers serve on an as-needed basis, primarily at the Center for Families of the Fallen. These volunteers come from different backgrounds, most with various military affiliations but also some without. These volunteers serve with one purpose – helping families during their toughest times.

“The people I serve with are amazing. At any given time an email is sent out, we’ll get 10 or 15 responses within the hour of people who are ready to help,” said Laura Bashista, Friends of the Fallen president. “I’m proud that our organization is 100 percent volunteers and we’re entrusted with so much.”

Friends of the Fallen volunteers provide a range of support for families while they wait to travel to Dover’s flight line for a dignified transfer. They provide baked goods, drinks, snacks, grief materials and sometimes even just a comforting presence. In the event that families stay off base for a dignified transfer, the group will maintain a 24-hour presence to assist with any family’s needs from the time the first family arrives at the hotel to the moment the last family departs.

Each month, volunteers will provide a list of dates they are able to serve in an on-call capacity. That calendar, and the communication between AFMAO and Friends of the Fallen, is the responsibility of Herb Welday, Friends of the Fallen’s dignified transfer coordinator. For every eight family members at a dignified transfer, one Friend of the Fallen will provide support, typically at the CFF for approximately three to four hours.

“We match the needs of the family with the volunteers we have,” Welday said, adding that more support may be needed if a child is among the family members or if there is a mass fatality with several families in attendance.

Welday’s first involvement with the mortuary mission took place in December 1985, when he volunteered to escort a fallen soldier through the port mortuary following a DC-8 crash in Gander, Newfoundland.

“It’s been over 35 years and I still remember that young man’s name,” he said.

Two years after retiring as a chief master sergeant in 2012, one of Welday’s friends from a previous assignment told him about Friends of the Fallen. He joined the group with no hesitation at all, he said. Welday’s involvement increased in 2020 when he joined AFMAO as a member of the Command, Control and Communication team in a civil service position. Welday said being able to see both sides of the mission helps him anticipate the needs of both organizations.

Miller, Bashista and Welday all said they had never heard of Friends of the Fallen until shortly before joining. In November, Friends of the Fallen launched their Facebook page and Bashista and Miller appeared on WBOC-TV to talk about the group as part of an initiative to increase awareness about their mission.

Friends of the Fallen’s involvement with the dignified transfer mission is not only valued by families of the fallen, but by the family support team at AFMAO.

“Friends of the Fallen are indispensable partners for us,” said Maj. Matthew Knight, AFMAO senior military chaplain. “They show up before, during and after our dignified transfers to care for families. Sometimes they’re able to connect with our families of the fallen in pretty powerful ways.”

Without Friends of the Fallen, the AFMAO team would not be able to provide the level of support that has become the standard, said Knight.

Miller knows the importance of that care and support, but knows it also comes at a price.

“We want to do anything we can, but we don’t want to be needed,” she said. “We want our heroes to return to their families. We don’t want it to be this way."

To learn more about Friends of the Fallen, visit their website or their Facebook page.