DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. --
Across the country, the sun is starting to peek out and temperatures are rising.
That holds true on a glacier near Mount Gannett, Alaska, where in a few weeks, members of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, Alaskan Command and others will gather for the 11th year in a row to recover remains, personal effects and wreckage from a C-124 Globemaster that crashed in November 1952. To date, 46 of the 52 service members on board have been identified by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System.
Before teams can take to the ice, rigorous and thorough training is required. Mable Justice, AFMAO mortuary affairs specialist, attended the Colorado Mountain School for one week to learn the basic skills required to conduct recovery operations.
This is Justice’s first time joining the Colony Glacier team, and the training was customized to the techniques that would be required in Alaska.
“I was nervous for sure. I didn’t know what to expect,” said Justice.
Techniques are taught in a progressive manner during the course, adding onto fundamentals that are learned in the first modules. One of the more deceptively difficult skills involves traversing glacial ice with crampons, which are traction devices attached to boots.
“I started walking with them before they taught us how to walk. I was standing up, and next thing you know, I fell,” said Justice with a laugh. “We had to learn to walk like a cowboy.”
Adjusting to high altitudes was another challenge for Justice.
“My body had to adapt from living on sea level at Dover,” she said. “We were 10,000 feet in the mountains so I was surprised at how long it took me to adjust.”
The weather in Alaska is unpredictable year-round, so it’s important the entire team has the skills and tools to successfully accomplish the mission and assist each other in the elements.
“Training provides us with a foundation for operating in cold weather environments,” said Capt. Lyndi Minott, AFMAO chief of operations support. “If the recovery team is required to stay overnight on the glacier, it is paramount that all members have the same baseline knowledge on staying warm, dry and safety practices for that type of environment.”
The training in Colorado gave Justice the confidence to endure challenging conditions in the mountains of Alaska.
“Knowing the skills in this course gives me the confidence to trust the system, trust the team and trust that everything works,” said Justice. “Learning to trust your team and being able to use what you know properly makes a difference.”
Justice, Minott and other members of AFMAO will leave for Alaska in June.