Families of fallen find caring support at Dover AFB

  • Published
  • By Capt. Kathleen Ferrero
  • Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Public Affairs
June 9 will mark three years since Master Sgt. Marisa Flores lost her husband, Tech. Sgt. Michael Flores, when he and four other pararescuemen died from injuries received during a HH-60G Pave Hawk crash in Afghanistan.

Some days are still a challenge.

Every now and then, Flores comes across someone who thinks she should be "over it by now." They don't understand that life may go on, but no one gets over losing a loved one on a timetable.

But in the days following the worst news of her life, she said she was surrounded by people who did understand.

From the time a fallen warrior's information is received to the time the hero is sent to their final resting place, the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations team makes sure their families are treated with the utmost care, service and support.

The primary reason families travel to Dover Air Force Base is to witness their loved one's dignified transfer. Upon the return from the theater of operations to the U.S., the remains of fallen military members are transferred from the aircraft to a waiting vehicle by an honor guard team and then driven the mortuary. It is a solemn event.

In March 2009, the secretary of defense announced a change in policy that, upon consent of the primary next of kin of the fallen member, allowed media to cover dignified transfers and provided families the option to travel and stay here at government expense. Since then, the number of families who travel here increased from an estimated 20 to 25 percent to more than 80 percent, said David Sparks, a civilian chaplain who has served families here since 9-11.

Within hours after Marisa Flores' decision to come and witness her husband's dignified transfer, she was met by caring AFMAO personnel at the airport and hotel.

"It's like a movie that gets played in your head, like an out-of-body experience. You're not really 'there,'" Flores said. "I remember getting picked up at the airport. I was with my (family liaison officer). We got to the hotel, and my mom and best friend were there. I was like, 'tell me what to do, and I'll do it.'"

Flores' description is not uncommon, Sparks said.

"We're only talking 24-36 hours since they got a knock on the door. They had to make a decision about coming, whether they want to do that or not. Shock has not worn off, and isn't probably going to wear off for days," Sparks said. "They will remember little of what happened at Dover. But they will remember how they felt while they were here."

Upon arrival, family members are assigned a personal support team that includes chaplains. Sparks said the chaplains' mission is to care for the families during what is probably the "worst moment of their lives" and to "provide a space of peace."

Of what she remembers, Flores said, "Everyone was so nice and friendly. I was looking for someone to help guide me in the right direction at a time when I couldn't think. Everything just flowed."

This smooth flow is based on extensive planning by AFMAO's Operations Division and, for Air Force fallen warriors, the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Division. The whole process is deliberately seamless, Mortuary Affairs Division Chief Todd Rose said, because it is such an "overwhelming" time for the families who are just notified of their loved ones' death.

"Our biggest focus is being able to offer kind, caring, compassionate support to them to try to make them feel comfortable and secure in a time when everything else around them is somewhat chaotic," Rose said.

During their time here, families typically meet with a service liaison to discuss military funeral and the final disposition of their loved one's remains. This is a difficult conversation that requires "deep listening," a skill that family liaisons develop, Sparks said.

"I remember it was at the top floor of the hotel where I met her," said Chris Schulze, the Air Force family liaison who helped Flores in 2010. "She was like a staff sergeant or a tech at the time.

"When you're in the military, and you're seeing a four-star general who's paying his condolences to you, it's a little unnerving. I just kept reassuring her. ... And I think she appreciated that. (Several people who were with her) were trying to protect her; but she wanted to make some decisions at that point."

Flores said the family liaison helped her most by "redirecting my shutting down."

"At one point I was thinking, 'These people don't know my husband, you don't know anything!" Flores said. "I just wanted to say, 'This was my life. He was my everything.

"He said, 'I know this is hard, but you have to do this.' He gave me periodic breaks to walk away from the table and breathe," she said.

Looking back, Flores said she doesn't regret the choices she made.

"I was going in that direction. It's like they knew," she said. "I was grasping for someone to help me. You don't want to make the wrong decision in that situation."

Over the past three years, Flores has found the strength the keep going. "I have a new life now, completing my commitment to the Air Force and doing the best I can for my kids."

As a leader of junior Airmen, her loss gives her a different perspective.

"Before, I had no idea what our fellow Airmen were doing," she said. "We often don't see outside of our bubbles. But now, I often say to young Airmen coming in, 'You have no idea what you're doing and how important it is.'"

Flores also has a different view of those who serve at AFMAO.

"I could never do it. I don't know how frequently they do it, but I imagine it's hard. They do an amazing job," she said.

(Editor's Note: Some information was taken from a June 2010 Davis-Monthan Air Force Base press release.)