Job offers challenges, rewards for embalming tech

  • Published
  • By Christin Michaud
  • Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Public Affairs
Behind three sets of double doors in the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs lies the embalming section, where a core of Air Force civilians perform a job most can't imagine doing.

The mortuary's stark white walls are lined with 10 embalming stations, each stocked with equipment and instruments. Here, three embalming technicians assist licensed embalmers with cleaning, preserving and restoring remains of the fallen to be viewed by their loved ones when possible, providing what closure they can.

The help of the technicians is invaluable, said David Vance, one of four embalmers assigned to Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at Dover Air Force Base, Del. The embalmers often rely on the technicians for continuity and second opinions.

"I appreciate them," he said. "I'm thankful for what they do and how they help out."

The assistance with sewing, moving and preparing remains becomes paramount, and cuts down on their workload and the need for overtime or additional licensed embalmers to support the mission, explained Vance.

Joseph Vargo said he had a tough time adjusting when he first arrived to the mortuary as a young Airman. The embalming technician deployed here twice as a reservist before transitioning into a permanent position as a civilian three years ago.

On the first day of his deployment, there were 23 fallen. He remembers vividly when Vance handed him a needle and thread and showed him what to do. Vargo began the painstaking suturing work that has now become second nature.

Vargo worked 15-hour shifts to prepare hundreds of remains -- double-digit numbers every day. As the son of two retired service members, there were some with whom he had a personal connection.

"In 2007, two weeks before I came to Dover, my father went down range with the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division," said Vargo. "For those four months, I was taking care of all of his guys; because they were taking the most hits."

He admits it took time to learn an effective way to deal with the continuous exposure to death. At 6 foot 6 inches tall, he said he went into "tough-guy" mode and tried to desensitize himself.

When he realized he wasn't coping well on his own, he eventually turned to a chaplain for assistance.

"Chaplain (David) Sparks has seen and heard me cry more than anyone I know," said Vargo of the Port Mortuary's senior chaplain. "He's the only person I could talk and vent to."

One case he recalls was especially difficult, and he reached out to family for support the first time he faced the remains of a female casualty.

She had a tattoo on her right shoulder that said 'Daddy's little girl.' I lost it and had to walk away, mentally chill and call my parents, he said.

Once Vargo learned how to cope effectively with the unique stress of his work, he could focus more on perfecting the process.

"You can't be back there feeling sorry," he said. "It will destroy you inside as a person, and they need you on your 'A' game, doing your job, not sobbing or crying."

Although the mission is difficult, it draws people in, he explains. "There is a sense of pride and satisfaction you have in the back of the house working and helping families see their loved one."
It's an experience that is difficult to compare to anything else, he said, referring to his adjustment trying to go back to his civilian job.

"When you leave a mission of this magnitude, it's hard to go back to selling computers."