NEWS | Dec. 2, 2011

Caring for fallen is calling says embalmer

By Kendahl Johnson Public Affairs

For Mable Justice, becoming a licensed embalmer was a long and arduous process, but having the opportunity to provide dignity, honor and respect to fallen service members makes all her sacrifices worth it.

Justice, a mortuary specialist at Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs at Dover Air Force Base, Del., got her first glimpse of the port mortuary as a reservist. She said her experiences at the center changed her life.

"It was such a rewarding experience for me," she said. "Seeing the amount of care taken for every fallen service member was amazing. I knew it's what I was designed to do. There was no doubt in my mind."

Although she said she truly loves working for Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, it wasn't always easy, especially in the beginning.

"Initially, I had no interest whatsoever in embalming," Justice said. "I didn't have any type of background in mortuary affairs. I could not even look at remains. That's how afraid I was."

She said being a religious person, she turned to God for help.

"I didn't think I had it in me to work with our fallen, so I prayed. I asked my family and friends to pray for me. God wiped that fear from me and I came to truly love what I was doing."

So she set out on a path to make mortuary affairs a career. While still activated as a reservist from the 512th Memorial Affairs Squadron, she started going to school at a college in Baltimore. After work, she'd drive 90 minutes to take one class, just to get started on that path.

When her deployment with AFMAO ended, she returned home to Salisbury, Md., but continued taking classes in Baltimore. The daily drive was two and half hours each way.
And she was working full time, a midnight-to-8 a.m. job at a male prison as a corrections officer. The rigorous schedule was painful, and it lasted two years.

"When I think back to when I was going through that, studying and driving and never having any sleep and never having a life, it really didn't matter because I knew it's what I wanted to do," Justice said. "This is my calling in life."

Justice finished her schooling with a degree in Mortuary Science. She spent a year working as an apprentice at Melvin Funeral Home in Harrington, Del., and passed state and national exams to become a licensed funeral director and embalmer. In October 2009, she came full circle, getting a full-time job at AFMAO as a civilian employee.

For Justice, the reward of working at AFMAO is knowing the service member was sent to his or her final resting place with dignity, honor and respect. But it's also about providing care and service to the families who have lost loved ones.

"It's all about the families and trying to bring that loved one back home with dignity and honor so the family can have closure and say their last goodbyes," she said. "When I was a corrections officer I didn't feel like I was making a difference. Here, I know I'm making a difference."

She is reminded of one of the first opportunities she had to work cosmetically with remains of a Soldier, who had suffered severe trauma to the head. The wife of the fallen Soldier wrote a letter to the embalmers thanking them for allowing her to see her husband one last time as she remembered him.

"That was very touching," Justice said. "I still have that letter and I cherish it. We do our very best to give that same dignity, honor and respect to each and every fallen service member for giving their life for their country."

William Zwicharowski, port mortuary branch chief, was one of Justice's first mentors and was the one who presented her with the letter. He said she is a special person, whose work ethic and compassion for families will allow her to have great success in this career field.

"We never plan this profession. It sort of just finds us, and it found her," Zwicharowski said. "She really did sacrifice and it's incredible. Her heart is in it, and for the right reasons. She is so personable and so caring with the families. She really is a very special person."