An Army carry team places a transfer case containing a fallen servicemember into a vehicle during a “dignified transfer” at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Feb. 22.. The vehicle will transport the case to the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center, where all U.S. servicemembers killed in combat are prepared for burial. (U.S. Air Force photo/Roland Balik)
Master Sgt. Tracy Bailey cleans a dog tag at the personal effects section of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Feb. 25. It’s Bailey’s job to clean the personal belongings that arrive with a fallen servicemember’s remains. The belongings are then returned to family members. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Army Spc. Xavier Gonzalez snips a thread off of a uniform shirt at the uniform shop of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center at Dover Air Force Base, Del. Gonzalez prepares uniforms for fallen Soldiers’ remains. (U.S. Air Force photo)
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del., —
Under a deluge of rain, the 757 touched down here late at night, returning Army Staff Sgt. Michael David P. Cardenaz home. He had been killed just a few days before in an enemy attack in Afghanistan.
With family and friends near, an Army carry team marched in slow, measured steps to the aircraft, undeterred by the whipping wind. Their hands clad in stark, white gloves, the soldiers slowly moved the transfer case from aircraft to waiting vehicle. Only the sound of distant aircraft and the anguished cry of a loved one cut through the silence.
As the driver pulled away slowly, all military members in attendance raised their hands slowly in salute.
The responsibility, and honor, of preparing the 29-year-old for his final journey home now rested on the shoulders of the staff of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center here.
It's a mission they will undertake with dignity, honor and respect in mind, and with only one acceptable goal: perfection.
"It's a heavy toll our nation has paid on this, and these are the men and women who have borne the cost," said Air Force Col. Robert H. Edmondson, the center's commander. "We owe our best every time and in every way."
The center's mission is to receive a servicemember's remains, prepare them for final disposition, then secure an expedient passage to the place of burial -- all while ensuring "dignity, honor and respect to the fallen and care, service and support to their families," Edmondson said. The staff tends to every seemingly minute detail, from the tight crease on a U.S. flag draped over a casket to a carefully built ribbon rack on a perfectly fitted uniform that may never be seen.
The center, while Air Force-led, is a joint effort among all services, a reflection of the people it serves. All U.S. servicemembers who die in support of a contingency operation overseas will process through here, as well as the U.S. victims of a mass casualty incident, such as the devastating earthquake in Haiti.
The number of returning fallen servicemembers varies, but Edmondson said he's seen up to 20 remains in one night. Though the center can accommodate about 50 remains in one day, he added, that's a scenario he doesn't want to witness.
The center stood up about a year ago to consolidate Air Force mortuary operations in a central location as well as to oversee the port mortuary, the only one of its kind in the Defense Department. The port now is one of the center's three divisions, along with mortuary affairs and operations.
Port mortuary division
The port mortuary is tasked with preparation of fallen members for transport to their final destination. This process begins at the time of death notification in the combat theater. Upon arrival of the remains, usually within 48 hours, staff from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System conducts the processes of identification and medical investigation.
Experts obtain fingerprints and compare dental charts. After the autopsy, the embalming and restoration begins, said Randy Keel, director of the port mortuary division. This involves preparing a new, custom-tailored uniform, equipped with the most up-to-date awards and decorations, and cleaning and restoring any personal effects, such as wedding bands, watches and wallets, he explained. Each task is undertaken with exacting care, he added.
"Everything is done with a high attention to detail," Keel said, from snipping loose threads off of a uniform to painstakingly restoring a beloved piece of jewelry.
The division's staff also prepares the casket, or the urn if the family chooses to cremate. Those services also can be provided here at the Defense Department's sole crematory, Keel said.
After the remains are dressed and a quality check takes place, the remains are carefully prepared for placement into a casket, with a U.S. flag draped on top. Meanwhile, an administrative team is working behind the scenes to arrange for transportation and to complete a plethora of necessary documentation, Keel said.
"[The staff is] here doing a mission that's largely unseen, and that's the way it ought to be if you're doing it right," Edmondson said.
This division has a weighty mission on its shoulders, but Keel said he's proud to bear that burden. "I can't think of anything else I'd rather do," he said.
Mortuary affairs division
While the port mortuary serves military members from all branches, the mortuary affairs division is a bit more service specific. This division is responsible for the Air Force's mortuary affairs on a global scale.
Only about 5 percent of Air Force deaths worldwide come through this facility, said Todd Rose, director of the mortuary affairs division. "The rest of the deaths the Air Force experiences over a year's timeline occur throughout the world," he said.
Rose's division is tasked with the care, service and support of the deceased and their families. This includes training mortuary affairs officers and technicians assigned to Air Force bases worldwide.
"My staff is responsible to make sure everything the deceased is entitled to receive and the support that the families are entitled to receive is extended to them," Rose said.
The division also oversees the Center for Families of the Fallen, a new, 6,000-square-foot facility here that offers a comfortable waiting area for families that have traveled to Dover to witness the dignified transfer of a fallen loved one. The center features sitting areas designed with privacy in mind, a stocked and fully equipped kitchen, meditation room, nursery and even a room where teens can watch a wide-screen TV or play a video game.
"We wanted to create a comfortable, beautiful environment for the families who have sacrificed so much," Rose said.
While the missions of the port mortuary and mortuary affairs divisions are more visible in nature, the operations division takes on more of a behind-the-scenes role. But without this division, the other two would be unable to carry on, said Trevor Dean, deputy to the center's commander.
This division is the support mechanism for the other two, responsible for functions such as budget, resource management and manpower, just to name a few, said Air Force Lt. Col. Mason B. Pigue, the division's director. The division also coordinates the movement of the fallen out of the area of operations, he said, through a 24/7 command, control and communications hub called HRC3.
Upon notification of death, the HRC3 staff starts the information-gathering process to learn as much as possible about the family's wishes regarding the return of remains. They then track the return flight, from the mortuary collection point overseas through Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and then here.
"We track to see if the aircraft is on schedule and watch for issues that might affect arrival time of the fallen or family," Pigue said.
After the remains are ready to transport home, the division takes on the reverse role, arranging for travel to the final destination and tracking every step of the way until the remains are home.
This division also oversees the dignified transfer of remains from the aircraft to the transfer vehicle, a solemn event that's conducted in honor of the fallen servicemember. A dignified transfer is conducted for every servicemember who died in a contingency operation overseas, Dean explained, and also is enacted for civilians involved in a mass fatality or for those attached to other federal agencies, such as the State Department or CIA.
All three divisions work together to ensure fallen servicemembers and their families get the best care possible, Edmondson said. Although it's been just a year since the center stood up, it's since made huge inroads into the care of the fallen and their families with new facilities, technology and partnerships, he said.
"If you were to come here pre-9/11 and asked how many people are on this staff, the answer would have been eight," Edmondson said, noting that there now are about 150 people on staff. The port mortuary was a surge operation then, he explained, with a primarily peacetime mission. When a national emergency occurred, operations would ramp up and then return to the former steady-state operations.
A change in policy last year further changed the face of the center here. The defense secretary authorized media to cover a dignified transfer, with the family's permission, and also allowed funding for up to three family members to attend.
Since then, more than 1,700 family members have traveled here to attend a dignified transfer, and "we've only been doing this for 10 months," Edmondson said. "A tremendous amount of family members want to come." The increase in families drove home a need to increase the support capabilities, resulting in facilities such as the Center for Families of Fallen.
"The new policy allowed our new, fledgling organization to show the Air Force and other services how deeply involved [we are] and how much we care," Dean said. "It's given us the ability to serve each of the services and provide additional services to our families that now come here."
All of the effort the center undertakes circles back to its ultimate mission: to care for the fallen and their families.
"Our mission is important, because those men and women died in service of their country," Edmondson said. "They not only made that ultimate sacrifice, but their families did.
"People are working very long hours, very meticulously, with lots of love and care to make sure it's perfect so the families can have their final honors," he added.