New facility fulfills needs for families of the fallen

By Ed Drohan | Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center Public Affairs | Jan. 7, 2010

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — The Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center has been providing dignity, honor and respect for fallen warriors, and care, service and support for their families since the unit was activated on Jan. 6, 2009. So it was only appropriate that a new facility that will carry that family support even further be dedicated on the one-year anniversary.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz presided over the dedication of the Center for the Families of the Fallen here Jan. 6, a new facility that will be a haven for families facing difficult times and difficult decisions. While an existing building was used for the center, renovations on the $1.6 million facility started in October and were completed this month.

AFMAO is the Department of Defense's sole port mortuary. The AFMAO staff utilizes state-of-the-art equipment to establish positive identification through DNA, dental and fingerprint analysis and autopsy fallen service members to determine cause of death. The staff also prepares fallen members for transport to their final destination as determined by the family.

The new addition to AFMAO will serve several purposes, according to Todd Rose, mortuary affairs division director. Since April, a change in longstanding DOD policy has allowed family members to attend the dignified transfer as their loved one arrives in the U.S. The CFF is designed to help make those families more comfortable while they await the arrival. Once the permanent staff is in place, they will also be available to help Air Force families with future needs.

The new facility is about 6,000 square feet and decorated with tasteful, comfortable furniture like one could find in their own home. There are several separate seating areas in a spacious central section, while smaller rooms are off to one side, allowing family members a space where they can be alone if they wish.

The choice of d├ęcor was intentional, Mr. Rose explained.

"This is a dedicated facility that provides a warm atmosphere," Mr. Rose said. "It's intended to be warm, inviting and comfortable. It does not look like a military facility. It's homey."

Until now, families were usually taken to the base's Spiritual Operations Center near the housing area while waiting for DTs to begin, Chaplain (Maj.) David Berube explained.
While the SOC worked well, it also meant that base chaplains sometimes had to cancel scheduled events at the last minute to accommodate DTs. If there were a large number of families involved, the SOC wasn't large enough so families used the chapel annex, which is more utilitarian than welcoming.

"This will provide a dedicated and comfortable place for families coming in for dignified transfers," Chaplain David Sparks said. "There will be a child care facility available where children can watch TV while waiting for the DT and a meditation area for the family. The biggest thing, though, is that it will be a dedicated space."

A dedicated facility will also help with logistics, Master Sgt. Karlus Madison said. Sergeant Madison is a mental health technician deployed to AFMAO from Bolling Air Force Base, District of Columbia. Mental health, chaplains and mortuary affairs combine to form an integrated team whose mission is to care for and support families of the fallen.

"The facility we're using now is OK," Sergeant Madison said. "The new facility will allow more privacy for families that don't want to intermingle. It will also give us the chance to pull people aside if they just want to talk in private."

In the past, chaplain assistants and mental health technicians had to transport needed supplies - from food to winter coats to wheelchairs families might need - to either the SOC or the chapel annex. Now those supplies can be prepositioned, which also means less of a chance that something might be left behind by mistake.

While the facility will help tremendously during DTs, the new staff - once in place - will provide support for Air Force families once they return home as well, Mr. Rose explained.
The center's staff will oversee the appointment of family liaison officers, somebody from the fallen member's unit who assists the family as they work their way through the paperwork and problems that come with the passing of a loved one. They will also provide reach-back for families, especially those who might not live near a military installation.

"The intent is for the staff to be proactive, to reach out to families," Mr. Rose said. "The team will develop a package of information on resources available for the next of kin. They can provide support over the phone or help them find that support in their local community."

Mr. Rose said the center supervisor will be a certified counselor who will be available to help families work through their grief. Staff members will be available to help the families from the time they arrive at the airport to until the family decides help is no longer needed. They will also assist in developing future policy for those families, policy that has been evolving since April.

While the policies may be evolving, AFMAO Commander Col. Bob Edmondson said the caliber of support for the families will never change.

"We want our service members to know that their families will be well taken care of should anything happen to them," Colonel Edmondson said. "The Center for Families of the Fallen will help us provide the care, service and support those families need and deserve. They should expect nothing less, and we'll provide nothing less."