NEWS | April 8, 2009

Airmen cover the fallen with American flags for families

By Capt. Shannon Collins AF Mortuary Affairs Ops Center Public Affairs

For some, it means red, white and blue. It means 13 stripes for the original colonies and 50 stars for the states. For the families of the fallen, the American flag means so much more.

Because of this, two Airmen assigned to the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center here take their mission very seriously.

"These men and women who gave their lives for their country for the sake of freedom deserve the utmost dignity, honor and respect," said Tech. Sgt. Willard Rico, a shipping specialist here. "I'm very privileged to be a part of that, especially for the families left behind."

Sergeant Rico is deployed from the 60th Force Support Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. His co-worker, Staff Sgt. Star Samuels, a shipping specialist deployed from the 43rd Force Support Squadron, Pope AFB, N.C., echoes his sentiment.

"We're taking care of someone's child, mother, father, husband, wife. They passed away protecting this country; we try to make everything perfect to give them and their families the utmost respect," said Sergeant Samuels.

The shipping specialists are part of the final process for fallen heroes prior to beginning their journey home to their loved ones. The mortuary staff prepares the remains of fallen U.S. servicemembers, as well as government officials and their families stationed abroad in Europe and Southwest Asia. Since 1955, the remains of more than 50,000 servicemembers have arrived at Dover AFB for identification and funeral preparations.

The shipping specialists, Sergeants Rico and Samuels, inspect the caskets, as well as perform a final check to make sure the dog tags, ribbons, flag and more are correct and up to standards. They are the final "eyes" before the fallen are sent to their loved ones.

"We make sure everything is perfect," Sergeant Samuels said. "Our mission is to send them out the way they're remembered, not how they came in."

Before any fallen come through the doors of the mortuary, the Airmen prepare the flags. They remove the flags from their protective packaging, unfold them and then slowly feed them into an industrial steamer for pressing. As the Airmen gently unfurl the 5 X 9 foot flag and feed it into the steamer, they spray a mist of water on it. The machine folds the flag over as it presses so that the flag never touches the ground.

The Airmen slowly take the freshly pressed flag, Union forward, and put it on a frame for later use. The flags will gently caress the caskets of the fallen as they return to their families. Ultimately, these same flags will be folded by an honor guard at the funeral and presented to the family as a final remembrance of their fallen heroes' service and ultimate sacrifice.

For Sergeant Samuels, pressing the flags brings home the experience and importance of what they mean.

"When I'm pressing a flag, I'm pressing a flag for someone who hasn't died yet," she said. "Today, we pressed 12 flags; those flags could be here until next weekend, then all of a sudden, we're pressing 12 more flags."

The flags drape over a rack until needed. Once a flag is needed, the two Airmen, standing on either side of the casket, slowly pull the pressed flag off of the rack and onto the casket. One of them stands at the foot, one at the head, working in harmony, making eye contact, as they carefully and delicately drape the flag to embody the casket with the fallen Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman.

The movements are slow and deliberate, their movements in sync, their eyes finally roaming around the casket, making sure everything is perfect.

"I have so much respect for my fallen heroes," said Sergeant Samuels. "These heroes have families, loved ones, who could've talked to them just a couple of hours ago. Just one mistake, one trip down the road, anything can happen. I take nothing for granted."

The Airmen perform this mission day in and day out for the families.

"We're here for the families," said Sergeant Rico. "I'm privileged to be working here, giving dignity, honor and respect to the fallen for their families. It's the most rewarding job I've ever done so far in my career."

As the red, white and blue is secured around the casket, the stars and stripes drawn taunt, the Airmen prepare to send the fallen home. They render the slow salute as the American flag passes by.