Chaplain recognized for commitment to team, families

  • Published
  • By Christin Michaud
  • AFMAO Public Affairs
An Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations chaplain was selected as the Manpower, Personnel and Services, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Specialist of the Year at the Operational Level March 27.

Chaplain David Sparks was recognized for his work with families of the fallen and caring for the team at the mortuary.

During a dignified transfer, Sparks fulfills the role of the family chaplain in the family support team comprised of a chaplain in charge, a family chaplain assistant, a mental health technician and a communication focal point between the flightline and Center for Families of the Fallen where families gather before the dignified transfer.

The team takes care of the families during the dignified transfer, both in a spiritual capacity and walking them through the process.

As the chaplain in charge, he oversees the dignified transfer process at the CFF before families are escorted by the family chaplain to the flightline where they witness the dignified transfer of their loved ones upon their return from overseas to American soil.

"Families immediately take to him and feel a sense of assurance during what is most likely one of the worst days of their life," Chaplain (Maj.) Melvin Smith, AFMAO senior chaplain.  "He has a special capacity to work with the families of the fallen."

The chaplains provide what Sparks called, a ministry of presence, as they identify what each family may need, whether it is a ride, an arm around their shoulder, someone who will just listen as they share their  stories, or just a small distraction from intense grief.

"There is no question - when families come to Dover, they will have a chaplain with them as intensely as they need," said Sparks.

The presence and comfort he provides today comes from years of experience in pastoral care in the civilian sector and as a reservist.

Sparks served as an Individualized Augmentee for the 436th Airlift Wing and after 9/11 was on orders in support of the mortuary mission for several years before he retired and transitioned into a civilian position here in 2007.

His first experience at the mortuary dates back to 1981 in the old Port Mortuary and again through the years supporting Charles C. Carson, the namesake for the new facility which opened in 2003.

"Chaplain Sparks is very good at what he does for AFMAO," said Smith. "He has been a vitally dependable chaplain during the most difficult years of our nation's combat operations since 9/11."

Inside the mortuary facility, Sparks is well-known for Pizza and Conversation, a weekly gathering that involves a song and discussion about lyrics from the song.

Many people listen to songs over and over again but never pay attention to the lyrics, said Sparks. This pause helps educate them on their own culture sometimes. The setting has an openness and trust level that is refreshing, he added. People share their thoughts and stories in a nonjudgmental atmosphere.

This resiliency class is only one way he contributes to the mission. Sparks has hosted resiliency trips, observance events and has an open door policy for anyone who wishes to talk.

"He finds a way into all the hearts of Airmen, giving them a venue to express their deepest concerns and joys," explained Smith.   

Sparks said he was humbled to be considered for the award which recognizes his contribution to the families and AFMAO team.