Mortuary deployments for reservists shape career paths

  • Published
  • By Christin Michaud
  • AFMAO Public Affairs
In October 2000 after the USS Cole bombing, then Senior Airman Tracy Boorom, a traditional reservist with the 315th Services Squadron, Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, was called to the mortuary to assist in caring for the remains of 17 American sailors killed in the bombing. That was her first of four tours supporting the mortuary mission.

Boorom is one of several reservists who changed their civilian career path after supporting the mortuary mission at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.

"I owe Ziggy and Dover Air Force Base a lot for where I am today," said Boorom of William Zwicharowski, a civilian embalmer and licensed funeral director. 

"William Zwicharowski showed me that even when people are having their darkest day, you can still show them how to laugh and see the light in the darkness," said Boorom.

That and mentorship from a few key senior NCOs in her unit, inspired Boorom to consider a career in the mortuary business, a big change from her initial desire to be a lawyer.

"My Air Force career showed me the work God wants me to be doing," said Boorom.

She used the GI Bill in 2006 to attend the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science in Ohio, where she also worked as a lab assistant helping students with embalming, removals and dressing. She graduated a year later earning her license as a funeral director and embalmer in Ohio.

Another licensed funeral director and embalmer in Virginia also got her start as deployed reservist at the mortuary in January 2006.

Tech. Sgt. Christine Devara is currently on her seventh rotation to the mortuary. She is a traditional reservist with the 512th Memorial Affairs Squadron, Dover AFB. The unit is one of only two in the Air Force Reserve Command designed specifically for services personnel who support a mortuary. 

Devara decided to pursue mortuary science as a career after her last deployment to Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations in 2010. After two years of schooling and 3,000 hours as in intern, she became fully licensed.

"I never imagined becoming a funeral director," said Devara. "My dream job was to work for Pixar or Disney as an animator; I was actually pursuing it while I was on a few rotations here. The different experiences I've had here inspired me to become a funeral director - it just felt like a calling."

She said in some respect, there is an art to being a funeral director.

"Funeral directors meet so many diverse people, so you have to understand which part or stage of grief the family is in, learn about others' culture and know how to speak to people who are born in different generations," said Devara.

It was a personal experience with grief for Master Sgt. Enid J-Ellis that was the turning point and birth of her interest in going to school to be a mortician.

J-Ellis is another reservist currently deployed to the nation's sole port mortuary. This is her 14th tour here. 

She is working on her associate degree in Specialized Technology in Funeral Arts and Sciences and said when she finishes, she would like to begin her career as a trade embalmer and assist local funeral homes in Delaware or New Jersey. 

"I may eventually want to manage and own my own funeral home," said J-Ellis. "I would love to come back to work in the very place that my drive to be a mortician was born."

Although J-Ellis was originally in child care, she and the aspiring lawyer and would-be animator agree their work at Dover's Port Mortuary helped prepare them for a career in the mortuary industry.

"You have to have a special place in your heart for people," said Boorom.  "When people are going through the worst day of their lives if I can help them still feel at peace that is most rewarding."

The stories of these three Air Force reservists are just a few of the life changing stories from those touched by their experience and work caring for the fallen.