C3 team tracks America's fallen heroes

  • Published
  • By Christin Michaud
  • Michaud
Ensuring America's fallen are returned home with dignity, honor and respect is the mission of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations. The Human Remains Command, Control and Communication section, the only one of its kind, is responsible for tracking that process from start to finish.

"One of the things that makes C3 special is the unique blend of personnel, from deployed active duty, reservists and permanent civilians," said Robin Vitale, C3 manager for the team of 10.

The other thing that makes it special is the mission.

Once a fallen soldier, sailor, Airman or Marine has been identified, the Theater Mortuary Evacuation Point notifies C3 here which has controllers assigned 24/7. 

Keeping track of human remains coming from the area of responsibility to the United States, then to their final resting place is what Master Sgt. Nicole Zottola, a C3 controller, deployed here from Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, Pennsylvania, does as part of her job.

At the heart of the operation, she collects and disseminates new information as it pertains to the mission. Zottola also takes care of the junior enlisted personnel on her team and ensures C3 has 24-hour operations covered.

The controllers track the entire process from the time they are notified of a fallen service member downrange to the time they are transported to their final resting place. 

"A typical shift is mainly manning the phones, running our events logs and giving support to any dignified transfers that are going on," said Brent Blankenship, one of three civilian C3 controllers. 

Blankenship, also an Air Force reservist, deployed to AFMAO and worked in C3 in 2009 before being hired in his current position. 

"I was excited and anxious to be doing a job that not everyone is able do," Blankenship said of his prior deployments to the mortuary, the first of which happened shortly after 9/11.

"I enjoy being part of the bigger picture which is giving the families of our fallen closure," he said.

As part of that bigger picture, they contact service liaisons and organize and prepare information to ensure family members are afforded the opportunity to witness the dignified transfer of their loved ones. 

In addition to tracking fallen military members, the section also tracks civilians who die in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and other overseas locations.

The three civilians are assigned to a day, swing or mid shift during the week and the deployers augment the civilians during the week and work 12-hour shifts on weekends and holidays ensuring two controllers are assigned per shift.

At times, C3 has a high optempo with answering phones, assisting people who come in to track flight information, updating tracker documents, preparing for dignified transfers and scheduling outbound flights in addition to shift change for the 24-hour operation. In rare cases, based on the mission, a third controller may be used to offer assistance.

As the central hub for AFMAO communications and operations, controllers are often tied to their workstations, yet it's still a mission they find fulfilling.

Having worked as a controller on search and rescue cases, Vitale assisted in 220 saves while on active duty in Japan. Aside from that experience, her work here is the most rewarding to her.

"After serving 22 years active duty in the Air Force, this is the best job I can think of as a civilian that gives me a chance to show my respect and honor my fellow service members," said Vitale.

Blankenship echoed that sentiment.

"I feel that working here at AFMAO is a privilege," he said. "I am fortunate to be able to have such an honorable job."