Focus on families of the fallen continues

  • Published
  • By Christin Michaud
  • Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Public Affairs
This is the second article in a series of three about the evolution of the mortuary mission since the media policy changed in 2009. This article is about how support for families has changed at Dover. The first article was about the media coverage of dignified transfers. The final article will be about how the mortuary operation has developed.

In April 2009, the first dignified transfer opened to public media after a more than 20-year ban occurred at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. When that policy changed, family entitlements also changed.

While families have always been able to travel to Dover AFB to witness the dignified transfer of their loved one, they traveled at their own expense. Under the new policy the Primary Next of Kin and up to two others could travel to Dover at the government's expense.

Government officials only expected a small portion of families to attend, but approximately 80 percent of families of the fallen travel to Dover to attend a dignified transfer.

The addition of the Campus for Families of the Fallen, a dedicated family support team and support from the Friends of the Fallen and the USO help make support to the families possible.

"The biggest change for our operation is the Campus for the Families of the Fallen," said Trevor Dean, AFMAO Mortuary Affairs entitlements branch chief. "We have been given, through hard work and support by our senior leaders, an invaluable resource to provide the kind of care we envisioned and exactly what each family deserves."

The campus includes the Center for Families of the Fallen, the Fisher House for Families of the Fallen and a Meditation Pavilion.

When former Chief of Staff of the Air Force General and Mrs. Norton A. Schwartz, attended a dignified transfer in the summer of 2009, they recognized a need for a facility to provide enhanced support to families awaiting a dignified transfer.

An existing facility was renovated and outfitted with furnishings and fixtures to become the Center for Families of the Fallen. It was dedicated by Schwartz Jan. 6, 2010. The facility includes segregated areas and rooms for families to use for privacy and separation. There is a café area with snacks and beverages, a meditation room, baby changing stations in both restrooms, a private nursing area in the women's restroom and a children's activity room with a chalkboard wall, games and toys and finally, a separate area with TVs and gaming systems for teenagers. This is where those who come to Dover receive care and support while waiting for the dignified transfer.

Later in the year, the Fisher House for Families of the Fallen opened its doors during a ribbon-cutting ceremony Nov. 10, 2010, at Dover AFB after six months of dedicated construction. It was the 50th Fisher House, but the first of its kind. Across from the Fisher House is a Mediation Pavilion designed to provide a quiet place for families to gather, pray and reflect during their stay at the Fisher House.

The facility, gifted to the Air Force by the Fisher House Foundation is unlike any other. The house is not located next to a military hospital or Veterans Administration medical center, but instead, is adjacent to the Center for Families of the Fallen. Families and friends of the fallen and casualty assistance officers traveling with the family are the only people authorized to stay in the Fisher House.

Care and support for families is provided primarily by the family support team which consists of a chaplain in charge, a family chaplain, a chaplain assistant, a mental health technician and someone who serves as a communication focal point between the CFF and the flightline.

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

The family chaplain is from the respective branch of service. Air Force and Army chaplains are assigned to AFMAO. When Navy and Marine Corps families come to Dover, Navy chaplains augment the mission from the national capital region.

"That person has extremely intensive time with the family," said David Sparks, a civilian chaplain assigned to AFMAO. "From the time they hit the ground to the time they leave Dover the chaplain is not only available, but pretty much with them 24/7."

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.

In time, the family support teams have learned from family requests what things they may need to have on hand. Requests for religious support for a particular faith are also coordinated based on a family's faith. They have arranged for requests for priests, rabbis or an imam based on each family's religious preference.

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

The support for families is something the chaplain has seen evolve in his time here. Prior to 2009, a chaplain and a colonel from Dover Air Force Base would meet families at the visitor's center and take them to the chapel annex and meet with them prior to the dignified transfer if they traveled to Dover to attend. The timeline was very brief, approximately 4 to 6 hours. Now families are here much longer, in some cases as long as 48 hours with overnight stays.

Having a chaplain available around the clock was a huge change from what they were accustomed to, explained the chaplain.

"With the media change came inviting and bringing families who get here 24 hours or less after being notified," said Sparks. "That is by far the biggest change to our stance working with families."

After the change in media policy, one chaplain and initially, a mortuary affairs representative from the Air Force Mortuary Affairs entitlements branch would meet with families prior to the dignified transfer.

For Dean, interaction with grieving families is something the experienced funeral director has done regularly in his career, but that interaction still touches him.

"At the time, my branch was working in the Center for the Families of the Fallen and I was privileged to be working that night," said Dean. "I met a father of a fallen Marine. As we began to talk about what will happen on the flightline I told the father 'we are honored to care for his son,' and he said to me 'I am honored to give him to you.' I will never forget that as a father of my own boys and a daughter it touched me in a profound way. What courage it took to say that and mean it the way he did."

Although Dean's branch no longer works as part of the family support team, in his experience here, he said the biggest change since the media policy was reversed in 2009, is the attention given to the families of the fallen.

"We are laser focused on caring for the family while getting their loved one home, taking care of the senior leaders who come and pay their respects, while performing the task of ensuring transparency with the media and the American public," said Dean.

As the support staff for families of the fallen has evolved, so has non-profit organization support. Organizations like the Friends of the Fallen and the USO have also stepped in to be there for families coming to Dover.

Friends of the Fallen is a group of 50 volunteers, most have some military affiliation, but some are local community members.

"Many do not know that we are a community based non-profit organization," said Karen Mordus, Friends of the Fallen president. "We are not supported, nor do we receive funding by the government. We receive donations from individuals, schools, communities, churches, local corporations and from families of our fallen service members."

Each of the volunteers is on-call twice a month for a 24-hour shift. A large majority of the original volunteers have been with the group since it started in 2010.

"We are honored to be in the presence of these families," said Mordus. "We honor the service members that come home by providing care, comfort and support to their families at the Center for the Families of the Fallen."

Yolanda Bottorf, USO Families of the Fallen support manager, helps orchestrate the USO support to families of the fallen on their way to Dover to witness the dignified transfer of a loved one.

She coordinates with USOs at airports across the nation to make sure grieving families have the support they need throughout their travels.
"The USO Families of the Fallen primary mission is to offer support to the families of our fallen heroes during one of the most difficult times of their lives," explained Bottorf. "If there is a USO in an airport they are traveling through, we a have a USO representative standing by to meet them and assist the family with their needs while in the airports."

They also provide assistance for families traveling for memorial and funeral services.

Collectively, the new facilities, family support team and supporting agencies assist AFMAO in fulfilling its commitment to provide care, service and support to families of the fallen.

More than 1,500 of the fallen have had family present for a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base, with more than 8,600 family members and friends in attendance since the policy change in 2009.

"Bringing families out to the dignified transfer adds hundreds of additional steps for all military departments and we have a terrific staff here that each do their part to make it seamless to families," said Dean. "If doing this makes a difference to one family, then it is worth it."