Friends of the Fallen: Volunteer organization takes mortuary mission above and beyond

By Christin Michaud | Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations | Sept. 16, 2016

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — Approximately 35 volunteers consisting of retired military, military spouses and civilians in the local community provide a unique service at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.

Friends of the Fallen is an organization dedicated to helping support families who travel to Dover to witness the dignified transfer of their loved one when they return stateside.

“We are a group of exceptional volunteers who put heart and soul into honoring the fallen by comforting their loved ones in their time of deepest grieving,” said Karen House, the president of the nonprofit organization. “I am truly proud to be a part of Friends of the Fallen.”
House has been with the organization since 2010, shortly after it was formed following the change in media policy for dignified transfers and the opening of the Center for Families of the Fallen.

“As a registered nurse for 40 years and as a retired (Air Force) officer, I felt this was the right choice for me,” said House. “I would be able to continue to give back to our military troops like I had done for many years taking care of our service members and their families. As a nurse, I knew what it was like to provide comfort and support to those who need it most.”

The organization is currently seeking more volunteers to help with the mission.

“We are looking to increase our volunteer support to about 50 people, which is similar to the total we have had in the past,” said Jill Ballas, volunteer and public relations coordinator for the organization.

The number of casualties from overseas has decreased with overseas operations scaling back which resulted in a voluntary scaling back of volunteers.

“As we continue to meet the needs of the mission, we have realized that maintaining a larger group is more advantageous,” said Ballas.

A larger group allows for smooth operations and allows the friends to be best prepared for the unexpected like a mass fatality, Ballas added.

Each day, at least two Friends of the Fallen volunteers on-call to serve families in the event of a dignified transfer.

Ballas first learned of the group when she attended the dignified transfer of a friend of the family.

“It was then I was able to witness the loving support the Friends of the Fallen offered,” said Ballas. “I had been searching for a way to give back and support the military community and was so touched by the volunteers’ quiet dedication. My husband and I have been blessed to have had a positive experience in the military and always feel supported by our Air Force family. I think it’s important to give back to that community in any small way I can.”

Herbert Welday III, the DT coordinator is tasked with creating a monthly calendar and scheduling volunteers to ensure someone is available each and every day in the event of a dignified transfer. He also monitors email notifications around the clock and keeps volunteers updated on the status of arrival times.

Volunteers are asked to submit at least three days each month they would be available for a 24-hour period. The shifts are from 7 a.m. until the next morning at 7 a.m. Volunteers will assist with dignified transfers with seasoned volunteers initially before they will be scheduled as a primary volunteer.

Welday’s first exposure to the mortuary mission dates back to 1985 as a young Airman when he was called to assist with the remains of soldiers returning to Dover AFB.

His responsibility was to escort the remains of a specialist through the identification and preparation process. Welday said the dignity and honor everyone displayed had a profound impact on his life

“I've never forgotten his name and the sacrifice of those men and women. When I heard about Friends of the Fallen I knew I had to be a part of this organization. It is always a blessing and honor to assist these families in our small way.”

Anyone interested in volunteering can visit www.friendsofthefallen.org to learn more or email the organization at info@friendsofthefallen.org for an application and more information. A background check is required for access to the installation to perform their duties.

“This is a no-fail mission and we take our commitment very seriously,” said Ballas.

For those who wish to support Friends of the Fallen, but are unable to meet the volunteer requirements, the organization also accepts donations, both monetary and of needed supplies, explained Ballas.

Those currently serving said they are honored to be able to provide simple comforts and serve as a presence for families of the fallen.

“If I can be there to honor our fallen by providing compassionate support to their families, it's the least I can do,” said House. “I am truly humbled and honored to be a part of this special mission. I feel I owe it to these courageous souls both living and deceased. If we can remove any concerns for a moment from a grieving family member, we will do this to the best of our ability. We will always be there for them.”