Navy enlisted morticians offer unique perspective

By Christin Michaud | Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Public Affairs | Jan. 12, 2011

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — Navy morticians belong to a career field so small, most people don't even know it exists. Yet the job they do - providing dignity, honor and respect for fallen servicemembers - is important, especially for the families of those fallen.

Hospital Corpsman Chief William Montague, one of just 15 enlisted morticians in the Navy, is assigned to Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operation Center at Dover Air Force Base, Del., where his job is to assist families of fallen Navy or Marine Corps servicemembers.

"Our primary goal is to make sure the families know we care about them. We want them to know it's an honor to do whatever we can do to help them," he said. "I feel that I am really having an impact, that I'm really helping families and providing dignity to the fallen."

Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Jennifer Howell recently joined Montague at AFMAO to serve a 4-year controlled tour.

"I passed through AFMAO back in 2006 for a brief period and my experience was completely overpowering," said Howell. "I could not pass up the chance to come back and serve at AFMAO. The mission here is difficult but the most satisfying I've had in my history of funeral and Naval service. The care and respect given to the heroes that pass through this facility is beyond belief."

In addition to being licensed embalmers, all Navy morticians are also licensed funeral directors. This gives them the knowledge and expertise to provide detailed answers to families.

"We ensure they understand what benefits are provided and what's available to them," said Montague, who has served for 18 years and is the Navy's senior mortician. "We don't try to dictate anything to them, but want to give them all the necessary information so they can make the choices that are best for them."

Navy Morticians are able to tie together the experience of civilian funeral service, the dignity of military tradition and complex military rules and regulations to make bringing our fallen back home as smooth as possible for our families, added Howell.

Although the morticians' primary responsibility is to help the families, they are also responsible for the servicemembers' remains. They help with embalming, they help with getting the final uniform ready and they are liaisons with funeral homes. They also have administrative responsibilities, like making sure expenses are paid.

The Navy doesn't have a training program for those wanting to pursue a career in mortuary affairs. Instead, it recruits licensed and experienced morticians. Montague graduated from a mortuary college in 1984 and received a Texas funeral license. He then worked at a funeral home for eight years before enlisting in the Navy in 1992.

Howell took a different route. In 1993, she enlisted in the Navy and worked in the medical career field as a corpsman. She separated from active duty to become a funeral director before reenlisting in 2006 as a Navy mortician.

"After a 5-year tour in the Navy, I got out to go to The Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science," she said.

Howell received her license in Pennsylvania where she worked at two large funeral homes for eight years in the Pittsburgh area as a funeral director and embalmer.

"Funeral service and embalming is a great mixture of Science, Art and Service to Human Emotion - combined with the honor of the military," said Howell. "It makes the career choice perfect."

There are seven potential assignments for Navy morticians: Millington, Tenn., Quantico, Dover, Hawaii, Guam, Spain or Italy. Assignments are typically six years for a stateside assignment and three years for an overseas assignment. With just 15 positions, the competition for spots is fierce and there isn't much turnover.

Montague said he has enjoyed his career and wouldn't trade it for anything.

"These men and woman have paid the ultimate sacrifice," he said. "I take pride and honor in being able to give them respect and to help their families any way I can."

Howell also believes she made the right career choice. The best part she said is, "the honor of being able to do a job that I love for Sailors and Marines who are giving their lives to defend our nation. We are Sailors, Corpsman and Morticians - we are proud to serve."

(Kendahl Johnson contributed to this article)