NEWS | Dec. 28, 2010

Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations honors America's Fallen

By Christin Michaud Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Public Affairs

In December 2008, Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations was created at Dover Air Force Base, Del., to organize the Air Force's mortuary affairs programs into a streamlined unit for Air Force families and Air Force leadership and create a single chain of command for the operation of the Port Mortuary for all Services and the Joint community.

When AFMAO was activated on Jan. 6, 2009, it combined the missions of both Air Force Mortuary Affairs and Dover Port Mortuary at the Charles C. Carson Center. The Port Mortuary is responsible for the return of all Department of Defense personnel from Overseas Contingency Operations.

AFMAO is comprised of the Mortuary Affairs Division, the Operations Division and the Port Mortuary Division, which operates the Nation's sole port mortuary and is the largest mortuary in the DoD.

Air Force Mortuary Affairs and the Dover Port Mortuary had a staff of just 39 personnel. Today, with the combined organization and increased mission, AFMAO's total-force requirement consists of more than 150 active-duty Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines as well as Guardsmen, Reservists and civilians. The mission at the Charles C. Carson Center is also supported by representatives from federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System who are responsible for ensuring the identifications of the fallen and conducting death investigations.

Together, the team of professionals ensures dignity, honor and respect to the nation's fallen military members and the highest level of care, service and support to their families.

The onset of a combined mission meant reorganizing within the facility to account for an increase in personnel, and construction of additional facilities including the Center for the Families of the Fallen. The Department of Defense's Joint Personal Effects Depot and a Medical Examiners office will also be relocated to Dover AFB.

A comrade has fallen
Once a fallen Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine dies, the Theater Mortuary Evacuation Point notifies Human Remains Command, Control and Communication.

The process of notification within AFMAO begins in HRC3, which collects information on how and where the fallen servicemember was killed and disseminates it to others. They also track flight information from the area of operations, to the mortuary collection point, to the theater mortuary evacuation point overseas, and most often through Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to here.

"We track the entire process from the time we are notified of a fallen downrange to the time the fallen return home," said Air Force 1st Lt. Marti Bernet, HRC3 officer in charge, deployed from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. "C3 has the responsibility of knowing where the fallen is at all times. It is a privilege to be a part of the AFMAO team. I am honored to serve my country in this capacity."

While the majority of personnel at AFMAO are Air Force, each service has trained mortuary affairs personnel assigned. Respective service liaisons generate a casualty status report once they receive notification from HRC3 and begin preparing a case file on the fallen. Liaisons work with the primary next of kin to coordinate their travel to Dover AFB for the solemn dignified transfer of remains which is conducted from the aircraft to a transfer vehicle upon arrival to honor those who have given their lives in the service of the country. Liaisons work closely with family members and the military or special escort until the fallen leaves the mortuary.

The story of men and women in uniform who make the ultimate sacrifice
After an 18-year ban on media coverage, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced a new policy in April 2009 allowing media to cover dignified transfers with permission from family members. The Primary Next of Kin for each fallen servicemember chooses to have full media coverage, internal media coverage by DoD only or no media coverage at all. Primary Next of Kin who choose internal or external media receive a video recording with photos and footage of the dignified transfer.

Public affairs professionals deployed to AFMAO prepare a news release if external media have been approved to cover the dignified transfer and submit it to media outlets across the nation. The first casualty after the policy change was Air Force Staff Sgt. Philip Myers. His dignified transfer was covered by 35 media outlets. That was the largest turnout of media coverage since the change, but media have consistently been in attendance for transfers.

"A photographer from Associated Press comes to each dignified transfer to allow publications across the country to use photos they may not otherwise be able to get," explained 1st Lt. Randi Brown, Public Affairs officer in charge.

The amount of time from when the news release goes out to when the aircraft arrives and the dignified transfer begins doesn't always allow media outlets from outside the local area to get to Dover in time.

Lieutenant Brown and her counterpart 1st Lt. John Fesler are responsible for explaining the ground rules to reporters and photographers as well as escorting media to the dignified transfer.

Dignified transfer honors fallen
A hot summer day with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees or a freezing winter night with ice and snow doesn't deter the team of AFMAO specialists from honoring American's fallen with dignity, honor and respect.

Preparation begins on the flightline. Each party involved in the dignified transfer attends a final briefing before the aircraft arrives. The brief is led by Capt. Michael Edwards, dignified transfer officer in charge, who is deployed to AFMAO from Beale Air Force Base, Calif. The captain oversees the entire dignified transfer process.

Simultaneously, the official party, which includes the dignified transfer host, a senior service representative (typically a flag or general officer) and a chaplain, will receive a prebrief in the dignified visitor lounge of the passenger terminal.

Once the aircraft lands and customs officials inspect and clear the aircraft, the advance team boards to prepare the transfer cases and ensure the U.S. Flag draped over the case is in order. If needed, a K-loader is prepositioned next to the plane to assist in the transfer. Outside the plane, transfer vehicles and guides are positioned. If approved to cover the event, media set up on scene to document the moment.

In the meantime, family members meet at the new Center for Families of the Fallen, a comfortable place constructed for families to wait for the arrival of a loved one. The policy change reversing media coverage brought on an additional change in which DoD began paying for family members to attend the dignified transfer of their loved one if they choose. In the 15 months since the policy changed, there have been more than 600 war fallen and more than 2,500 family members who have made the journey to Dover to witness the return of a loved one.

Once the family arrives on the flightline, the dignified transfer begins. The carry team marches out to the aircraft followed by the official party who boards the aircraft. A prayer is offered by the officiating chaplain before the official party assumes their position on the tarmac.

The dignified transfer host calls "present arms." Military members render a salute to the fallen as the carry team donned with white gloves approaches the transfer case and with slow precision, lifts the case then marches slowly, in step to the transfer vehicle and places it inside. The vehicle guide, with deliberate movement, closes the door. Guided by a security forces escort, the vehicle then moves the fallen to the Port Mortuary where the staff prepares fallen members for transport to their final destination as determined by the person previously designated in writing by the servicemember.

Preparing for departure
Processing begins every morning. Personnel on 120 to 179-day rotations from bases worldwide put on their personal protective equipment and enter the processing area to begin. Any remaining jewelry or personal effects are removed from the fallen and inventoried. Larger items are sent to the Joint Personnel Effects Depot at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., until construction of the new facility here is complete. Small items of sentimental value are cleaned meticulously by the personal effects section before being placed in a velvet jewelry bag for the service-appointed escort to return to the family.

Numbers reflecting Dover, the medical examiner and the transfer case are entered into the Mortuary Operations Management System, explained 1st Lt. Amanda Casconi, officer in charge of operations processing. The lieutenant, who is deployed from Robbins Air Force Base, Ga., said those numbers are used on tags and stickers printed for the fallen and personal effects.

Positive identification is the next step in processing and can be done through fingerprints, dental comparison and sometimes DNA analysis.

A forensic examination is conducted to determine the cause of death. Once complete, the staff prepares the fallen to return to the family.

Mortuary affairs personnel assigned to the uniform shop begin putting a uniform in order with the appropriate awards and medals once they receive notification of the casualty. Family members select which uniform they want their loved one to wear. Once care for the fallen begins, measurements are taken to make certain the uniform fits perfectly. Items are on hand so there isn't a delay in returning the fallen home. Ribbons and patches line the walls. An engraving tool allows uniform shop personnel to engrave name tags for service dress uniforms.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Jimmy Toro, Army noncommissioned officer in charge of the preparation of Soldier's uniforms, has been working in the uniform shop for more than three years ensuring every Soldier's uniform is perfect. Toro is an Army Reservist deployed from the 311th Quartermaster Company, Puerto Rico. "I will do it for as long as I can," he said. "It's the best job I have ever had in the Army. I feel like I'm doing something for servicemembers and their families who await the return of their fallen back home."

Once the uniform is complete, the Dress and Restoration section is one of the final steps in preparing fallen for the departure home. The fallen is dressed in a flawless full service-dress or other uniform selected by the family.

The journey home
While other sections have been doing their part, the Administration and Departures section has been processing paperwork and preparing flight arrangements behind the scenes that will bring the fallen to their final resting place.

"As the Reverse Dignified Transfer Officer, I coordinate the transportation of our fallen to their final destination," said 1st Lt. Kady Rohan, who is deployed from Langley AFB, Va. "In doing so, I obtain the outbound departure itinerary and notify all parties involved, to include the Squadron Commander that will preside over the ceremony, the Branch of Service Liaisons and the military-contracted flight service."

Service Liaisons work with the escort that has been appointed to return home with the fallen. Escorts are primarily a member of the fallen's unit, family member or any other individual chosen by the family.

Fallen leave as reverently as they arrive. A reverse dignified transfer is conducted for each of the remains as they depart Dover.

"A final transfer is conducted on the flightline prior to the fallen departing AFMAO with the utmost honor and respect that we can render to someone who has paid the ultimate sacrifice for his or her country," said Rohan.

In 2007, the government contracted Kalitta charter flights to bring remains to their final destination. Kalitta maintains four small jets at Dover to provide dedicated transportation for fallen service members and maintains other aircraft on standby. The fallen servicemember being flown home on Kalitta is placed in a dignified transfer vehicle and transported to the flightline for the reverse dignified transfer process.

Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines from the local area who are returning home by hearse receive a sendoff from personnel at AFMAO who render a final salute before the hearse departs. In some instances, families contact and request an escort from The Patriot Guard. These riders meet outside the main gate on their motorcycles to lead the hearse from Dover to the final resting place. "It's a sad duty, but one we feel is necessary," said local ride captain John Davis. Their mission is to show their unwavering respect for those who risk their very lives for America's freedom and security.

Honoring the warfighter
The AFMAO mission can be challenging for the team of behind-the-scenes professionals who honor America's fallen, but they do it with great pride.
"(The staff) here is doing a mission that is largely unseen, and that's the way it ought to be if you are doing it right," said Col. Robert Edmondson, AFMAO commander.

From the moment AFMAO receives word of a fallen servicemember to the time they depart for the final resting place, AFMAO's team of more than 150 active-duty Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines as well as Guardsmen, Reservists and civilians ensure dignity, honor, and respect to our nation's fallen military members and the highest level of care, service and support to their families.