Final journey: mortuary workers proudly care for country’s fallen heroes

Final journey: mortuary workers proudly care for country’s fallen heroes – Iraqi Freedom

Cathy Milhoan

They come from all walks of life, from units all across the country. While their backgrounds may be diverse, they come with one purpose–to prepare America’s fallen heroes for their final journey home.

Those who work at the Department of Defense’s only mortuary in the continental United States see firsthand a grim reality of war. The solemn task of identifying and preparing the remains of military casualties belongs to a group of dedicated volunteers, most of whom are Air Force reservists.

Nearly 75 percent of the more than 350 people assigned to support the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs at Dover Air Force Base, Del., are traditional reservists, who often leave behind family members and civilian careers to perform their solemn, yet important, task.

Second Lieutenant Joy Atkins first came to Dover nearly a year ago, when she attended a three day mass fatality training course. Her second trip began March 26 when she was called upon to put her training to use.

“I knew I would have to go back someday, I just didn’t know when,” said Atkins, 459th Services Flight, Andrews AFB, Md. “When the war began, I was so nervous. I finally got the call to report to Dover, and I kept telling myself that I would just have to rely on my training.”

Even though she praises the training as some of the best she’s received, she admits that nothing could have totally prepared her for the first day, knowing the casualties were fellow comrades in arms.

“Seeing the uniforms, that really hit home for me,” said the 29-year-old mother of two. “This wasn’t training anymore. This was reality. Seeing a person in the same uniform as you, that really got to me.”

Senior Master Sgt. Avon Bryant also remembers that feeling all too well.

The Baltimore, Md., firefighter said even though he has encountered fatalities in his civilian line of work, nothing prepared him for what he encountered at the mortuary.

“You never get used to death,” he said. “It gets a little easier with time but each time remains arrive at the mortuary you reflect on your service your country, your life and what they all mean.”

The 15-year veteran of the 512th Memorial Affairs Squadron at Dover AFB first began working at the mortuary in 1996 after the bombing of Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. He has worked in all facets of the facility including identification and autopsy, dressing/wrapping, and casketing.

Bryant, like many of the reservists who work at the mortuary, finds it easier to perform the mission not knowing personal details about the casualties.

“I can’t even watch the news once an incident has occurred. I don’t want to know the names,” said Master Sgt. Roberta Kithcart, 315th Services Flight, Charleston, AFB, S.C. “In some small way that helps me through it.”

Providing the reservists emotional support around the clock are members of the Critical Incident Stress Management team, comprised of chaplains and mental health workers.

“Our team works right along with the mortuary workers,” said Lt. Col. Karen Stocks, Dover AFB head chaplain. “We’re there to help them with their coping skills. Normally we try to help wherever we can, whether it’s getting someone a cup of coffee or taking them outside for a breath of air. We let them know what they are experiencing is normal.”

The mortuary’s director, William Zwicharowski, said he is amazed by the reservists’ motivation and professionalism.

“These people are my heroes,” he said. “They come through here time and time again, unselfishly preparing the remains in the most dignified manner. We couldn’t do this without them.”

Since 1955, the mortuary has prepared the remains of more than 60,000 people, including those killed in Vietnam, the bombing of the USS Cole, the Pentagon attack and the Columbia space shuttle disaster. As of the end of April, the mortuary had received more than 150 transfer cases from the battlefields of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Fifty-six reservists from the 512th MAS and 20 from the 315th SVF were activated in early April. They were joined by volunteers from the 349th MAS, Travis AFB, Calif.; 514th SVF, McGuire AFB, N.J.; 459th SVF, Andrews AFB; and 911th SVF, Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, Pa.

Reservists assigned to the mortuary say what motivates them to remain in this line of work is knowing they are doing their part to support a greater cause.

“It’s one way I can give back to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Bryant said. “Coming here is a mini mal sacrifice in comparison to what our troops are doing.

“Working here makes me realize how precious life is. I wake up every morning, and when I put on my uniform I think about those serving and the sacrifice they could pay. I pray and hope every day that our troops will come back safely.”

(Second Lt. Milhoan is assigned to the 512th Airlift Wing Office of Public Affairs at Dover AFB. Mr. Plate is a photographer assigned to Visual Information Services at Dover.)

COPYRIGHT 2003 Air Force Reserves

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group