Dover is home to military's largest mortuary

More than 50,000 bodies have moved through Air Force base since 1955

April 26, 2002|By Tom Davis | Tom Davis,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. - Like most military bases, Dover sends its wide-eyed young troops on their missions and welcomes them home as heroes.

But it is Dover's unique and grim mission that distinguishes it from the typical base, because in every major American conflict since the Vietnam War, the dead have come home to Dover.

In America's latest conflict, the remains of 189 victims from the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon were identified there, and then prepared to be sent to their families. More recently, the bodies of seven U.S. soldiers arrived from Afghanistan after they were killed in the bloodiest battle for Americans in the war.

As the war on terrorism continues, those on the base and in the surrounding community of Dover know there could be more bodies.

But as they say in the military, this is what they're trained for. The troops are thousands of miles away from the front lines in Afghanistan, but this is their battle: preparing and identifying remains of soldiers who died much too young.

`A dangerous world'

"It's a dangerous world we live in. Sept. 11 showed that there are threats to freedom-loving people," said Col. Kenneth R. Carson, commander of the Dover-based 436th Operations Group.

Dover is home to 36 C-5 cargo jets, which are among the largest planes in the military, and they've carried nearly 1.6 million of tons of food, equipment, and vehicles since Sept. 11 to the Middle East and elsewhere. In many ways, it's a typical base, with runways that stretch across the pancake-flat farmlands of central Delaware. On a typical day since September, many of the 5,500 military and civilian personnel who work there can be seen scurrying to pack jets with truckloads of cargo.

But it is unique in a way that the Air Force is reluctant to talk about. It is home to the military's largest mortuary, and the only one in the continental United States.

In times of war, those who work among the blimp-sized airplane hangars and boxlike buildings know the drill: The 47-year-old morgue gets busy.

More people work there - 400 at one point after the Pentagon attack, as opposed to the usual staff of seven - and they work longer hours.

In September, 12-hour shifts were the routine. Among the tasks: matching dental records, dressing deceased soldiers in their uniforms, and sewing ribbons and patches to their clothes.

In September, after the Pentagon attack, each day began and ended with a prayer.

Air Force officials say the drab aluminum warehouse is a processing center, not a funeral home. Families don't go there to wait. Instead, the mortuary has the thankless job of contacting loved ones about "final destination," even when the families are too confused, too anguished to deal with funeral arrangements and cemetery plots.

`The hard part'

"The hard part is dealing with the families," said Bob Bauer, the base's civilian mortuary specialist.

It's such a grim job that even veteran Air Force personnel cringe when they talk about it. But the numbers of the dead passing through tell the story, and they are staggering: The bodies of more than 50,000 have moved through since 1955. Most were military troops, but many were civilians, too, if they were a part of a military operation, or if there is a special request from the Department of State.

During the Vietnam War, the remains of 21,693 soldiers and civilians were prepared and identified there. From the 1983 terrorist bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, the morgue handled 237. In 1978, the bodies of 913 men, women, and children from the Jim Jones mass suicide/murder in Guyana passed through in one of the more gruesome tasks in the mortuary's history.

The morgue also handles the bodies of soldiers who die in peacetime. On a routine month, about 10 bodies pass through. But the morgue can handle up to 100 bodies a day and store 1,000 deceased, the Air Force says.

For some, such as Bauer, the task of preparing remains that may have suffered the effects of battle is never easy, but not impossible. It's a job he's had since 1994, and lately, he's rarely left the place. But in many ways, he says, he's "immune and numb" to the rigors of the job.

"You become acclimated," he said. "You're trained to do this. You probably have an understanding of the body."

After the Pentagon attacks, he needed help. But those who came to assist needed help, too, in the form of emotional and religious counseling. The base set up a break room for the 400 specialists - including 200 reservists - who helped identify the bodies.

Counselors and chaplains provided moral support. Outside restaurants donated hot food. Signs were hung up that said "God Bless America."

`My dad was scared'

Airman 1st Class Diana M. Alcivar, 22, of Elizabeth, N.J., handles inventory, and sometimes she deals with the mortuary. She assisted at 2 a.m. one recent morning when the remains from Afghanistan arrived. She's been so busy, she's had little time to visit her family in New Jersey.

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