Fallen's solemn return home


Mortuary: Since 1955, U.S. casualties of war, terrorism and disaster have returned through Dover Air Force Base, Del.

March 16, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. - The fallen soldier's journey back home to the United States always passes through here, the nation's largest military mortuary.

The building where bodies are prepared for burial is brand new, state of the art, but much else is as it's been for years: the body quietly ushered from the jungles of Vietnam, the streets of Baghdad, Iraq, or the mountains of Afghanistan, stopping first at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and then onto a cargo plane to Dover.

Since 1955, the base has received the remains of nearly 52,000 military members and civilians. Its role as a mortuary has kept it close to major events in recent American history. It has received and prepared the remains of thousands who died in wars, victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack at the Pentagon and the seven astronauts who died last year in the Columbia shuttle disaster. The 17 sailors who died in the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 also came through here.

But since the Iraq war began, the Defense Department reiterated a policy that's been in place since 1991, barring news media from the ceremonial unloading of human remains.

The following is a description of the ceremony the American public does not see, provided by Senior Airman Brandon J. Reynolds, 22, a C-5 crew chief and member of Dover Air Force Base Honor Guard:

Each time a plane returns with human remains, aircraft in the immediate area shut off their engines. A noncommissioned officer boards the plane to inspect the aluminum transfer cases containing the remains. Each case is draped with an American flag and arranged so that it leaves the plane with the body of the person positioned feet first.

One of the base's top military officials, an Air Force colonel, arrives on the tarmac with a military chaplain and an Army general officer, in case arriving casualties are soldiers. The chaplain leads a short prayer.

On the plane, an eight-member Air Force Honor Guard lifts each case and slowly marches it off as the plane's flight crew stands by in the cargo hold and salutes. If an Army soldier is being transferred, a squad from the Old Guard, part of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment, is flown from Fort Myer in Arlington, Va., to participate.

A specially designed truck, acting as a hearse, is positioned about 20 feet away from the plane's open cargo door. After the last case is loaded, the door of the hearse is closed and the remains are taken to the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs, a couple of minutes' drive away.

On the way to the mortuary, the road on the base is cleared and traffic is stopped. Drivers or passers-by who see the hearse stop and salute.

The ritual happens at all hours of the day and night. As of yesterday, nearly 600 soldiers, civilians and contractors who died in Iraq and Afghanistan had been brought through Dover.

"Sometimes there have been family members who meet the remains here, or friends of the fallen Americans who've come back," Reynolds says. "It's very professionally done. There's a whole lot of emotion."

From the moment the plane lands to the moment the remains are delivered to the mortuary would take about an hour for five bodies, Reynolds says.

That's brief compared to all the steps in preparing the remains.

A team of eight civilian and military members, with military reinforcements from time to time, staffs the $30 million mortuary, which opened in October.

From outside, it looks like a squat corporate building in a suburban office park. Visitors in the lobby are instantly struck by the strong smell of disinfectant and the softly lit memorial listing dozens of incidents in which people lost their lives and were brought to Dover.

Remains arriving late at night are placed in refrigeration until morning. The first step is to pass the remains through one of two rooms built with 1-foot- thick concrete walls and reinforced with steel. These rooms contain an explosive-ordnance device - a boxy machine the size of three refrigerators - which scans remains for unexploded ordnance, such as bullets, so that people handling the body aren't injured.

The remains are then wheeled to an area where they are photographed and identified using fingerprinting, dental records and DNA. Additional dental and whole-body X-rays are performed in separate rooms. From there, the remains are taken for an autopsy into rooms equipped with tables, tools and computer screens. Up to 24 autopsies can be done at one time. Embalming also is done here.

The remains then go to the "dress and wrap" area, where they are dressed in the appropriate uniform, which is new and meticulously pressed. A small room, filled with uniforms, pins, medals and patches for the four branches of the military, acts as a "one-stop shop" for those whose job is to dress the remains with the proper regalia.

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