At Dover Air Force Base, Every Day is Memorial Day
DOVER, Del. - The chaplain was right, Linda Shea remembers thinking.
"The first thing you're going to see is the flag," she had told her.
She recalls scanning the dreary surroundings: The gray C-17 cargo plane. The muted fatigues of the stoic, somber military personnel. The box-shaped van - plain white, like a bread truck without the logo. All of it set against the misty, gray weather of an early morning in mid-May.
Her eyes locked on the red, white and blue cloth wrapped around the metal case that held the body of her son, 21-year-old Cpl. Kurt S. Shea of Frederick, Md.
The chaplain's warning hardly helped. Flanked by her husband on the right and her daughter on the left, she wept on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base.
"Nothing prepares you to see your child in a box with a flag over it," she said.
The memories get hazier after that. She recalls the approach of six white-gloved Marines, their praying over her son's body, their precise, subdued movements.
Seeing the elegance of the event, the respect showed to her son, some of her grief gave way to serenity and comfort.
They loaded his remains into the white van. It crawled into the distance, escorted by a police car, lights flashing. She watched until it disappeared.
The same week Cpl. Shea - who died in Helmand province, Afghanistan - received his dignified transfer, the U.S. Department of Defense identified four other Marines and three soldiers killed in Afghanistan. The next week, one sailor, three Marines and seven soldiers were reported dead. Since 9/11, about 5,300 people have died in Iraq or Afghanistan.
All of their bodies came through Dover AFB.
So far this year, as of Friday, the remains of 170 fallen servicemen and women have returned from overseas to Dover. For decades, the base's Mortuary Affairs Operations Center has handled almost every overseas military death.
The country sets aside one day a year - Monday, Memorial Day - to honor the casualties of war. But here, memorializing the dead entails daily dedication and constant effort. Airmen prepare the flag-draped cases for transfer. They embalm the body - or, in some cases, body parts. They arrange a full dress uniform for the fallen. They locate, catalog and clean the deceased's personal effects, items ranging from dog tags to family pictures or a swatch of fabric from a blanket a grandmother made. They embrace the burden of caring for the war dead.
Most residents in Dover, unless they are connected to the military or the United Service Organization, may give only glancing consideration to the bodies passing through. When a plane flies overhead, Andrew Bromley, 20, of Dover, has paused at times to contemplate its cargo, particularly after 9/11 and the Iraq invasion. More often, he said, "it's better to just go along with your day" than concentrate on such sobering thoughts.
"I think there's some complacency in the general public," said Tech. Sgt. Christian Chauvin, an Air Force flight mechanic who has helped transport remains. "They know it's there, but they don't want to think about it. They don't want to know the horrors of what goes on."
Airmen working and living on the base know the unmistakable sight. They may stop to watch the event. But then some, too, have to look away.
"I didn't want to go look at it every time," said Charles Lee, a retired senior master sergeant from Dover. "It gets to you. You never get used to it."
After the plane carrying the remains lands, a bubble of solemnity forms around it. Activity around the base continues, with planes landing and taking off, but the area around the fallen service member is quiet.
The dead travel at the front of the aircraft, always headfirst, Chauvin said. Nothing leaves the plane before the remains. A member of the "Advance Team" boards to inspect the flag - sometimes smudged or tattered by the battlefield - wrapped around the case.
The process is at once numbing in its repetition and striking in its poignancy.
"Every one is the most important one, whether they are a private or a three- or four-star general," said Staff Sgt. Jeremy Ulibarri. "We can't pick and choose who we show those honors to. It has to be across the board."
On Wednesday, with temperatures soaring to 105 degrees on the tarmac, Ulibarri helped prepare flags for a private first class, one of the lowest ranks, and a major, a commissioned officer just two steps below colonel. For each, Ulibarri folded the flag with four rows of stars facing up and a red stripe down the middle and running down the length of the case. It takes five minutes of quick, precise work to fold the flag, the first thing everyone sees.
"You've got one chance to make a good impression, and everybody's watching," Ulibarri said. "Yes, your supervisors and leadership are very important, but the family is most important. You want to leave a lasting impression."
The families now wait for the dignified transfer at the recently completed Center for the Families of the Fallen. The spacious one-story building has Zen-garden-like decor in soothing earth tones and big comfy couches and chairs everywhere, Shea said. Her family decided to huddle together on a love seat. The people working there were eager to bring them whatever kind of food or drink they wanted. The Sheas didn't want much. Eventually, someone told them it was time. Were they ready?
They weren't, Shea recalled, but they boarded a blue shuttle bus anyway.
When the officer in charge of the Advance Team receives word the family is on the way, he calls out, "Wheels rolling!"
With the family in place, the six white-gloved members of the carry team - representing the same service branch as the fallen - march across the flight line, swinging arms in unison. A row of high-ranking officers, usually colonels, called "the official party," follow behind. When the carry team enters the aircraft, the surrounding service members snap to attention. The chaplain says a prayer - audible to those standing below the aircraft, though the words are not discernable. The prayer can change for each transfer - one of the event's few variables - but on Wednesday, Chaplain Lt. Col. Marti D. Reynolds said the following:
"Father, extend your arms of loving consolation. ... We ask that you care for those who are still in harm's way, bring healing and hope to this troubled world, and keep us ever mindful that in the midst of unimaginable and perhaps conflicting feelings that you alone are our refuge and strength and a very present help in times of trouble. Our honor here today signifies our heartfelt appreciation for the ultimate sacrifice."
As the carry team walks the remains away from the plane, the ranking officers make the rarest of gestures, a salute to an inferior rank. Such a tribute happens, at most, twice in a service member's career. Once if he or she receives the military's highest award, the Medal of Honor, and again if he or she dies in service overseas.
As the event concludes, family members often sob. A few yell in anguish. Most wait until the white van rolls out of sight to leave.
The work does not end when the white van departs.
The remains arrive at the Port Mortuary, where about 65 men and women work 24 hours a day, according to the Air Force.
During an autopsy, the medical examiner will collect all items left on the body - letters, good-luck charms, religious symbols, jewelry. The "personal-effects team" cleans and catalogs each of them. They ask the family if they want each item returned or placed inside the casket.
"It gets pretty intense," said Karen Giles, who served as director of the mortuary from 2003 to 2008. "I always felt the personal-effect guys and gals had the hardest job."
In the uniform preparation area, a large room in the heart of the mortuary, workers use the service members' records to outfit them with a uniform reflecting their rank. They attach every insignia, medal, ribbon, badge or accolade the deceased has earned, double-checking each one.
The mortuary assembles a full uniform for every fallen person, whether the remains will be cremated or kept in a closed casket. If the remains of the service member won't fill a uniform, it still is placed on top of the remains.
"It's that wonderful and terrible mission of the mortuary," Giles said. "You hate to see young people lose their lives, but you have the honor of caring for them. ... There is sadness there, but it's not a sad place."
The work does not pause or change for holidays. It would not gain significance on Memorial Day.
"Every dignified transfer is special," said Capt. Tyson Edwards, who supervised Advanced Teams. "The one that would occur on that day is not going to be more special than the one the day before."
Somewhere in the world this weekend, a soldier, sailor, Marine or airman could fall. Comrades in the battlefield will load the remains into a metal case and cover it with a flag.
The flight crew will load it in the front of the aircraft, headfirst like always. The advance team will count the number of stars showing on top and give the signal to start the event. The white-gloved carriers will grab the handles and a family will watch them march the remains of a son, daughter, father, mother, wife or husband into the back of a white van.
And the van will crawl out of sight, escorted by a police car, lights flashing.
The rest of the country will celebrate Memorial Day. At Dover Air Force Base, it will be just another Monday.