By Air Force Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff
(1/7/10) - Air Force officials dedicated the new Center for Families of the Fallen at the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center here yesterday.
Since its activation Jan. 6, 2009, the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center has provided dignity, honor and respect for fallen warriors and care, service and support for their families. And on the center's one-year anniversary, officials said the new facility would carry that family support even further.
"For many of us, this dedication is a bittersweet event," said Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff. "This center is emblematic of our genuine gratitude to the families of our fallen servicemembers.
"In an ideal world – one that is universally committed to resolving disputes in a peaceful manner – a Center for the Families of the Fallen perhaps would not be necessary," the general added. "But alas, it is, as all here know very well."
Schwartz dedicated the center alongside Air Force Col. Bob Edmondson, Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center commander. Dignitaries on hand included Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, and Delaware's congressional delegation of U.S. Sens. Thomas R. Carper and Edward E. Kaufman and U.S. Rep. Mike Castle, as well as other state, local and Air Force officials.
Schwartz said the new center represents a commitment by military leaders to care for fallen servicemembers and their families.
"Our most serious obligation is to lead in a way that minimizes the likelihood of losing a teammate," he said. "But, when we properly honor our fallen, we must also properly care for the families.
"This center is one manifestation of our fidelity to this commitment," the general continued, "so that when families from all over the country come to receive their loved ones for the last time, they do so in a place that befits their grief, and can begin to offer them comfort, support, and the sincere thanks of a grateful nation."
Biden said she and the vice president are proud to have such a facility in their home state of Delaware. She praised the initiative, saying the center will be a place of comfort for families "as they come to meet their fallen angels."
The number of families coming to meet their fallen warriors has increased since an April 2009 Defense Department policy change that provides aid to families attending dignified transfers of remains of their fallen military members. As participation grew, Air Force senior leadership and spouses recognized that the facilities here could benefit from additional resources. Previously, chaplains and support staff shared a facility with base chaplains serving Dover's 436th Airlift Wing and the reserve 512th Airlift Wing.
An idea to transform a former base convenience store was conceived, and a renovation contract was awarded in the fall. Construction on the center began Nov. 9, and contractors completed the job within 60 days.
The result: a 6,000-square-foot center that offers a comfortable and quiet environment with dedicated sitting areas for the families, as well as private rooms that can be used for counseling or meditation. The center will allow mortuary affairs specialists, chaplains and mental health technicians to better assist families of the fallen, Edmondson said.
Schwartz acknowledged the vision and hard work it took to open the center so quickly, noting the dedication of everyone involved was a true "labor of love."
The center will play a part in helping the nation fulfill "its most sacred of obligations," he said, and servicemembers can know "that their families will be cared for in the way that they would hope in the most difficult of circumstances."
The center's staff will oversee the appointment of family liaison officers – members of fallen servicemembers' units who help the family work through the paperwork and problems that come with their loved one's death, said Todd Rose, mortuary affairs division director. The staff also will provide "reach-back" help for families, especially those who don't live near a military installation.
"The intent is for the staff to be proactive, to reach out to families," Rose said. "The team will develop a package of information on resources available for the next of kin. They can provide support over the phone or help them find that support in their local community."
Rose said the center supervisor will be a certified counselor who will be available to help families work through their grief. Staff members will be available to help a family from the time they arrive at the airport until the family decides help no longer is needed.