Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Mortuary Staff Prepares Uniforms for Fallen

By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service

March 9, 2010 - Army Sgt. 1st Class Jimmy Toro slides ribbons onto a rack, then clips the rack onto a brand-new dress uniform, the finishing touch on a lengthy process to ensure the proper medals and decorations are in place. He smiles as he admires his handiwork, lifting the jacket to ensure each medal and insignia is perfectly spaced and no wrinkles have invaded the carefully pressed surface.

Toro has put an inordinate amount of time and effort into this uniform, even though it's not one he'll ever wear. This uniform is for a servicemember who has been killed in combat.

Toro works in the uniform shop of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center here, and it's his job to prepare the uniforms that will clothe soldiers' remains. His job, he said, is a labor of love.

"Soldiers take pride in their uniforms, and we ensure that pride is sustained even after they pass away," he said.

Toro's focus is on uniforms for soldiers, but Navy, Air Force and Marine representatives also are on hand to prepare uniforms for their service colleagues. All U.S. servicemembers who die in support of a combat operation will come through the operations center here, where their remains are prepared for final disposition.

Marine Corps Cpl. Adam Knebler said it's tough to describe the satisfaction he gets from doing this job.

"I find my work very rewarding," he said while sliding a belt buckle onto a strap. He is building several uniforms for Marines who had arrived the night prior. "This is probably one of the most important things we can do."

Knebler is surrounded by hundreds of uniforms and walls covered with neat rows of new ribbons and insignia from every service branch. The readily available stock helps the staff turn around the uniforms quickly. Their task must be completed by the time the remains are ready for departure home, which can take from 24 hours up to several days.

The staff's job starts when the remains first arrive at the mortuary. It's their job to obtain measurements, then have the uniform custom-tailored on base to ensure the perfect fit. Most families request burial in the service's dress uniform, but the staff also has accommodated other requests.

"We've purchased civilian attire, such as a suit or even jeans and a shirt," Toro said. "We'll do our best to fulfill any request."

For uniform requests, which make up the bulk of their work, their next step is to gather ribbons and medals; even those that have been posthumously awarded will make it onto the uniform. If needed, they will special-order a ribbon or medal, such as a state-specific one for a National Guard member, and have it shipped overnight. The name tag is the finishing touch, with a machine on hand to make them on the spot.

Once complete, the uniform will undergo a quality check. "If it's not right, if the sleeve is too long, for instance, we'll start over," Toro said. Another quality check will take place after modifications, and then a third at shipping.

These extensive efforts all are aimed at making sure the uniform is perfect for the families.

"Families are going through a tough enough time. We want them to have the least stress and worry possible," said Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Richard Mitchell. When they see the uniform, he added, "we want the families to see perfection; we want the uniform to shine."

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