By Army Master Sgt. Brian Hamilton, U.S. Army Human Resources Command
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del., Nov. 14, 2017 — In keeping with the Defense Department's commitment to honor its fallen warriors, the Port Mortuary was established here in 1955.
Operated by the Air Force since that time, management of the Port Mortuary shifted among multiple Air Force units until 2008, when Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations took control. Today, the Port Mortuary finds its home inside the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs, a sprawling 73,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility built in 2003 at a cost of $30 million.
Service members from all branches of the military, in addition to DoD civilians and contractors, work tirelessly to comfort the families of the fallen who’d died in contingency operations overseas. Their mission is to provide dignity, honor and respect to the fallen by preparing them to be returned home to their families.
Like those of their counterparts from the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, soldiers assigned to the U.S. Army Human Resources Command's Joint Personal Effects Depot assist with mortuary operations. They serve as liaisons for families who travel to Dover for the dignified transfer of a loved one. They assist with the final preparations of the fallen in the uniform shop, working side by side with airmen, sailors and Marines to achieve their mission.
When a service member perishes overseas, the remains are flown here for what is known as the dignified transfer. Upon arriving at Dover, a detail from that service member's branch of service transports the warrior's remains from the aircraft to the Charles C. Carson Center for final burial preparations.
Families have the option to attend the dignified transfer, and when they do, it's up to soldiers such as Army Sgt. 1st Class William Carson, a transport noncommissioned officer assigned to the JPED at Dover, to ensure their needs are met.
"Once we get notification of a deceased service member, it's my job to get the family members from the airport in Philadelphia to Dover, and back again," Carson said. "I also provide transportation for the military escorts who transfer the fallen service members from the flight line to the Carson Center."
Carson, now serving his second tour with the JPED, says a lot has changed since his first tour in 2007.
"Back in 2007 at the height of contingency ops overseas, families didn't have the option to attend. Now, they do," he said. "Dealing with the families can definitely be a roller coaster ride. You have to keep in mind that they just lost the one person that meant the world to them, and you never know how they're going to cope with that fact, whether it be through tears or through anger. It's not easy, but we just try to be as respectful as we possibly can so that they can get through this part of the process."
Carson said that in addition to the family aspect, operations at the JPED have also changed.
"It used to take several weeks for us to get the service member's personal effects," he said. "There were several stops in between the time those items left theater and the time they actually arrived at the JPED. Now it's a straight shot from there to here, and that time frame has been cut to a matter of days."
A True Joint Mission
"When service members get assigned here, they become a part of a unique team -- a joint team," said Army Maj. Laura Wood, who oversees the Joint Personal Effects Depot as its officer in charge. "At any given time, you can have a soldier working right alongside an airman or a Marine."
While soldiers assigned within the JPED typically handle the personal effects of all service members, others are routinely called in to assist with the handling of personal items.
"Take our Marine [liaison officers] for example," Wood said. "They come from all over to assist with Marine personal effects that we as soldiers wouldn't know. They help with those cultural nuances, like the shark's tooth, that only a Marine would know. The same goes for the Air Force and Navy as well."
Wood is charged with ensuring the soldiers assigned to the JPED are well rounded and prepared to execute their joint mission at a moment's notice.
"We don't know when we will have to perform our mission, so we spend our time here when we don't have a casualty training as if we do," she said. "Because we only have one shot at getting this right, we take the time to go over things such as Department of the Army Pamphlet 670-1."
The Uniform Shop
As the fallen reach the Charles C. Carson Center, the service members who care for them take the time to prepare their remains in a way that brings dignity to the deceased as well as the service, paying attention to every detail. Flags that will drape the caskets are individually pressed. Uniforms that will clothe the deceased are custom-tailored to fit.
Within the uniform shop, the walls are lined with every decoration and appurtenance from each individual service. Each uniform is meticulously assembled in accordance to the service member's service records. They are then checked and rechecked for proper order of precedence and measurements.
"We take a lot of pride in what we do here because you can instantly see the impact on the families with the work we are doing on the uniforms," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Giuseppe Francioni, uniform shop noncommissioned officer in charge. "So you can take a lot of pride in what you do and knowing that that uniform going out is the best that you can do."
Francioni's counterpart in the uniform shop, Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Luis Diaz, reemphasized that point.
"We have been working together in the uniform shop for about a year now," Diaz said. "This is our signature going out the door. This is our final product, and this is our way as service members of saying thanks to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice." Diaz added that the difficulty in working with families adds an extra degree of pressure to the job.
"It is difficult going out there and helping with the families who wish to attend the dignified transfer and then coming back inside here and helping to prepare their loved one for final burial," he said. "That's one of the hardest parts, and sometimes we have to step away."
While both Francioni and Diaz point out that working at the Port Mortuary can be both emotionally rewarding and draining at the same time, they also said that they wouldn't want to do anything else.
"This has such a greater impact than anything else I do in my day-to-day duties," Francioni said. "With each uniform that I do, I can say, 'This is my final product to you, the family, and my way of honoring your loved one for their service.'"
For the Fallen
Wood has served 16 years in the Army, and she said that while every mission she has undertaken in the military has been important, this one has been the most purposeful.
"With our work here, you see the families start the grieving process," she said. "You get to see the appreciation in the faces of the families for the job we do for them. Those things provide a purpose for what we do here."
That purpose, Wood said, is what drives the soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines assigned to the Port Mortuary and Joint Personal Effects Depot to continue with their mission of honoring the fallen.
"I think our motto probably captures it best: 'To honor the fallen,'" she said. "I think that no matter what the circumstances are out there, the service members inside here would take as much pride in what they are doing and the final product that goes out because they know this is the last memory those families will have of their loved ones."