DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. --
There is a palpable sense of veneration upon first entering the lobby of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations center, here at Dover Air Force Base. The gracefully bowed and lofty glass ceiling, the heavenly lighting, the tile and marble accents speak to the solemnity of the mission. The memorial wall – its central feature – punctuates the theme with just a few of the names and places of the battles, crashes and natural disasters that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and civilians whose remains have passed through here on their way to their final resting places.
Most of us have seen media coverage of the dignified transfer and repatriation of our fallen heroes through DAFB. The measured salute with white-gloved hands and near surgical precision of the transfer detail as they carry the flag-draped transfer case to a waiting van for transport to the AFMAO facility evoke a visceral reaction from those who bear witness.
Behind the scenes, the size and scope of AFMAO coupled with their Armed Forces Medical Examiner System is remarkable.
A sprawling world-class laboratory, the AFMES engages in state of the art forensic science to perform medical-legal investigations to determine the cause and manner of death for all active duty service members who die within federal jurisdiction, as well as for identifying the decedent.
The first step in the process is a postmortem analysis to determine the exact cause of death (the autopsy room is designed for mass casualties and can accommodate two dozen simultaneous autopsies). The science and data collected here and at the AFMES labs are potentially used to engineer battle gear to enhance survivability.
Next, remains are taken to the mortuary where enlisted morticians prepare them with deserved dignity, honor and respect. No detail is overlooked as dress uniforms are crisply pressed, medals and ribbon boards are precisely measured and affixed with military exactitude. The AFMAO uniform shop inventories medals and uniforms for every branch of the military. Next of kin decide whether to bury the deceased in full dress uniform, utility uniform or civilian clothing.
Across from AFMAO lies the Fisher House for the Families of the Fallen, an 8,462 square foot residence featuring nine suites along with a communal kitchen and dining room. There is a game room for children as well as several living rooms where families can gather to talk or meditate. The interior is decorated in warm, muted colors which are chosen for their palliative effect. Three Airmen are on staff 24/7 to assist with any family needs, including moral support, and even cooking when necessary. Families of the fallen reside at the Fisher house up to three days while AFMAO prepares the deceased for transport to their final resting places. Often this is the family’s last contact with the military. Consequently, Airmen of Dover’s AFMAO go to great lengths ensure that loved ones of the fallen are provided with the tender care and attention they deserve to help them navigate through the grieving process.
However, not all fallen heroes are expeditiously returned and repatriated. In November, 1952 while flying in severe weather from McChord Air Force Base in Washington to Elmendorf AFB near Anchorage, Alaska, an Air Force C-124 Globemaster II crashed into Mount Gannett, not far from its destination. None of the 52 souls on board survived. Six days after the crash, the Fairbanks Civil Air Patrol located the wreckage in an ice field near the summit of Mount Gannett. Because of the extreme altitude and location, and that the wreckage was soon covered with 8 feet of fresh snow, it was decided that recovery efforts would be too risky.
Nearly 60 years later, during a training mission in 2012, an Alaska Army National Guard helicopter crew spotted the wreckage on the surface of Colony Glacier. It had been transported by the slow moving glacier nearly 14 miles from the original crash site. Recovery efforts were mobilized and human remains were sent to the Office of AFMES at Dover AFB. Using DNA analysis, the AFMES lab identified the remains of 17 service members from the Colony Glacier site, giving their family members closure.
Over 72,000 service members are listed as Missing in Action from World War II, 7,800 from the Korean conflict and 1,500 in Vietnam. Many years after the guns of war ring silent, remains continue to be discovered and forwarded to the AFMES for identification and repatriation. So far in 2019, 73 fallen heroes have been identified and returned to the United States for burial. Some of the far-off places that continue to yield remains include Korea, Pearl Harbor, Tarawa, Papua New Guinea, Laos, Vietnam and much of the European continent – a virtual historical map of the United States’ involvement in military conflict.
When our visit concluded, we were left with a profound admiration and understanding of the awesome responsibility of the dedicated men and women at Dover Air Force Bases’ Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operation and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. Their essential contribution to our country should never be overlooked, and the families of the fallen can find peace knowing that their loved ones have at last returned.