By Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kevin Wallace
Special to American Forces Press Service
April 24, 2009 - The night sky looked calm and tranquil from a gently soaring aircraft, miles above the Eastern Seaboard towns below. However, there was nothing tranquil or calm in the hearts of one family on board, traveling to Dover Air Force Base to witness the dignified transfer of their son's remains. Their son, their Marine, their hero had paid the ultimate sacrifice in the mountains of Afghanistan only the day before. The staff at the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center would carefully prepare his remains for transfer to his final resting place.
As the family arrived at the Dover flightline, the mother's tear chalice overflowed and her emotions began to stream from her eyes. Her husband quickly comforted her with his embrace as a Port Mortuary chaplain swiftly made his way over to console the grieving couple.
Later that night, an aircraft landed at Dover and an advance team boarded the jet to inspect and pre-position the transfer case. An honor guard of Marines reverently transported the fallen Marine from the aircraft to a specialized transfer vehicle waiting nearby. Among the few airmen and Marines respectfully performing their duties on the aircraft was a familiar face – another Port Mortuary chaplain, the counterpart of the chaplain who comforted the parents earlier that evening.
The Marine's remains are meticulously prepared for their escorted delivery and final interment in a family plot in his hometown. Once the remains are prepared, a fellow Marine arrives at Dover to escort his comrade on the journey home. Before departing on this solemn mission, the escort receives a briefing from his Marine liaison team with Port Mortuary chaplains present.
The Port Mortuary chaplain staff consists of Air Force Chaplains (retired Lt. Col.) David Sparks, (Lt. Col.) George Ortiz-Guzman, (Maj.) Klavens Noel, and Master Sgt. Timothy Polling, a chaplain's assistant. Throughout the dignified transfer process, they provide humble counsel to the family, Port Mortuary staff and escorts, and pray over the remains of the fallen hero. This process has been repeated thousands of times over the past several years, as the nation's fallen continue to make their way back home through the Port Mortuary at Dover.
"As a chaplain, comforting grieving families and watching over the remains of those heroes who keep me safe is the greatest calling I could answer," said Ortiz-Guzman, who added that he is humbled and honored to "serve those who serve."
Working at the Port Mortuary can be horrific and overwhelming. Constant exposure to the fallen takes a mental toll on the mortuary staff, as they know well that it could be them or their brother's or sister's remains waiting to go home. The chaplains work the same processing system as the rest of the staff, but must remain strong during those distraught times.
"Remaining strong and sane for the sake of the mission is a defense mechanism humans use to perform amongst all that horror," Ortiz-Guzman said. "But we try to be as real as we can with our troops. They know when you are 'snowballing' them. We cry with them and laugh with them. We are part of the team and they all know it."
Chaplains must continue to convey the rock, and that rock is beyond any chaplain – the rock is God, Ortiz-Guzman said. When a chaplain begins to have difficulty dealing with the situation and cannot show his emotions to the troops, he bounces his feelings off a fellow chaplain in private, and relies on his faith, keeps his spiritual focus and draws on the support of the 436th Airlift Wing chapel staff, he added.
Chaplains use these resources to keep themselves spiritually ready to help others.
"I have the greatest admiration for these loyal chaplains," Air Force Col. Bob Edmondson, commander of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center, said. "As a commander, I place the highest priority on the safety, health and well-being of all those in my charge. For this mission, our chaplains are the sensors, confidants, caregivers, and friends that keep us all safe and healthy and sane. Each member of the AFMAO team bears a very personal and unique responsibility; our mortuary staff and the families of the fallen depend on these dedicated chaplains for their mental and spiritual well-being."
Edmondson's team is responsible for all Air Force mortuary matters, from both current and past conflicts, and operates the nation's sole port mortuary, which serves the entire Defense Department. To succeed in their mission, his team must remain healthy – physically, mentally and spiritually. Sometimes staying healthy is a task in itself – a task that requires professional counselors.
"Port Mortuary troops have various, but certainly significant stress issues," said Sparks, who explained a chaplain must maintain absolute confidentiality with those troops and families he serves.
Sparks said he's awakened many nights by servicemembers and others who cannot sleep due to the stress they were enduring.
"We are where they are," is the overlying theme to Sparks' approach to his mission, he said. "I've been out at bars at midnight, drinking a Coke and talking things through with team members. This is the duty of a chaplain. We are there when they need us, not when it is convenient."
Many chaplains have served the Port Mortuary team, Sparks said, explaining that the mortuary keeps two long-term chaplains on staff and consistently rotates a third chaplain through on four-month cycles. They do this to ensure a chaplain can handle the stresses of the mortuary prior to taking them on long-term, he said.
Not every chaplain is suited for Port Mortuary duty, said Sparks, who has been on staff here for more than five years. Certainly, not every chaplain can sustain this duty for a year-long tour. Sparks said he believes a chaplain goes through three stages once he assumes Port Mortuary duty: the horror stage, the sadness stage and the focus stage.
"At first, a chaplain just reacts to the horror of mortuary duty," he said. "We see more of the destruction of war here than teams out in the field will ever see. For instance, let's say a team loses 20 soldiers, which weighs heavy on a team in the field. Here, we see those same 20 fallen warriors, plus all the fallen from every other team."
Many chaplains begin to feel a profound sadness – which can linger if they don't find a focus, Sparks said. To compensate, he explained, many of the mortuary staff members focus on the science of their job.
Since early April, when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates approved a policy change allowing media filming of dignified transfer operations, more and more family members now attend the transfers. The increasing number of grieving families is another consideration the chapel staff must remain focused on.
"With the constant human toll in front of us, the mortuary staff feeling the stress of this work and an increase in the number of grieving families, a sustainable focus is the only way a person can function here," said Sparks, who added that he does not view this as a negative thing, but rather an opportunity to touch the lives of families in need.
Sparks and his fellow chaplains remain dedicated to those who need them most, Sparks said: their staff members and the families of the fallen.
As the fallen Marine's family flies home and the escort leaves Dover with the hero's remains, more transfer cases arrive on an aircraft from Ramstein Air Base, Germany. At this point, the Port Mortuary chaplains stand ready and step forward to comfort the next arriving family.
Somewhere in the grieving mother's mind and in the minds of the mortuary staff, a change was being made. Sparks prayed that he comforted them and changed their focus "from devastation to dignity, from horror to honor, from remains to respect and from fatalities to families."