War on Terrorism

Friday, March 12, 2010

Dignified Transfer Pays Tribute to Fallen

By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service

March 12, 2010 - The 757 came to a halt on the runway here, a freezing rain bouncing off of its fuselage. Army Staff Sgt. Michael David P. Cardenaz and Army Pfc. JR Salvacion, who had been killed in Afghanistan just a few days prior, had returned home. Their return to U.S. soil would be marked, not with elaborate displays or fanfare, but with a quiet tribute to their service and sacrifice known as a dignified transfer.

The transfer is a solemn movement of the fallen servicemember from the aircraft to a vehicle to the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center here, explained Air Force Capt. Gordon Swain, officer-in-charge of inbound dignified transfers.

A transfer event is conducted for every servicemember who dies while supporting a combat operation, and also is enacted for civilians involved in a mass fatality or for those attached to other federal agencies supporting the war effort.

"It's a mission bigger than any of us. I tell my airmen every day, 'You are here to represent the families; you represent the fallen'" Swain said. "We treat everybody with dignity, honor and respect, from the fallen to the families."

Preparations for a transfer begin shortly after the aircraft lands, with customs officials boarding to inspect and clear the aircraft. An advance team then arrives to inspect the cases containing the fallen and to preposition them onto the transfer device, known as a K-loader, that's located next to the plane. Each case is draped with a U.S. flag, and it's the advance team's job to inspect those flags.

"We make sure the flags look good, that they're clean, sharp and crisp in appearance," Swain said. "We do the best we can for the families."

Before an event begins, the flightline shuts down operations in a radius around the aircraft to avoid any distractions, and usually the only sounds to cut through the silent stretch of tarmac are a generator and distant landing aircraft.

The mortuary staff and the media, if approved by the family to attend, are the first to arrive, followed by family members and friends. A Defense Department policy change last year enabled media coverage with prior approval from the family and authorized the funding of up to three family members to attend. The policy change caused a dramatic increase in the number of families who attend transfer events, said Air Force Col. Robert H. Edmondson, the commander of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center.

So far, more than 1,700 family members have traveled here to attend a dignified transfer. "A tremendous amount of family members want to come," Edmondson said.

Many find out about their loss just hours before their arrival here, the commander noted, and always are accompanied to the flightline by a family support team.

Once the families are in place, the carry team, clad in battle dress uniform and stark, white gloves, begins the march from the passenger terminal to the aircraft. Each service branch has its own carry team, Swain said. While the Air Force's carry team is stationed here, the teams from other services fly or drive in when called for their respective dignified transfers.

The official party follows closely behind the carry team and includes a dignified transfer host officer, a senior officer representing the fallen member's service, and a chaplain. For Cardenaz and Salvacion's transfer, the senior officer was an Army brigadier general.

After they board the aircraft, the chaplain offers a quiet prayer, heard only by those gathered around him. The carry team steps forward to move each case to the edge of the K-loader. The cases are lowered, and the team carries each one to a waiting vehicle in slow and measured movements.

It's a deceptively simple movement, but an extensive amount of training is involved. The Air Force carry team, for instance, spends four to eight hours each day training for every possible scenario, Swain said.

"We train on flag placement and also work on the configurations needed for different aircraft," he said.

The team must be prepared to serve at any time of day and through any weather condition.

"It takes mental and physical discipline out there to withstand the different elements the cold and the heat - it can get very uncomfortable," said Air Force Senior Airman Joseph Hotton, a member of the Air Force carry team. "But you have to maintain your bearing and, no matter how many movements, remember you are there to honor a servicemember who has died, and also the families."

After the fallen are loaded, an airman shuts the doors while the military members in attendance give a slow, respect-filled salute. The vehicle pulls away, en route to the mortuary, with the carry team and official party marching in step behind.

While some nights are quiet, at Cardenaz and Salvacion's transfer, a family member cries out in anguish, overwhelmed by the loss. Some family members board the bus and others stay to watch the vehicle carrying their loved one until it disappears into the distance.

Swain has attended dozens of dignified transfers. The solemn dignity of the event, he said, never fails to impress him.

"I'm the first officer that gets to see these fallen servicemembers back on U.S. soil," Swain said. "And this is the first time their families get to see them back home. To me, that's very significant, and I'm proud to be a part of it."

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