Mortuary affairs sends fallen warriors home

by Senior Airman Benjamin Stratton
379th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

The 379th Expeditionary Force Support Squadron’s mortuary affairs section provides an invaluable service to the nation’s fallen warriors being returned home to their family and friends offering them piece of mind at the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing in Southwest Asia. (U.S. Air Force graphic/Senior Airman Benjamin Stratton)
The 379th Expeditionary Force Support Squadron’s mortuary affairs section provides an invaluable service to the nation’s fallen warriors being returned home to their family and friends offering them piece of mind at the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing in Southwest Asia. (U.S. Air Force graphic/Senior Airman Benjamin Stratton)

8/21/2013 – SOUTHWEST ASIA — A solemn dignified transfer of remains is conducted upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base, Del., from the aircraft to a transfer vehicle to honor those who have given their lives in service to America. These fallen warriors, however, have stops along the way including the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing here on their way home to family.

“What we do is ensure these fallen warriors get home to their families, friends and loved ones as quickly and safely as possible,” said Tech. Sgt. Harvey Greenwood, the 379th Expeditionary Force Support Squadron mortuary affairs NCO in charge deployed from Joint Base Charleston, S.C., and a Yazoo City, Miss., native.

While there are only two mortuary affairs technicians locally, they’re supported by services Airmen volunteers.

“We have a ‘Fallen Warrior Detail’ consisting of six to 12 members who carry the body transfer cases to and from the aircraft,” Greenwood said.

After the cases have been secured, mortuary affairs jumps into action.

“The sooner we can get the member ready for transport again, the sooner they can be home and offer their families some peace,” said Master Sgt. Michael Trace, the 379th EFSS mortuary affairs superintendent deployed from MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., and a Hartville, Ohio, native.

A dignified transfer is the process by which, upon the return from the theater of operations to the United States, the remains of fallen military members are transferred from the aircraft to a waiting vehicle and then to the port mortuary. The dignified transfer is not a ceremony; rather, it is a solemn movement of the transfer case by a carry team of military personnel from the fallen member’s respective service. A dignified transfer is conducted for every U.S. military member who dies in the theater of operation while in the service of their country. A senior ranking officer of the fallen member’s service presides over each dignified transfer.

Reminiscing, Trace said the greatest sense of accomplishment that he’s done a job well is when the grieving family member comes to him and thanks him for returning their warrior home.

“Our job is one of the most stressful and rewarding at the same time,” said Trace. “At the end of the day, when that family member walks up to you with tears of thanks — that’s what it’s all about.”

However, being deployed ushers in a whole new set of emotions each mortuary affairs technician learns to cope with in their own ways.

And according to Trace, it takes a special person to fill their shoes.

“We’re hand-selected by our squadron leadership,” Trace said.

“After chosen, we attend a five-day course designed to better prepare us in handling the technical aspects of mortuary affairs,” added Greenwood.

The course focuses on the procedures for case file management; administrative functions; search and recovery operations; and honor guard.

“It’s a course that pulls Airmen from across the Air Force and all from force support squadrons,” continued Greenwood. “You have to be in the Services career field to fill this position.”

After graduating from the course, mortuary affairs’ Air Force specialty code gains a modifier showing they are qualified to accomplish the mortuary affairs mission at home and overseas.

It’s a challenging job, Trace and Greenwood said, but they’re proud to take part in sending their fallen comrades home.

“They and their family made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Greenwood. “We’re here to make sure their loved one is handled with dignity, honor and respect in care, service and support for the families.”

Published by Benjamin W. Stratton

I'm a photojournalist traveling the world sharing what I experience along the way.

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