At Dover Air Force Base, Bringing Home The Fallen With Grief And Joy

May 24, 2015
Originally published on May 24, 2015 1:44 pm

There is a grim kind of math that comes with war.

Most of the troops who died during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were flown to Dover Air Force base in Delaware. And for most of the wars, those dignified transfers were off limits to the press. That changed in 2009, when President Obama lifted the media ban and paid a visit to Dover himself.

From 2009 to the end of 2014, there were more than 2,400 dignified transfers at Dover. While the numbers are far smaller today, the planes are still flying troops home. The most recent: Petty Officer 3rd Class Devon J. Doyle, 21, of Colorado. The Pentagon says he died in Bahrain in a "non-combat related incident," deployed as part of the U.S. fight against ISIS.

This week on For the Record: Memorial Day, inside Dover.

Dover looks like any other Air Force base, with a lot of nondescript buildings separated by wide, paved roads and rows of planes on the flight line. But the mission here is different, and so is the complex situated in one corner of the base. There's a manicured garden with wooden benches; a meditation pavilion with a big fountain and a skylight.

And here, most importantly, is the Center for the Families of the Fallen. Mirrors and framed landscapes decorate the walls. Overstuffed couches are arranged with coffee tables and chairs.

This is where families gather and wait for the planes that are carrying their loved ones.


Sgt. Sean Finley, chaplain assistant

The toughest part of Finley's job happens here. At the height of the wars, it was normal to have several families at a time. Many of those families included small children.

"So in here is the children's room," Finley says, giving the tour. "The kids can come in here and color and play. But of course, the big highlight is the chalkboard wall."

The staff erases the board when it gets filled up with messages from the hundreds of kids who have passed through here.

"We'll usually leave something up on the wall — a flower or a cat or a saying," he says. "At the very top, 'Our hero for always,' that was written up there almost a year ago, but nobody's gone and written up above it, so we just kind of leave it up there."

Finley, who has worked here since 2012, says he feels like he's making a difference for military families still reeling from shock over their loss. At the same time, he has had to create a kind of distance for himself.

"I knew that if I internalized everything that came through, I would overflow," he says. "So I try and take care of the families the best I can and be there. If I can engage with them I do, and listen to their stories, and there's some great stories that I've been told. There's some terrible stories that I've been told, but those stories belong to those people. They don't belong to me, and so I don't keep them."

Mel Spera, funeral director and embalmer

Spera was in the military years ago. We meet her in a cavernous warehouse with row after row of caskets stacked up behind her. When fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq was at its worst, Sparrow says 20 or 30 bodies came a day.

Now that the ground wars have ended, Spera and her team spend most of their time going over procedures again and again. There is no margin for error, she says.

"We cannot have something like a name mispelled, middle initial missing or the wrong letter, or basically anything, because if the family sees that they're going to go, 'They didn't take care of my baby. How do I know that's my baby?' " she says. "That kind of questioning goes into anger in a heartbeat a flash."

Jim Parsons, mortuary technician

Parsons, who has worked here in and out of uniform since 1985, says it's hard to accurately describe what it's like at Dover.

"I could sit here and talk to you all day long, but you still — it would be hard for you to understand," he says. "That's just the way it is. I talk to my wife all day long. She doesn't always get it. We've been married for 20 years."

David Sparks, chaplain

There's a lot of talk at Dover Air Force base about resiliency. Staff members are required to attend at least two so-called "resiliency sessions" a week. On top of that, Sparks holds voluntary sessions called pizza and conversation. No one has to go — but they do and not just for the free pizza.

Sparks says what preoccupies a lot of the military personnel here is just the regular stuff of life.

"What's happening at home, what's happening with their kids or their spouse. What's happening with the next assignment," he says. "Not the trauma of what they do and the emotional impact of that. What's mostly on their mind is what's at home."

But for many like Sparks, who have been at Dover through the worst of it, the grief is always there.

"Most often, it's on the flight line when it gets to me," he says. "It's the mother who is wailing, in a biblical sense. There's this wail that comes from the gut level. It takes me to the ground every time."

Fathers too, Sparks says.

"I've heard that wail from a father, and the picture in my mind is the father of a Marine, and the transfer case has come off the plane and it's been put into the vehicle. It's been closed up. We've saluted. And the vehicle starts to pull off and the honor guard is marching behind. And this guy reaches out — I can see it — he just reaches out like this, and he just screams, for his son."

Each fallen service member receives a dignified transfer at Dover, which means that every time the casket is moved, it happens deliberately, with precision and honor.

Master Sgt. Enid Ellis

Despite the gravity of this place, what is striking is how much the people here love what they do. Ellis is on her 14th tour of duty at Dover. What keeps pulling her back? Joy, she says.

"We believe in what we're doing here," she says. "It has touched me, and it continues to. I want people to understand that even though their aunt, their cousin, their uncle, their daughter, their son have sacrificed for us; we love them. We love them, even though they're not physically here. We take care of them, because we do love them."

And so they practice the ritual of bringing them home.

Click on the audio link at the top of this story to hear the full conversations.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is For The Record. There is a grim kind of math that comes with war.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The total number of American troop casualties in the Afghan war stands at 2,300.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The American death toll in Iraq exceeded 3,500.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The total number of American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan now stands at nearly 6,200.

MARTIN: Most of the U.S. troops who died during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were flown to Dover Air Force base in Delaware. And for most of the wars, those dignified transfers were off limits to the press. That changed in 2009 when President Obama lifted the media ban and paid a visit to Dover himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRES BARACK OBAMA: It was a sobering reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that our young men and women in uniform are engaging in every single day.

MARTIN: There were more than 2,400 dignified transfers at Dover from 2009 to the end of 2014. And while the numbers today are far fewer, the planes are still flying troops home. The most recent - Petty Officer 3rd Class Devon J. Doyle, age 21, of Colorado. The Pentagon says he died in Bahrain in a, quote, "noncombat related incident" deployed as part of the U.S. fight against ISIS. For The Record today - a special Memorial Day segment inside Dover.

When you drive onto the Air Force base, it looks like any other. There are a lot of nondescript buildings separated by wide paved roads, rows of planes on the flight line. But the mission here is different, so is the complex situated in one corner of the base. There's a manicured garden with wooden benches, a meditation pavilion with a big fountain and a skylight.

SERGEANT SEAN FINLEY: Nice to meet you.

MARTIN: Thanks for having us.

FINLEY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...And this building.

FINLEY: This is the Center for the Families of the Fallen.

MARTIN: This is Sergeant Sean Finley. He's a chaplain assistant. And the toughest part of his job happens here. Mirrors and framed landscapes decorate the walls. There's a new carpet smell. Overstuffed couches are arranged in different configurations with coffee tables and chairs, like a hotel lobby packed with tasteful furniture. This is where families gather and wait for the planes to come in that are carrying their loved ones.

FINLEY: We have seating for 88. We have eight different areas for families to sit.

MARTIN: At the height of the wars, it was normal to have several families here at a time - many of those families included small children.

FINLEY: So in here is the children's room. The kids can come in here, color and play, but of course the big highlight is the chalkboard wall.

MARTIN: The staff here erase the board when it gets filled up with messages from the hundreds of kids who've passed through.

FINLEY: And we'll usually leave something up on the wall - a flower or a cat or a saying. The very top - our hero for always - that was written up there almost a year ago, but nobody has gone up and written up above it, so we just kind of leave it up there.

MARTIN: Most Air Force personnel do six-month tours at Dover. Sergeant Finley has worked here since 2012. He stands next to a large cabinet full of pamphlets about dealing with grief and stuffed animals for children. He feels like he is making a difference for military families reeling from shock over their loss. At the same time, Finley has had to create a kind of distance for himself.

FINLEY: I knew that if I internalized everything that came through I would overflow. So I try and take care of the families as best I can and be there. If I can engage with them, I do and listen to their stories. And there are some great stories that I've been told. There's some terrible stories that I've been told. But those stories belong to those people. They don't belong to me, and so I don't keep them.

MEL SPERA: For me, I know them as a number because we do know their names when they come into embalming, but I don't look at it.

MARTIN: This is Mel Spera. She was in the military years ago. Now she's a civilian funeral director and embalmer here at Dover. We meet her in a cavernous warehouse - row after row of caskets stacked up behind her.

SPERA: We have three different kinds of caskets. I have a metal casket. I have that in a 1X, 2X and 3X. They also are - we have them in reverse, in which most funeral homes the right side of your face is your viewable for most funerals. We have so much trauma we deal with here, sometimes the right side of the face is not the most pristine side. So we can actually flip them around in the casket and present the left side. And the family would never really even recognizes that that body has been turned around.

MARTIN: Now that the U.S. ground wars have ended, Spera and her team spend most of their time going over procedures again and again. She says there is no margin for error.

SPERA: We cannot have something like a name misspelled, middle initial missing or the wrong letter or basically anything because if the family sees that, they're going to go they didn't take care of my baby. How do I know that's my baby? That kind of questioning goes into anger in a heartbeat, a flash.

MARTIN: When fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq was at its worst, Spera says she was getting 20 or 30 bodies coming in a day, some so badly maimed, she had to recommend a closed casket memorial service to the family. That brings a lot of pressure.

JIM PARSONS: And the thing is is that it's really hard for us to explain.

MARTIN: This is Jim Parsons. He's worked here as a mortuary technician in and out of uniform since 1985.

PARSONS: I could sit here and talk to you all day long. But you still - it will be hard for you to understand. And that's the way it is. I talk to my wife all day long. She doesn't always get it.

MARTIN: Yeah.

PARSONS: We've been married for 20 years.

MARTIN: Have you ever seen a counselor? Have you ever felt like you wanted to or needed to?

PARSONS: I never have. My wife says I need to (laughter) but maybe someday.

MARTIN: There's a lot of talk at Dover Air Force base about resiliency, which in a military context means being able to navigate difficult emotional terrain and then move on. Staff members are required to attend at least two so-called resiliency sessions a week. On top of all of that, the chaplain on base holds something called pizza and conversation every week. It's voluntary. No one has to go. But they do, and not just for the free pizza.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSBY STILLS AND NASH SONG, "SOUTHERN CROSS")

MARTIN: On this day, about 20 people, military and civilian, sit at a bunch of tables set up in a circle. They are gathered in a multipurpose room with a few loud refrigerators stocked with sodas and water. "Southern Cross" by Crosby Stills and Nash plays in the background.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have plenty of pizza...

MARTIN: Awesome, all right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...If you want to pizza.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Please help yourselves.

MARTIN: When the song is over, Chaplain David Sparks kicks off the conversation.

CHAPLAIN DAVID SPARKS: There's a process going on in this lyric. What is the process?

MARTIN: Asking about the song is a way to get people to open up and pretty quickly the conversation moves from the lyrics to personal stories about loss and failed relationships.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: But if you look at what did I do to cause this to come to an end or what did we do as a whole...

MARTIN: Chaplain Sparks says what preoccupies a lot of the military personnel here is just the regular stuff of life.

SPARKS: It's what's happening at home, what's happening with their kids or their spouse. What's happening with the next assignment, not the trauma of what they do and the emotional impact of that. What's mostly on their mind is what's at home.

MARTIN: But for many like Chaplin Sparks who have been at Dover through the worst of it, the grief is always there.

SPARKS: We see a family 24 hours or so after they get on a knock on the door. We are with them when it hits them in the face, which isn't at the knock on the door, it's when they see that transfer case with the flag. We see them at that moment. And then very shortly there are gone and other caregivers have to pick up. Most often it's on the flight line when it gets to me. And it's the mother who is wailing in a biblical sense. There is this wail that just comes from gut level. It takes me to the ground every time. I've heard that wail from a father. And the picture in my mind is the father of a Marine. And the transfer cases come off the plane. It's been put into the vehicle. It's been closed up. We saluted. And the vehicle starts to pull off. And the honor guard is marching behind. And this guy reaches out. I can see it. I can see it. He reaches out like this. And he just screams for his son.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGNIFIED TRANSFER PRACTICE)

MARTIN: When they come to Dover, each fallen service member receives a dignified transfer. That means every time the casket is moved, it happens deliberately, with precision and honor. It's become a sacred ritual and Air Force personnel practice it constantly, so they're ready for the next time.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGNIFIED TRANSFER PRACTICE)

MARTIN: Despite the gravity of this place, what's so striking is how much the people here clearly love what they do. At one point Mel Spera, the funeral director, came up to me and said aren't you surprised at how happy we are? And it was true. I was. Master Sergeant Enid Ellis is on her 14th tour of duty at Dover. And when I asked her what keeps pulling her back, she said joy. Her work in this place, escorting the dead, reuniting them with heartbroken families. This work, for her, is filled with joy.

MASTER SERGEANT ENID ELLIS: We believe in what we're doing here. I know I do. It has touched me and it continues to. I want people to understand that even though their aunt, their cousin, their uncle, you know, their daughter, their son have sacrificed for us, we love them. We love them even though they're not, you know, physically here. But we take care of them because we do love them.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGNIFIED TRANSFER PRACTICE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Center.

MARTIN: And so they practice the ritual of bringing them home.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGNIFIED TRANSFER PRACTICE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Hands.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Slide. Hold.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Up. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.