My Deployment to the Military’s Port Mortuary

 

Photo by Hugues de BUYER-MIMEURE on Unsplash

There were more than 100 vehicles in our convoy, which was really one large funeral procession for a fallen American fighter pilot. We were headed from Dover Air Force Base, Delaware to Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia — more than 100 miles and two hours away — and we would make it in nearly half that time.

MIRACLE 100 MILES

Although there were dozens of police cruisers and motorcycles ahead of our military convoy, the hearse transporting the remains of Maj. Troy Gilbert was the focus of our procession. Two helicopters even followed from above. Seemingly, everyone was there to honor Gilbert one last time and to finally bury his remains after taking a decade to retrieve all of him. The major had been on an extremely long journey to a final resting place long before we’d set out on our multi-state, 100-mile drive late in the fall of 2016.

I was in one of the military transport vehicles driving behind the hearse, and my mind still marveled at the sight of all the students standing outside of schools that were along the route to the highway from Dover — with each small American flag in small hands, Gilbert was being honored one last time and I couldn’t stop wondering how they all knew.

Upon learning that I would serve my six-month deployment at the military’s sole mortuary command in the United States, I couldn’t help but feel like I was not only deploying far behind friendly lines, but that I would be doing peculiar work in an environment in which every day I would be surrounded by American losses. I secretly felt like I was being assigned to the losing team. I now am deeply ashamed of that notion.

As our convoy passed through different states and jurisdictions, more police vehicles joined in, trailing closely behind us out of respect or racing far ahead of us to clear the way. I had never seen an emptier highway. Every overpass had emergency vehicles parked overhead with American flags raised high. I later came to understand the two helicopters following us were in place to coordinate first responder vehicles on the ground, and to ensure that our long drive from Delaware to Virginia was unobstructed by traffic. Everyone seemed to be in-the-know to make this massive feat of logistical clockwork tick. Ferried along at high speeds, our travel time was greatly reduced. I wondered if Gilbert’s family was aware of how many people were honoring him.

THE MILITARY’S PORT MORTUARY

I deployed to Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware in July 2016. I only knew that the command was sometimes referred to as AFMAO for short, and Port Mortuary in casual terms. I was expected to serve there as the public affairs officer until January 2017. Yet, I did not know what precisely I would be doing there during my deployment. Up until that point, I had served in the Air Force Reserve — one weekend a month and two weeks a year — and had not yet deployed with the Air Force. My last deployment occurred in 1998, while I was an active-duty sailor in the U.S. Navy. That had been more like a six-month cruise under what can best be described as Spartan accommodations and conditions.

As a reservist in the Air Force, I was stationed at Westover Air Reserve Base, Massachusetts. I knew that during my years of Reserve drilling, it was all working up toward an eventual deployment when my country needed me. I was not alone. Hundreds of reservists from my base deployed — many headed to combat zones or foreign countries where their presence and expertise was most needed. I expected to deploy to a place like Afghanistan — or to some other hotspot in the world — and not to the military’s biggest morgue. I was confused when I learned that I would be deploying to Dover, Delaware. I wondered, was it even a real deployment?

Early on in my deployment, I had actually begun to have dreams about dying, over and over again, and of hearing the shrill cry of my wife and mother, or worst the deafening silence which meant that no one mourned for me as fiercely as those other fallen service members.

Like many of the other reservists slated to go to points all over the globe, we were on Title 10 orders, which meant our deployments were non-voluntary. In my case, I was under Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, which meant that no matter where I deployed, my role was considered essential in protecting America’s interests at home and abroad and therefore critical to our nation’s warfighting strategy.

BUT IT’S STILL A MORGUE

Upon learning that I would serve my six-month deployment at the military’s sole mortuary command in the United States, I couldn’t help but feel like I was not only deploying far behind friendly lines, but that I would be doing peculiar work in an environment in which every day I would be surrounded by American losses. I secretly felt like I was being assigned to the losing team. I now am deeply ashamed of that notion.

In hindsight, months into my very real and ongoing transition back home, I now know that honoring America’s fallen service members and caring for their families is the most important job of them all.

Although my deployment was uniquely comfortable, and unlike many of my military contemporaries I could go to local restaurants and experience other creature-comforts after work, there were still times that I would have much preferred the desert to Delaware. For instance, nights after Dignified Transfers, which is what we called the return of fallen service members. The wails and cries of the families would linger and haunt me. On those nights, I would wander the few places that stayed open all night, like diners and casinos, because I could not bear the thought of being alone. I feared what my overly-active mind might think about; I feared that I would sink six-feet into my bed and never be found again; I even projected the loss of those grieving families onto my own family — hundreds of miles away in Massachusetts.

Early on in my deployment, I had actually begun to have dreams about dying, over and over again, and of hearing the shrill cry of my wife and mother, or worst the deafening silence which meant that no one mourned for me as fiercely as those other fallen service members.

When the military jets would land at Dover Air Force Base, and after off-loading any equipment that might have been on the flight, the transfer case would then be brought to the rear of jet to prepare for carrying the fallen service member down the jet’s ramp and to an awaiting transfer vehicle. By then the family members would be in place, and my staff of photographers and videographers would be positioned on the opposite side of vehicles away from the family in order to capture what was called a “solemn movement” for sharing with the family — and always at the family’s request. As the carry-team would exit the jet’s rear hauling the transfer case, most often the sounds of loud wails would rise above the windy silence of the flight line. The videos we were shooting did not use audio for that reason. Instead, we edited music over the videos to completely block out the natural sound in order to avoid carrying over the cries of the families. As if to say to the grieving: ‘Remember the honor your loved one received and not the pain you felt.’

Photo by Andrew Pons on Unsplash
THE MOST IMPORTANT JOB

Those who fight in battle and seize victory should be honored. But, there is no doubt that the survivors of a battle owe a great deal to those who had fallen in the process. Honoring the fallen, in any nation, is most important. It says more about a nation’s character than any parade for the hero could ever say.

On the day that Major Gilbert was buried, the military convoy and sea of law enforcement vehicles surrounding us could not have been more suiting. It was like a solemn, fast moving parade for a fallen hero.

The fighter pilot had died in 2006 while defending troops on the ground. It is said that he flew his plane so close to danger, that he had to have known that his own survival was imperiled greatly. Yet even as he passed the breaking point of surviving the dive of his attack on the enemy advancing on our ground troops — he pushed his plane harder, and lower, for longer. He crashed in a field in Iraq and his body was gone by the time reinforcements arrived and secured the crash site. Left behind in the cockpit was enough signs of trauma that the military declared him to be dead — even though there was no body. News media displayed clips of a downed American pilot’s corpse being paraded through the streets of Baghdad by an angry mob — Gilbert’s body — and we all could see the barbarism on our television screens.

For years, Gilbert’s remains were hidden. America — pushed by the major’s family — sought to find the whole of him. Pieces were acquired over time through dealings with individuals seeking to profit off of American sensibilities. And they did. After all, Gilbert had become more than a man: He had become a symbol of self-sacrifice. Military officers studied him. When I was going through the Air Force’s Officer Training School, I learned about Gilbert’s sacrifice more than five years after his death. It was during a leadership component modeled after one of the Air Force’s core values: “Service before self.” Gilbert was an icon — and we all wanted him back.

YOU CAN GO HOME

Near the end of my deployment, after I had been involved in the repatriation and return of more than 40 fallen service members, news reached Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations that the remains of Major Gilbert had been located and that he was finally coming home after a decade. Air Force brass immediately began making the arrangements to bury the rest of his remains at Arlington National Cemetery — coordinating with his family in the process. Once again, his family came to the base to watch the largest portion of his remains return to American soil — literally the rest of him — carried across the flight line to the awaiting transfer vehicle. His children, who were small when he died, were all bigger now.

After that Dignified Transfer, I recalled a story I had heard from one of the other staff members at the mortuary earlier that night. One of the special operators involved in retrieving Gilbert’s body had also escorted his remains on the flight back to the United States. In recounting the operation to one of our staff members, he shared that the retrieval operation had been difficult. At one point, fearing that his teammates were in danger, the special operator, who was a military officer and went by the code name Major Snake, said he pressed the informant to hurry and provide the exact location of the remains. When the informant demanded more money than had initially been agreed to, Major Snake said he replied something like this: “Sure — but we have to deliver the rest of the money to…” Apparently, the address provided to the informant was that of a family member located in another country — and definitely one that the informant did not want U.S. Special Forces operators to visit. As a result, no extra money was paid and Gilbert’s body was retrieved without further loss of American life. (In full disclosure, Major Snake’s story was particularly powerful for me because I had been stationed at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, which is where Gilbert also served before his death. We did not know each other while we served there.)

Those who fight in battle and seize victory should be honored. But, there is no doubt that the survivors of a battle owe a great deal to those who had fallen in the process. Honoring the fallen, in any nation, is most important. It says more about a nation’s character than any parade for the hero could ever say.

Days after Gilbert’s final Dignified Transfer, like that of so many other fallen service members, his remains were prepared for a Reverse Dignified Transfer at Port Mortuary. It simply meant that he was heading for his final resting place — Arlington National Cemetery.

On the day of the funeral, we all stood outside of the mortuary and saluted as the hearse carrying Gilbert passed. Many of us wore our service dress uniforms and climbed into awaiting military vans that fell in behind Gilbert’s hearse. Dozens of law enforcement vehicles were already waiting to lead the way and to follow us as we exited Dover. Along the way, outside of every school we passed there were children and adults cheering and waving American flags. Every intersection was blocked by emergency vehicles to ensure our smooth passage. Once we were on the highway, every overpass held some display of emergency vehicles honoring Major Gilbert — as they would any American hero — one last time.

Capt. Bowser is a reserve public affairs officer in the U.S. Air Force stationed in Massachusetts. His opinions are his own and do not reflect those of the DOD. He served for six months as an active-duty public affairs officer at Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.

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