If you know Sally Belanger, CFSP you know a force of nature. She is a licensed funeral director (retired), past state funeral association executive director (times three!) and is now coordinating programs for The Dodge Company. This lady does not stop. This includes many years of her nagging me incessantly trying to get me to join the group she puts together to attend the Wreaths across America tour in Washington DC. “Wreaths” has always been something that I have wanted to do, especially the Dodge tour that Sally puts together, which includes a private and exclusive excursion to the Port Mortuary in Dover, Delaware where all of our fallen are brought to be looked after before going home, the laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and, of course, participating in the laying of hundreds of thousands of wreaths on the graves of veterans laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. I’ve never had the time to join the group despite her assurance it would be worth my time and a life changing trip. Boy was she ever wrong…… it was all that, and more. Much more.
I feel the need to share my experience and planned on posting a simple blog post about it but it was too momentous of an experience to describe in one post. I’m going to divide my experience into multiple posts starting with the trip to Dover, DE to visit The Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs, a $30 million, 73,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility, that became home to the mortuary in November 2003. The Port Mortuary not only serves as our nation's sole port mortuary but is the largest mortuary in the Department of Defense and the only one located in the continental United States. To say this place is incredible doesn’t do it enough justice.
Driving into the Dover Air Force Base where the Port Mortuary is located, I looked back to a friend sitting in the seat behind me on the bus and said to her “I hate that we have to have a military but I am so glad we have ours”. My thoughts went to the many wars that occurred in my lifetime and the men and women that fought them. I thought of the veterans in my family, my brother living on a submarine under the sea for 3 years during the Cold War, my maternal grandfather serving in WWII and who survived the sinking of the ship on which he was serving, in the Atlantic. I thought of my paternal grandfather who was a translator for France during WWI. All of these folks put their lives on the line to defend my country and our freedom. It really hit me, “put their lives on the line” for our freedom. Translate folks, willing to die. WOW. I’ve always been a grateful person, patriotic to a fault and never thought I took these things for granted until right then and, as the day and the tour progressed, it was clear that no measure of gratitude was enough. Not even close.
We entered the building and were greeted by the commander, a 4 foot nothing red headed Colonel named Dawn Lancaster. Even myself, at 6’9” 300lb. I wouldn’t have messed with her. She welcomed us and introduced us to the embalming staff led by yet another force of nature, William D. Zwicharowski or Ziggy. Ziggy, a seasoned, licensed embalmer is a personal friend of many in our group, a large number of whom are tour veterans, and many know Zig outside of the Port Mortuary. Upon introduction to me he proclaimed “oh you must be Short Stuff Stuart”. Sally and her nick names! He gave us an exclusive tour of this amazing facility. The tour left me speechless. Yes, me. Once again i thought “I hate that we have to have this, but am so glad we do”.
The tour included the new operation center, where the logistics of both the fallen coming home and their families coming in to witness the dignified transfer are coordinated. Every fallen soldier is afforded a dignified transfer from the aircraft or vehicle upon arrival and families are invited to witness this heartbreakingly somber ceremony that honors their sacrifice. Learn about the dignified transfer of remains ceremony HERE. Have tissues handy.
Although there was space for many workers in the operation center, it was quite empty that day. Thankfully, there are not a lot of U.S.soldiers killed in action these days and all involved hope that continues. As we continued the tour I noticed a pattern emerging. Everyone working here has one goal. It is the mission of the facility and more than just a plaque on the wall in the foyer. Dignity, Honor & Respect. I could feel it in everyone and everything. The fallen gave up their lives for us. It’s the least we can do for them.
We toured the embalming facility. Embalmers reading this will know how crazy this is; there were three embalming machines at each station. THREE! I first thought “what a waste of taxpayer dollars” but when Ziggy explained that each station has one for cavity chemicals, one for arterial and the third for chemicals that will be injected hypodermically, I realized that this assured as close to perfection as possible. Ziggy explained that the bodies are not what most funeral directors are used to dealing with. These are mostly strong young men in their prime and this means taking extra care when preparing them for their funeral and final resting place. Again, I was speechless. We saw the area where the remains are prepared after embalming and we were even shown how meticulous remains are wrapped that are not viewable. Hand done with pins. There is even a uniform shop where a custom uniform is built for each fallen soldier. Seeing so many uniforms hanging and all the ribbon bars, medals, stripes, pins, insignia, etc. was chilling, especially when we were told that after every bar, pin, button is polished, every crease is straightened, every single time. Even if the fallen will not be viewed. Every time. Dignity, honor and respect at it’s best.
We also had a chance to tour the Joint Personal Effects Depot (JPED) where fallen service members’ personal belongings are processed. According to our guide, the JPED is a state of the art 58,000 square foot $17.5 million dollar facility. Each fallen soldier is assigned a SCMO (Summary Court Marshall Officer) in-theater to pack, inventory and ship everything to JPED in Dover. There, another SCMO is then tasked with receiving, confirming the inventory and processing the belongings before return to the family. This means checking for any un-exploded ordinances first and then going through everything. Pictures, clothing, journals, gum wrappers, everything. Clothing is even washed if the family requests it. This process is necessary so that anything that could compromise national security or the character of the fallen is not returned to the family. Nothing but dignity and respect is afforded to every fallen service member and every family receives the same treatment no matter if their loved one was a private or a four-star general.
After the emotional visit to the JPED we toured Fisher House, where families of the fallen stay, on base, to await the arrival of their loved one, to witness the dignified transfer ceremony. It’s a beautifully appointed home stocked with food, drinks, toys for children, and again, the least we can do for their loved one’s sacrifice. There is a chaplain on hand at all times, and even a meditation pavilion across the street for prayer, meditation, and reflection.
Dover is the epitome of how things should be done. And done every time. Don’t get me wrong, a transfer of remains doesn’t need to be performed with a contingent of 8 strapping, square-jawed Marine Body Bearers that don’t even mouth-breathe when carrying a heavy casket to be considered dignified. But every funeral director can always be mindful that the dead in their care is loved by someone and deserves to be treated in the most dignified and respectful manner, at all times and every time. The little things matter. Even if no one will ever know. Thankfully 99.99% of the funeral professionals I’ve had the pleasure of knowing get this.
I hate that we need funeral directors but I am so glad we have them.