Those were words I had heard a few times during my deployment to Dover Air Force Base, Del. Only this time, they were words being spoken directly to me as I prepared to return home to Tucson. I was standing at attention in dress blues in the atrium of our hallowed building receiving my Quilt of Valor.
“My name is Caitlin Jones, I’m an Air Force broadcaster for public affairs, and I just returned from my deployment in Dover, Delaware.”
It’s a phrase I’ve repeated a lot over the last month as I’ve gone through in-processing briefings alongside Desert Lightning Airmen who were deployed to places like Bagram, or Al Udeid. And more times than not, I’m met with a blank stare, sometimes even a stifled giggle or a sarcastic smile.
“Deployment? Don’t you mean TDY? Or manning assist? Or a six-month vacation?”
As an Air Force broadcaster for public affairs, and for the last five months, it was my responsibility to capture video of dignified transfers of fallen service members. It was my honor to produce a DVD of the dignified transfer that would then travel in the hands of a military escort until it reached a family on the same day their fallen loved one arrived at their final resting place.
I can’t blame anyone for being oblivious to what goes on inside the walls of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, or AFMAO. Before my deployment, I was one of those people. I had been preparing for the deployment I had wanted — a 270-day tour through the provinces of Afghanistan with the US Army, hearing stories about how we were aiding the Afghan people and sharing stories of heroism from all services. To my dismay, that deployment was cancelled and I was re-routed to Dover.
I arrived with a bad attitude, no idea what to expect, and a complete and utter ignorance of the mission. Not the way that an NCO in the Air Force should approach a deployment.
That all changes, and the change happens almost immediately, from the moment you step foot inside the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs. My metamorphosis began my first day, with three transfer cases coming home to American soil on a perfect east coast summer night. I thought I would be nervous, scared of my emotional response, apprehensive about hearing a family’s reaction to seeing a flag-draped transfer case carrying their loved one, skittish about kicking a camera or forgetting to hit “record”. But instead- I was hyper aware. Like an Olympian getting ready to compete, a musician on stage, a Soldier in battle.
It was a process, a routine, a methodical dance between our public affairs office, a chaplain corps, carry teams from sister services, and countless other volunteers, service members, patriots, and heroes. I repeated the process 210 times from June 11 until my last dignified transfer on November 10, 2012. A process that is completed in the same admirable way whether there’s a camera recording the slow steps of a carry team carrying a flag-draped transfer case or not.
Our duty to capture the dignified transfer called us out of bed in the middle of the night, ordered us onto a flightline that was bathed in humid East Coast heat, pelted by a late-summer downpour or blasted by a mid-Autumn nor’easter. It didn’t matter if the plane that carried the fallen home touched down at Dover at 2 p.m. or 2 a.m.–we were there. I was there.
I was there, looking through the camera’s lens–trying to focus on the mission at hand instead of letting the sometimes horrific sounds of a grieving family on the other side of the van affect my ability to do my job. I would repeat a slow and emotionless mantra in my head, “Focus on the screen. Focus on the numbers, the shot composition, the basics of what you’ve done your entire career. This is important, this cannot be recreated, this is not an exercise–this is real world.”
Those days and nights throughout the summer seemed to blend together as I stood next to AFMAO’s commander, Col. John Devillier, during my Quilt of Valor ceremony in November surrounded by my best friends and compassionate professionals.
“I don’t want you to say, ‘I worked at Dover,’ Devillier would say. “But, I want you to say ‘I worked at Dover and I did this. We want you to be proud of your service here to your nation, and to your nation’s fallen and their families.”
I looked around the room, at the crew that had become my brothers and sisters, and realized that the sacred mission of taking care of America’s fallen could not have been entrusted to a more committed group of professionals. Our leadership should write a book on how to take care of your Airmen. The young NCOs and even younger Airmen who work behind the scenes should all be given medals for the work they do on a daily basis to ensure our nation’s fallen are quickly and honorably returned home to their loved ones. The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who are faced with the task of taking care of the families on the worst day of their lives–everyone across America should know their names.
While I carry around a secret pride for what I did during my deployment to AFMAO, my heart swells with immense pride for the men and women I witnessed taking the burden of this complex and challenging mission on their shoulders.
It all begins with a name– a name that echoes through the halls of the mortuary, a name that appears on boards and slides through the center of AFMAO, a name that is connected to a horrible event in a distant land. You’ll receive a name, and slowly you’ll start to hear bits and pieces–you’ll receive a stack of papers that spell out their career, that list the people closest to them, and a small paragraph that will encapsulate in the simplest of speech how they departed from the earth in the dirt of a foreign country.
AFMAO personnel will clean, sort, and remove the rags of combat to replace them with a dress uniform that might not ever be seen. They will take ID cards, money, pictures, hand written notes, and coins that once jingled in the pockets of living, breathing human beings and return them to a family who is in a black ocean of grief, struggling to stay afloat.
I wasn’t assigned such a grim and heavy task. I was merely a broadcaster behind her camera, struggling with the honor of a mission, the guilt of their sacrifice while I slept safely in Delaware, and the weight of wanting to do more. I was an Airman who wasn’t prepared for the responsibility of a deployment to Dover, but who begged to stay even after my tour was over.
There’s a routine, there’s a methodical sequence that begins and ends with a metal box. You want to do more, you want to help them, you want to make their lives matter. Make their deaths matter. Make their sacrifice matter even more.
There’s a tradition– the tradition of bringing the fallen home. The tradition of leaving no man or woman behind, and sometimes it falls to an Air Force broadcaster. I was unwavering, whole-heartedly committed and deeply dedicated to that tradition for the last five months. A month later I still meet the eyes of those who don’t understand what a deployment to Dover AFB means, and I tell them a story. I take a deep breath and ignore the laughter, and I tell them how many fallen I brought home this summer. I blink away tears that come out of nowhere when a sarcastic comment cuts too deep, and I tell them about the incredibly professional service-members who dedicate themselves to the mission of mortuary affairs.
My name is Caitlin Jones; I’m an Air Force broadcaster for public affairs. For the last five months, I was deployed to the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base and every day of my deployment, I did my best to provide dignity, honor, and respect to our fallen warriors–while trying my best to care for, support, and provide service to the ones left behind. My deployment is over, but my mission goes on — the mission to honor, respect, and remember.