December 14, 2012

A dignified deployment

by Staff Sergeant Caitlin Jones
355th Fighter Wing public affairs

DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. – Before deploying, we [Airmen] endure months of training to prepare for it. We are taught to use weapons, scan areas with vigilant eyes and if needed, save our wingman’s life. None of that training could have prepared me for my first deployment.

My name is Caitlin Jones, I am an Air Force broadcaster for public affairs and for the last five months was deployed to Dover Air Force Base, Del., and assigned to the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, or AFMAO. It was my responsibility to capture video of dignified transfers of fallen servicemembers. 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 the family on the same day their fallen loved one arrived at their final resting place.

While attending in-processing briefings alongside Desert Lightning Airmen who have already deployed to places in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, the same series of words kept running through my mind and sometimes was vocalized — deployment, don’t you mean TDY, or manning assist? Most of the time, I was met with blank stares, sometimes even a stifled giggle, or a sarcastic smile.

I cannot blame anyone for being oblivious to what goes on inside the walls at the AFMAO. Before my deployment, I was one of those people. I had been preparing for the ideal deployment, a 270-day tour through the provinces of Afghanistan with the U.S. Army, telling stories about how we were aiding the Afghan people and sharing stories of heroism from all services. Instead, that deployment was cancelled and I was re-routed to Dover.

I arrived at Dover Field with a bad attitude and no idea of what to expect from the mission. Surely, not the way a veteran noncommissioned officer in the Air Force should approach a deployment.

My whole perception of the AFMAO mission changed on the very first day, from the moment I stepped foot inside the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs. Three transfer cases were coming home to American soil on a serene East Coast summer night. I thought I would be nervous, scared of my emotional response, apprehensive about hearing the family’s reaction to seeing the flag-draped transfer case carrying their loved one, skittish about kicking a camera or forgetting to hit the record button. Instead, I was hyper aware — like an Olympian getting ready to compete, a musician preparing to perform, or a soldier readying for battle.

It was a process, a methodical dance between our public affairs office, the chaplain corps, carry teams from sister services and countless other volunteers, servicemembers, patriots and heroes, that was repeated 210 times from June 11, 2012 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, would sometimes have us reporting to the flightline in the middle of the night and during some of the most humid East Coast heat, pelted by a late-summer downpour or blasted by a mid-Autumn nor’easter. It did not matter if the plane carrying the fallen touched down at 2 p.m. or 2 a.m. — I was there, we were there.

I was there, with my face stuck in a camera — trying to focus on the mission at hand instead of letting the sometimes heart-breaking 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.’

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. After you receive the name, you begin to hear bits and pieces of what happened to the fallen warrior. Next, you get a stack of papers narrating his or her career. Accompanying that, is a list of the closest relatives, joined with a small paragraph that encapsulates how the warrior departed from the earth while serving in a foreign land.

Mortuary personnel will remove the rags of combat and replace them with a dress uniform that may or may not be seen. They will take ID cards, money, pictures, hand-written notes and coins that once jingled in the pockets of the living and return them to the family who now wades in a black ocean of grief, struggling to stay afloat.

I stand as the broadcaster behind the camera, filled with the honor of the mission and the guilt from his or her sacrifice. I slept safely in Delaware, enduring the weight of wanting to do more. I was an Airman who wasn’t prepared for the responsibility of a deployment to Dover Field, but who begged to stay even after my tour was over.

When it came time for me to depart Dover AFB, I was honored with the Quilt of Valor. This was a ceremony, an honored rite of passage, that I witnessed so many times during my deployment and now it was time for me to take my place among their best. As I stood at attention, in my blues, in the atrium of their hallowed building, Col. John Devillier, the AFMAO commander tearfully proclaimed; “These quilts are for anyone who’s been touched by war and outside of a direct combat unit in Afghanistan — you have been touched by war more than anyone in the United States military.”

“I don’t want you to say, ‘I worked at Dover,’” said Devilliery. “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, your nation’s fallen and their families.”

I looked around the room at the crew that had become my brothers- and sisters- in-arms in such a short time 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 host a clinic on how to take care of our 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 returned home to their loved ones. In addition, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines faced with the task of taking care of the families on the worst day of their lives — everyone across America should know their names.

There is 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, wholeheartedly committed and deeply dedicated to that tradition for the last five months — and in the month that I’ve been home, it hasn’t changed. I meet those rolled eyes of those that do not 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 servicemembers who dedicate themselves to the mission of mortuary affairs.

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 difficult and amazing mission on their shoulders.

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. Every day of my deployment I did my best to help 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. And although my deployment is over, the mission goes on. My mission to honor, remember, and respect goes on.

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