View Full Version : Sacrifice and Service: The life of a Port Mortuary chaplain

04-25-09, 09:47 AM
Sacrifice and Service: The life of a Port Mortuary chaplain

by Tech. Sgt. Kevin Wallace
436th AW Public Affairs

4/23/2009 - DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- The night sky looked calm and tranquil from a gently soaring aircraft, miles above the Eastern seaboard towns below. However, there was nothing tranquil or calm in the hearts of one family on board that craft, traveling to Dover Air Force Base to witness the dignified transfer of their son's remains.

Their son, their Marine, their hero paid the ultimate sacrifice in the mountains of Afghanistan only yesterday. The Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center will now carefully prepare his remains for transfer to his final resting place.

As the family arrives at the Dover flightline, the mother's tear chalice overflows and her emotions begin to stream from her eyes. Her husband quickly comforts her with his embrace as a Port Mortuary chaplain swiftly makes his way over to console the grieving parents.

Later that night, an aircraft lands at Dover and an advance team boards the jet to inspect and pre-position the transfer case. An honor guard of Marines reverentially transports the fallen Marine from the aircraft to a specialized transfer vehicle waiting nearby. Among the few Airmen and Marines respectfully performing their duties on the aircraft was a familiar face - another Port Mortuary chaplain, the counterpart of the chaplain who comforted the parents earlier that evening.

The Marine's remains are meticulously prepared for their escorted delivery and final interment in a family plot in his hometown. Once the remains are prepared, a fellow Marine arrives at Dover to escort his comrade on the journey home. Before departing on this solemn mission, the escort receives a briefing from his Marine liaison team with Port Mortuary chaplains present.

The Port Mortuary chaplain staff consists of Chaplains (retired Lt. Col.) David Sparks, (Lt. Col.) George Ortiz-Guzman and (Maj.) Klavens Noel, and Master Sgt. Timothy Polling, a chaplain's assistant.

Throughout the dignified transfer process, these dedicated chaplains provide humble counsel to the family, Port Mortuary staff and escorts, and pray over the remains of the fallen hero. This process has been repeated almost two thousand of times over the past several years, as our nation's fallen continue to make their way back home passing through the Port Mortuary at Dover.

"As a chaplain, comforting grieving families and watching over the remains of those heroes who keep me safe is the greatest calling I could answer," said Ortiz-Guzman, who said he is humbled and honored to "serve those who serve."

Working at the Port Mortuary is often horrific and overwhelming. Constant exposure to our Fallen takes a mental toll on the mortuary staff as they know well that it could be them or their brother's or sister's remains waiting to go home. The chaplains work the same processing system as the rest of the staff but must remain a 'Rock of Gibraltar' during those distraught times.

"Remaining strong and sane for the sake of the mission is a defense mechanism humans use to perform amongst all that horror," said Ortiz-Guzman. "But, we try to be as real as we can with our troops. They know when you are 'snowballing' them. We cry with them and laugh with them. We are part of the team and they all know it."

Chaplains must continue to convey the rock and that rock is beyond any chaplain - the rock is God, continued Ortiz-Guzman. A chaplain is merely a visual reminder of the Holy. When a chaplain begins to have difficulty dealing with the situation and cannot show his emotions to the troops, he bounces his feelings off a fellow chaplain in private, and relies on his faith, keeps his spiritual focus and draws on the support of the 436th Airlift Wing chapel staff.

Chaplains use these resources to keep themselves spiritually ready to help others.

"I have the greatest admiration for these loyal chaplains," said Col. Bob Edmondson, the commander of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center. "As a commander, I place the highest priority on the safety, health, and well being of all those in my charge. For this mission, our chaplains are the sensors, confidants, caregivers, and friends that keep us all safe and healthy and sane. Each member of the AFMAO team bears a very personal and unique responsibility; our mortuary staff and the families of the fallen depend on these dedicated chaplains for their mental and spiritual well being."

Edmondson's team is responsible for all Air Force mortuary matters, both current and past conflicts, and operates the nation's sole port mortuary, which serves the entire defense department. To succeed in their mission, his team must remain healthy - physically, mentally and spiritually. Sometimes staying healthy is a task in itself - a task that requires professional counselors.

"Port Mortuary troops have various, but certainly significant stress issues," said Sparks, who explained a chaplain must maintain absolute confidentiality with those troops and families he serves.

Sparks recollects being woken many nights with stressed service members and those who cannot sleep due to the stress they were enduring.

"We are where they are," is the overlying theme to Sparks' approach to his mission, he said. "I've been out at bars at midnight, drinking a coke and talking things through with team members. This is the duty of a chaplain. We are there when they need us, not when it is convenient."

Many chaplains have served the Port Mortuary team, said Sparks, explaining how the mortuary keeps two long-term chaplains on staff and consistently rotate a third chaplain through on four-month cycles. They do this to ensure a chaplain can handle the stresses of the mortuary prior to taking them on long term.

Not every chaplain is suited for Port Mortuary duty, said Sparks, who has been on staff here for more than five years. Certainly, not every chaplain can sustain this duty for a year-long tour. Sparks believes a chaplain goes through three stages once he assumes Port Mortuary duty: the horror stage, sadness stage, and focus stage.

"At first, a chaplain just reacts to the horror of mortuary duty," said Sparks. "We see more of the destruction of war here than teams out in the field will ever see. For instance, let's say a team loses 20 Soldiers, which weighs heavy on a team in the field. Here we see those same 20 fallen warriors, plus all the fallen from every other team."

Many chaplains begin to feel a profound sadness - which can linger on a person's soul and remain if they don't find a focus, said Sparks. Many of the mortuary staff focus on their work - in the science of their job.

Since early April, when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates approved a policy change allowing media filming of dignified transfer operations, more and more family members now attend the transfers. The increasing number of grieving families is another consideration the chapel staff must remain focused on.

"With the constant human toll in front of us, the mortuary staff feeling the stress of this work and an increase in the number of grieving families, a sustainable focus is the only way a person can function here," said Sparks, who does not view this as a negative thing, rather an opportunity to touch the lives of families in need.

Sparks and his fellow chaplains remain dedicated to those who need them most, their staff members and the families of the fallen.

As the fallen Marine's family flies home and the escort leaves Dover with the hero's remains, more transfer cases arrive on an aircraft from Ramstein Air Base, Germany. At this point, the Port Mortuary chaplains stand ready and step forward to comfort the next arriving family.

Somewhere in the grieving mother's mind and in the minds of the mortuary staff a change was being made. Sparks prayed he comforted them and changed their focus "from devastation to dignity, from horror to honor, from remains to respect and from fatalities to families."