The C-5 Galaxy planes glide breathtakingly onto the tarmac with coffins in their cargo bays. A senior officer and chaplain, one of six on the base, meet every plane. The coffins are draped with American flags, dutifully and tenderly by white gloved hands, carried off the planes, and transported by van to the mortuary that sits next to the giant airstrip, as the chaplain recites a short prayer. Then they come into the morgue at Dover Air Force Base. A soldier stands alongside and follows the body through the morgue. There are identification photos and fingerprinting. They go to the dentistry, followed by an autopsy and embalming. Then the body is brought into the uniform room, where clothes are put on the dead soldier, if he or she is going to have an open coffin.
After the morgue work is finished, the bodies are sent out to their home churches or funeral parlors. The same soldier accompanies the body until the final fold of a flag, the last tear.
What kind of soldier is prepared to kill but not to die?
The Pentagon has always acknowledged the effect on public opinion of the grim montage of caskets being carried from transport planes to hangars or hearses. On January 19th 1999, the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Henry H. Shelton, set a standard calling it the Dover test. It's been described as a way to both to determine whether the United States ought to send the nation's warriors into combat and to enlist "the support of the American people as well as the Congress" needed to sustain that involvement. In Shelton's judgment, such a grave decision:
- "(M)ust be subjected to what I call the 'Dover test.' Is the American public prepared for the sight of our most precious resource coming home in flag-draped caskets into Dover Air Force Base in Delaware?"
Dover Air Force Base
The Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs located at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware is the United States military's mortuary. When the United States entered World War II, the airport that Dover had begun to build was taken over by the War Department. Throughout the war, the Dover Army Air Base provided a training ground for pilots and housed a rocket research facility. Activity was at a minimum from 1946 to 1952 when the US Congress appropriated millions of dollars for improvements.
Since 1952, Dover Air Force Base has become the busiest aerial port facility on the East Coast. Huge cargo planes like the mammoth C-5 Galaxy, transport personnel and vast quantities of supplies for military and humanitarian missions around the world. With thousands of service personnel and many civilian employees, Dover Air Force Base is one of Delaware's principal employers. The base is home to America's largest aircraft, the C-5 Galaxy, and has an available airlift capability more than any other base in America.
Wings across the world
- "From September 2001 through December 2003, Dover C-5s were tasked with more than 850 airlift missions in support of OEF and OIFand despite the increased workload, Dover's maintenance crews accomplished quite a feat in July 2002, when it surpassed the 75 percent Mission Capable (MC) goal for the first time in six years! Dover aircrews flew the first C-5 expeditionary airlift missions into Kandahar, Afghanistan--the first time the C-5 had operated into and out of a combat environment. Aircrews from Dover also landed C-5s into Baghdad International Airport--the first time since before the Gulf War. Personnel assigned to the 436th Aerial Port Squadron (APS) worked around-the-clock preparing loading and transporting over 450,000 tons of equipment and more than 142,000 personnel in support of the Global War on Terrorism. APS personnel prepared pallets and tri-wall boxes used to airdrop humanitarian daily rations, blankets and other necessities to Afghan refugees affected by the war. In January 2002, Airmen from the 436th and 512th Security Forces Squadrons departed Dover in support of detainee operations at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, Cuba.
On a somber note, those assigned to Dover's Port Mortuary received and processed the remains of the victims of the Pentagon attack, those killed in support of OEF and OIF as well as the seven Astronauts killed in the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy. Although support of the war effort remained the largest component of Team Dover's mission focus, other important missions and milestones took place early in the 21st Century.
Members of Team Dover continued to deploy to all areas of the globe in support of Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) humanitarian and higher headquarters requirements, examples include: the deployment of members of the 436th Security Forces Squadron to Salt Lake City, Utah to assist with security at the Winter Olympics as well as Dover C-5s transporting personnel and equipment from Virginia's Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team to Bam, Iran to assist following an earthquake that killed 30,000."
(436th Airlift Wing's web site)
Caught in the crossfire
Life on a military base can be oftentimes surprising to the average civilian. We are a community with our own history, culture, and heritage. Military personnel and in particular their dependents are one of the most overlooked minorities in America today. We are the ones that are usually caught in the heated crossfire of opinions. As of today's updated publication of this piece, Secretary Gates, at the request of President Obama, has reviewed the current policy and decided to lift the ban on photos of from Dover, AFB with the caveat that the families should decide. Like many others in the military, I respectfully disagree with the idea and suggest that it be the person who sacrificed their all for our country who should be the primary decision makers. So much time is spent preparing loved ones for the possibility of death that simply making the decision known in the last wishes would certaintly solve a lot of these conundrums.
Historians say the president who enacted the ban on photos from Dover AFB was former President George Bush. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War he was angered when the television media used a split screen to air the coffin ceremonies alongside his news briefing with reporters, in which he was seen to laugh at one point. Since then the press blackout has been enforced intermittently and used selectively for political reasons by former President Bill Clinton as well as President George W. Bush depriving the deceased heroes and their family of that most special moment and indelible memory when a grateful nation expresses its condolences and its respect.
Every president who governs in wartime has unsuccessfully tried to control the imagery of war to emphasize patriotism and victory over setbacks and deaths. Americans should be able to see the reception the fallen are given when their military brethren receive them. Most of the fine men and women in the military will tell you they are fighting for our freedom - and they are. They have sworn to defend the Constitution of the United States of America, and that's what they do every day in both peace and war. The motives and integrity of these men and women who serve so ably and honorably cannot be challenged.
At last the United States Air Force has provided the photos in response to a request for them under the Freedom of Information Act. To make a biased decision because this embarrassed someone politically is despicable. And when the media clamors for the admission to Dover AFB to perform a "Dover test" as the part of a presidential whim which includes the purpose of finding out, "is the American public prepared for the sight of our most precious resource coming home in flag-draped caskets?" sullies the dead and cheapens the price each family has paid. It becomes an obscenity. War is the outcome of failed politics and it doesn't matter what party one belongs to. Distortion and titillation make and break political careers to market the bad news. Neither politics nor the press can ever get anyone ready for the sight of those who have paid the ultimate price. The unvarnished truth is to stop expecting to be prepared for the consequences.
News &Info, Base History
( Information presented on the Dover Air Force Base Web Site is considered public information and may be distributed or copied. Use of appropriate byline was requested.)
Photo borrowed from Blackfive