Several months ago, I was assigned to do a story on the Navy Liaisons at Dover Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base. Actually, if I'm going to be real about it, someone in my chain of command brought up the idea, and I jumped all over it. I was intrigued. I had never heard that the Navy had its own morticians. This story was going to happen, and I would make sure I was the one to produce it. However, I was not at all prepared to be so affected by it.
This story, those people, and that place really got to me, and I say that in the most positive way possible. I don't know how else to say it, but I was touched. I was touched by the amount of care that these people - these Sailors - put into their jobs. The logistics, the attention-to-detail, and the precision with which they carry out their duties...it's like nothing else I've seen in the nine years I've been in the Navy.
This video, which you can watch HERE
, is one of the most important things I've ever produced. I'm so proud of this piece I can't even tell you. Not because I'm the best videographer or editor ever, but because the work these Sailors do is very behind-the-scenes, but it's so important, and the story is worth telling.
I felt changed when I returned from that assignment, and the feelings are largely still with me. To say I was impressed is an understatement - I wanted to be a part of it. Short of going to mortuary school, which is actually not on my bucket list, I wasn't sure how I could be. The corpsman there asked me if I wanted to put my name on the list as a volunteer escort. Yes. Yes I do. Where do I sign? Being involved with this organization, in any way, would be an honor.
So, one day I received an email from one of the Navy's morticians asking if I wanted to escort the remains of a fallen Sailor home to her family. While I wanted to do it, I instantly started coming up with excuses. But, but, but I have to do my SAPR Victim Advocate refresher training that day! I couldn't possibly miss that. So, my chief says to me, "What's more important? Bringing a Sailor home to their family, or scheduling a make-up day for your refresher course?" And that's why he's the chief.
So I tell the mortuary yes and get my orders into DTS. I drive up to Dover to pick up the remains. All I know about this Sailor is that she passed away several months ago and the funeral has already been held. Sometimes, when you die, not all of you will arrive at the final resting place at the same time. There are many reasons for this. If this is confusing to you, I suggest you bring it up with your favorite mortician. I couldn't help feeling like delivering these remains would be like picking off a scab, but the family wanted these remains returned very badly.
As I walk in, I'm greeted by people who now feel like old friends, and I'm happy to see them. We walk back to their work space and commence with small talk. Out of my peripheral vision I see a wooden box with a gold handle. There's a label on it and although I can't read it, I know what it is. I intentionally avoid looking directly at the box for several minutes. If I don't look at it, it's not really there. Why was I so nervous?
Eventually, I HAD to look at the intimidating box. On the top is the name of the fallen, date of birth, and date of death. There is another label taped to the front of the box. It's actually an envelope containing paperwork required by the funeral home. The address of the next of kin is on that envelope.
I pick up the box containing the urn, and it's pretty heavy. I take it to the car and sit it next to me in the front seat. I'm very lucky because no one in my family has died since the late 80s. Death is a completely uncharted territory for me. I'm a little unnerved and ponder my own mortality as I drive to the airport. But I know I can do this. People are depending on me. And not just people. People who have suffered a loss I can't even begin to imagine. I could never shun responsibility of this magnitude.
I arrive at the airport in my dress blues with a small suitcase, a backpack and the wooden box. At the ticketing desk, the woman says, "You're one of the last 15 people to check in, so I can't give you a boarding pass. You'll have to get that at the gate." Great. I arrived an entire two hours before my flight. Does this mean I'm not guaranteed a seat?!
I get up to the x-ray machine and gently put the box on the table. I ask the nearest security person if this is going to be an issue as I point to the box. She said, "I don't think so. What is it?" I simply say, "An urn." She whispered to the person monitoring the x-ray machine and I asked her if I need to take my jacket off. I just assumed I would have to since it's full of metal and EVERYONE has to take their jacket off for these things. She opens a barrier to a scanner that no one is using and lets me come through, shoes and all. I was grateful. I wait for the urn to come out of the other side, but was able to see it on the monitor. The shape inside looked beautiful and ornate. The lady at the monitor strains her neck to see this oddly shaped cargo come off the conveyor belt, so much so that she almost falls off her stool.
As I make my way to the gate, I feel like everyone is looking at me. No one is looking at me.
I go back and forth between not wanting anyone to know what I'm doing and then wanting everyone to know what I'm doing; wanting everyone to know of this person's sacrifice.
I go to get my boarding pass and quietly tell the woman I'm escorting remains, just like the people at the mortuary said to. She doesn't say anything. She just gives me a pre-boarding pass. This is the point where I begin to wonder about the rules for handling the box. Should I put it on top of the counter as if it's on display? Putting it on the floor by my feet seems wrong. I decide that the rules are 1) don't drop it and 2) don't lose it. I can do that. I won't let it out of my sight. Aside from any child that has ever been in my charge, this is the most precious cargo that has ever been entrusted to me.
When it was my turn to go down the ramp, a flight attendant meets me halfway and says, "Ok...we've all been wondering! What could possibly be in that box?" He said this excitedly.
"It's an urn," I said as pleasantly as I could. His face dropped.
I found a seat in the exit row. Normally there are three seats across, but this exit row only has two. I carefully place the box under the seat. A woman sits next to me.
Before we take off, the same flight attendant comes over and inquires further about this mission I'm on. I tell him that I'm escorting a fallen Sailor back home to her family. He asks if I would like to get off the plane first. I think long and hard about it. Do I want that kind of attention? I tell him yes, that might be helpful as I know the CACO will be waiting for me at my destination and the flight is already late. I also feel like this Sailor deserves some kind of acknowledgement for her service. We talk about what would and would not be appropriate for him to announce.
As we make our final approach, he gets on the speaker and very sternly says something to the effect of, "Ladies and gentlemen, on our flight today we have a fallen Sailor returning home to her family. She will be getting off the plane first! Please stay in your seats until she exits the plane. I repeat, please stay in your seats so this ... Soldier can get off the plane first!" I smile to myself because he was so earnest.
As I'm looking out the window, the woman next to me touches my arm and says, "I just want you to know that it was an honor to fly with you both. Thank you." Her eyes fill with tears causing me to fight back my own. A minute goes by, and I can hear her sniffling still. I ask her if she's ok and try to offer a polite smile. She nods. I was proud of myself for being able to control my emotions, but wondered if I would be able to do it again tomorrow when I met the family.
The plane lands and the flight attendant asks everyone to stay seated, this time in a much calmer voice. You see emails and stories making their way around cyberspace of airline pilots announcing there are service members on board and he makes some sort of meaningful statement and everyone claps and cheers. That didn't happen. You could have heard a pin drop. That bothered me. Why isn't anyone clapping for this Sailor? Why aren't they cheering for her service? I'm not positive about this, but I choose to believe that their silence equals respect.
I was relieved to see the CACO on the other side of the security barrier. He's very professional and very kind. He gave me some more of the back story and told me about this family that he has been assisting for months. He asked if I was given any instructions about the handling of the remains.
"What do you mean, Sir?"
"Would you like me to take it, or would you like to keep it?" he asked.
"I really think I should keep it, Sir."
I meet the CACO at his office at 9:30 the next morning. He asked his brand new chief to come with us. We undo all the screws at the top of the box, remove all the packaging and inspect the urn. Everything is as it should be.
The family lives 15 minutes away. On the way there, the CACO tells us what they teach you in CACO training and what the family is like. He tells us this could take 10 minutes or it could take a few hours. When we pull into the driveway, I say, "Sir, are you going to present them with the urn?"
"No. I think you should have that experience."
My first thought was, "WHY are you doing this to me?!" But it was instantly replaced by, "You know what? I volunteered for this, and I can do it." I remove the urn from the box and hold it tightly, making sure the plaque was facing away from me.
An elderly woman answers the door and invites us in. She calls the CACO by his first name and is very pleasant, but she seems tired. She follows us into the dining room and asks us to sit down, but the CACO waves his arm in my direction. She turns to me, and I hand her the urn and quietly say, "I'm very sorry for your loss, ma'am." I almost didn't get it out. She musters a sweet "thank you" and we all sit down around the table. I didn't speak again until it was time to leave.
She looks at the urn and lovingly runs her hands over it. "I don't know what to say," she says. "She's finally home."
For the next thirty minutes, she repeatedly cycles between quiet tears, funny anecdotes about her deceased loved one, and conversation that was completely off-topic. It was the most heart-breaking thing I have ever witnessed in my life. She tells us about her husband's health issues. He's not going to recover, and I wonder how she is going to get through all this. I try to smile kindly at her when appropriate, and once or twice I force down the lump in my throat and try to briefly distract myself with random thoughts. We patiently sit with her while she tries to process the fact that she finally has this urn she's been waiting so long for. Any amount of time is a "long time" when it comes to things like this. She shows us pictures of the Sailor and the rest of her family. I remember everything she said.
When it's time to leave, I offer my hand and tell her to please take care of herself. She promises she will.
When we left, I was emotionally all over the place. I was proud of myself for maintaining my bearing. I was relieved it was all over. I was sad it was all over because I wasn't needed anymore. I was humbled by the experience and honored that I was trusted with this immense responsibility. I was heart-broken for this Sailor's family, but comforted because I truly believe she's at peace. At times, I felt awkward and scared, but I'm ready to do it all again.
This is the most meaningful thing I've done in my short career, and I'm certain I will never forget it. This kind of task isn't for everyone, but if you are ever asked to escort the remains of a fallen service member, please consider doing it. I know that I would want someone to do it for me.