Fairchild senior NCO reflects on dignified transfer mission

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Michael Stewart
  • 141st Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
I could hear the voice over the two-way radio call out "wheels rolling." That was everyone's cue to get into position...and not move. Everyone was at parade rest waiting for the families to arrive. I was nervous... more nervous than at any point in my military career. My heart was pounding so loud I was sure everyone on the flight line could hear it. I had to remind myself to even breathe. My ears could pick out every little sound, from the faint hum of my cameras internal motor to the buzzing of insects. Why was I so nervous? I knew I would have some nervousness, who wouldn't? But I had no clue it would be this strong. I had double and triple checked everything on my equipment, I ran the process through my mind a hundred times. The one thing I kept reminding myself..."don't forget to hit the record button."

I had heard about the Dignified Transfer mission at Dover Air Force Base, Del., while attending training in Tennessee. I was told it would be one of the most rewarding jobs you could ever do as a combat correspondent and how it has touched so many people's lives, but I never dreamed it would change my life...forever.

It had been sixteen hours since I arrived at Dover and already a call had came in informing us that we would be receiving six fallen soldiers later that night. That evening, our public affairs team loaded up our gear and headed to the passenger terminal to wait for the arrival of their remains. It was extremely cold and misty out when the plane finally arrived.

I was surprised to see that it was a commercial airliner and not a military aircraft. When I asked the other videographer why, he explained that the remains of the fallen are returned to Dover by the most expedient means possible, which may mean a direct flight from theater on a civilian aircraft. The mission, he continued, is to return America's fallen to their loved ones as quickly as possible.

Once the aircraft taxied and parked at the designated spot we drove out to set up our cameras, one camera on the flight line and one in the transfer vehicle. Once inside the vehicle, I was required to set up and level my tripod, frame and focus my camera, adjust exposure and white balance, and check my back-up recording device, all within 5 minutes. Even though it was very cold, I could not stop sweating...from being so nervous.

When the call came in over the radio for "wheels rolling," it was at that point no one could leave their designated location or even move. If we forgot an item or had a camera malfunction, we only had access to what was in our camera bag...there was no room for mistakes.

In the distance you could see the flashing lights of the security police vehicle escorting the families out to the flight line. An Airman with two lighted batons precisely guide the surrey bus transporting the families into final position close to the aircraft. As they drove up, the families could see the flag-draped cases ready to be lowered.

Because of the position of the transfer vehicle I was in, I could not see the families when they parked, but I could hear the driver applying the buses' brakes letting me know I would need to hit the record button very soon. I checked my camera's focus position once again and waited for what seemed like an eternity. The families did not make a sound, or at least I could not hear them.

With my senses so heightened and hearing every other sound on the flight line that evening, I'm sure I would have heard them. As I waited, I wondered how I would react in their situation. Would I cry? How would my family and friends respond if they were out in the cold waiting to watch me be transferred to a military vehicle? After about ten minutes I could see out the driver's side window some movement along the flightline road, far off in the distance. The Carry Team and the Official Party were on their way.

With precision and dignity, they all marched in step down the long road toward the aircraft.

As the Carry Team marched around the transfer vehicle and positioned themselves at attention facing the families, is when I finally heard them...quietly at first, but very clearly...the cries of a lone woman calling out her soldier's name. As she became louder I started to hear other cries...more women and then the children... over and over they cried "daddy"..."daddy"... "you promised me"...an engulfing wall of grief. I no longer had to wonder how I would respond...I cried. I had to stay focused, this wasn't about me, this was about the families. "Do what you were trained to do," "stay focused," I repeated to myself.

By the time the Official Party marched toward the transfer cases and stood in front for a moment of prayer, I quickly regained my composure, I had to... not only was I responsible for the taping of the event, I also had to help position the transfer cases within the vehicle if they became stuck on the roller tracks.

Each vehicle can hold six transfer cases, each rail holds two cases. There was a precise sequence the team had to follow in order to make the loading smooth. Many times when the first case is loaded, it does not roll all the way toward the front of the vehicle to make room for the next case...this happened to be one of those nights.

I had to crawl around my tripod without bumping it and grab the handle of the case and roll it toward me to make room for the next case. The aluminum handle was cold and wet from the condensation brought on by the ice packed within the case to preserve the remains for the long flight.

One by one each fallen soldier was placed in the vehicle with the greatest of care. Every detail was thought through; even the order of the cases was done by position of honor or rank. I was never prouder in my career to be able to witness this process. We could not bring their soldier back, but we could show the families through our actions that we appreciated the ultimate sacrifice that was made by their loved one.

After the last case was placed inside the vehicle, the Carry Team performed an about face and took about five steps out, stopped, and turned around to face their fallen comrades. Because the video camera would capture their every move, the Carry Team was instructed in advance to only look straight forward and not shift their eyes from side to side.

The Airman responsible for the closing of the vehicle doors did so in a very slow and deliberate manner, walking the one side of the double door all the way in and securing, then walking the other side in until both doors were secure.

As the transfer vehicle started to drive away, the commander in charge ordered "present arms," every military person on the flight line rendered a three second salute. The vehicle slowly headed toward the port mortuary with a security police vehicle as its escort. As I rode back in the vehicle, sitting inches from six men I never had the privilege to know... I placed my hand on one of the cases and thanked all of them for their sacrifice...not only for me, my wife and children, but for all those who were sleeping soundly that night in our free country and for all future generations.

Those six soldiers would be the first of 183 military men and women from all branches of service that I would thank for their service and sacrifice during my four month tour at Dover.

So, how did it change my life? The only time we worked was when someone died. It doesn't get any more sobering than that for me. I hold my family a little tighter when we hug. I don't sweat the small stuff nearly as much as I used to. I learned to open up with my emotions the entire time I was there, I never kept things in. And, I make sure when I see a veteran at the grocery store or on the street, I go out of my way to really make it clear how much I appreciate them.