DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. (AFNS) --
An Airman irons the long sleeved shirt, giving it sharp military creases. A Soldier and a Marine spend hours building ribbon racks, making sure every ribbon is correct and that the devices are equally polished and bright. A Sailor looks over the jacket, pants and shirt, ensuring all excess strings are cut, before steaming them one last time.
The Airmen, Soldiers, Marines and Sailors who work in the uniform section of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center here take their job very seriously. The uniforms they work on will be the final uniforms fallen servicemembers will wear as they are cared for with dignity, honor and respect and then sent home to their loved ones.
Staff Sgt. Charles Anthony Bell, a mortuary technician, has been with the center since June 2008. He oversees the uniform section, working with the liaisons from the Army, Marines and Navy, as well as making sure the section is stocked with uniforms, rank insignias, ribbons, patches and more. The team spends hours preparing uniforms for the fallen, even though the uniforms may never be seen.
"I want everything to be as perfect as possible," Sergeant Bell said. "Even though the shirts are covered by the jackets, we still take the time to clip the strings on all of the buttons, around the collars and the pockets, making sure there are no strings. We polish the devices on the ribbons, making sure they're equally nice and shiny. We check every detail, making sure the uniform is 100 percent correct."
Details are very important for Petty Officer 2nd Class Danielle Van Orden, a hospital corpsman and Navy - Marine Corps liaison, who has been at the center for two years.
"Everybody, everybody is treated with respect, dignity and honor," the ten-year mortician said. "We take pride in what we do.
"We know that when the uniform leaves here, it has our stamp of approval, our name on it," she continued. "We know that people are going to be viewing their loved ones at funerals. When they open that casket, they see the military creases; they see that we took our time."
Taking their time to make sure everything is correct, the joint team uses a variety of tools such as a ruler crafted specifically for the uniforms, stand up steamers, mini grinders and more. They also engrave urns and produce uniform nametags.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Jimmy Toro, Army liaison and uniform section Army NCO in charge, said measurements are taken as soon as the servicemember begins processing.
"We get sizes as soon as (the fallen heroes) arrive in the building," said the deployed Army Reservist from the 311th Quartermaster Company, Puerto Rico. "We put together their uniforms and take (the items) to the alterations shop, getting the patches and stripes sewn on the uniform. We verify the proper awards and decorations for that (servicemember), and we put it together."
The team works around the clock to get the uniforms put together as quickly and accurately as possible, so that the fallen can be sent home to their families.
"Everyone is taken care of here to the 100 percent-level of everyone's ability," said Marine Lance Corporal Adam Knebler, a Marine liaison from Marine Corps Casualty, Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. "Sometimes I'm here 12 to 14 hours. I don't want to leave until the mission's accomplished. I stay until the mission's done. The mission is first here for everybody."
A Marine reservist from Wichita, Kansas, Lance Corporal Knebler volunteered for a one-year assignment here. He plans to become a chaplain so that he can serve Marines both downrange and here.
Sergeant Toro took a one-year deployment here but enjoyed the work he did so well, that he volunteered for two more years.
"This is an honor for me, having this opportunity to serve those (servicemembers) who have given their lives in combat," said the 22-year veteran. "That's my satisfaction. I will do it for as long as I can. It's the best job I've ever had in the Army, serving these past two years at Dover. I feel I'm doing something for servicemembers and their families who await the return of their fallen heroes back home."
Though 21-year-old Army Specialist Xavier Gonzales has only been with the center for four months and with the Army three years or so, he is fully committed to the mission for the families of his fellow Soldiers and for his home, Puerto Rico.
"I'm here for a reason, for the mission," he said. "This mission is the most respectful thing I can do for a servicemember who's died in combat. It's an honor. I've got to do something for the United States; they always do something for us in Puerto Rico; it's important for Puerto Rico. Most importantly, it's important for the families of the fallen."
For Sergeant Bell, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan gave him a deeper appreciation for his current mission.
"I've been in some very dangerous areas during my deployments to Kirkuk, Iraq, and Kandahar, Afghanistan," said Sergeant Bell, his voice quavering. "I've been in a few situations myself and can remember many nights of standing on the flightline, saluting and paying respect to those who have given their lives as they were being loaded onto an aircraft to return home. It just creates a level of respect for our fallen that is hard to explain."
The hardest part for the team is leaving.
Petty Officer Van Orden is only one of 16 morticians in the Navy. She was a small town funeral director and mortician for 10 years before she joined the Navy. She said she always dreamed of working here. Now that her two-year assignment is up, she may turn in the Navy uniform, just so that she can stay and perform the mission here.
"My enlistment is up in November, and I plan on dedicating all my time to here," she said, holding back tears. "I always dreamed of working here. The Navy brought me here, and I'm not going to leave. It's all about helping the families. I really, truly care about them and what they're going through. I want to help them."
As a Navy liaison, she meets with the escorts, who are sometimes family members. This week, she met with and supported a husband of a fallen Sailor.
"As I was pressing a uniform," she said, "I thought about that husband who came today and how hard it must be to lose your wife or your husband. You're just glad that you can be here, even if it's just to hand them a tissue, anything to make it better for them."
The families and the mission are why Sergeant Bell, who's been in the Air Force eight years, wants to stay here as long as he can.
"I wish I could finish out my career here, helping the families and caring for our fallen," he said, choking with emotion. "This is definitely a special place. This mission is so important because it gives the families one less thing they have to be concerned about while they are already going through such a rough time.
"Their loved ones are cared for and treated with the upmost respect and dignity here," he continued. "Everything we do here is to honor those who truly lived 'service before self' and to honor those families who have supported their loved ones as they protect our great nation."
As fallen servicemembers arrive at the center, the uniform section team takes measurements, puts together the uniform items and sends them to alternations. Then they carefully put together the ribbon rack, ensuring accuracy and that all of the devices are of equal brightness. After ironing and steaming, the team delicately dresses the fallen in their final uniforms for their final resting places.
Comment on this story (comments may be published on Air Force Link)
View the comments/letters page