Airman uses carpentry skills to preserve children's dignity

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Stacia Zachary
  • U.S. Air Forces Central Public Affairs
Some of the heat has burned off as the summer moon rises overhead. An Airman labors over scrap wood in a makeshift workshop under a canopy of camouflage. Fitting pieces of wood together, the shape of a tiny coffin emerges.

When the contract providing coffins for deceased Afghans expired, members at the hospital here immediately began making alternative plans. Americans stepped in to continue their role after their British counterparts brought the deficiency to their attention.

"(British Army Maj. Martin Smith) came asking to see if our Airmen would help out," said. Lt. Col. Barbara Persons, the 451st Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron Det. 1 Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility commander. "I didn't even hesitate. I knew my Airmen would feel the same way as I did -- anything to preserve the dignity of an innocent child."

The British and other nations operating on Camp Bastion had long noticed the carpentry skills of the Airmen here. Shortly after arriving to the expeditionary aeromedical evacuation squadron compound in January, construction began as Airmen decided to make the place more habitable.

Before long, there were wooden overhangs draped with canopy covers. Shelves to hold books and other donated items were being nailed together and picnic tables were fashioned out of discarded wood that had been collected from different places on the camp.

"I am always looking for ways to improve the conditions here, so whenever I can do a little project that will help with making the quality of life better for the people here or the patients, then it's usually something I jump right into," said Master Sgt. Jason Reininger, a reservist deployed from the 419th Medical Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

Not a carpenter by trade, the sergeant said he has always been around construction and picked up little tricks of the trade along the way.

"I learned a lot of my skills from working with my father who worked a lot with contract builders and my stepfather who did a lot of work around the house," Sergeant Reininger said. "A lot of what I know I either picked up from them or has been self taught."

So when the question was posed to the sergeant about fashioning coffins for children, he immediately set to work.

"It seemed pretty simple to me and it just seemed something easy that I could do," Sergeant Reininger said. "It raised the level of intensity because I have two children of my own. It wasn't just a shelf to put books on but the final resting place for a child."

Having never built a coffin before, or anything similar to one, the craftsman began researching this project online. Before long, he had a blueprint and rough estimate of size.

"I didn't know the first thing about how I was going to build the coffin," he said. "So, I Googled designs for a coffin and then shrunk it down to the dimensions a child would fit in."

Though building coffins takes on a macabre tone, the sergeant takes solace in the knowledge that the child wasn't released to her family in a sterile, military-issued body bag.

"I wouldn't want to hand over a child to a family in a body bag," the sergeant said. "I wouldn't want to do that when I can provide something a little more to show that the child's life was worth something and that the parent's grief matters."

In the end, for Sergeant Reininger, it's all about building relationships.

"I think being able to do little things like this improves the standing of us among the Afghans here," he said.

This first coffin is a model that will give the British an idea of what Sergeant Reininger can build. Once he receives the green light to proceed and reviews the cultural requirements, he'll set to work on more.

"I built the first one to show the folks at the hospital what I could make and to see if it meets their needs," Sergeant Reininger said. "If it does, then all I need to find out is how big they need the coffins and I will get to work on making whatever they need."

In the meantime, the sergeant and other fellow aeromedical evacuation personnel continue to forage scrap pieces of wood from different construction sites on the camp.

"Most of the wood I use is scrap wood from REDHORSE, the Seabees and other construction sites here," he said. "I usually will stop in and see if they don't mind us taking some of the wood from them. Some people would even begin to make a pile of scrap wood for us because they knew we're always looking for some to build little projects."

Little side jobs such as building bookshelves or the construction of goodwill projects such as the coffin all help give this Airman a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.

"If I'm busy with something, I can sleep better at night knowing that I am accomplishing something good and worthwhile," Sergeant Reininger said.