Dignified transfer mission close to home for Dover colonel

  • Published
  • By Christin Michaud
  • Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Public Affairs
"From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli. We fight our country's battles, in the air on land and sea. First to fight for right and freedom ..."

The words of the Marine Battle Hymn echoed across the flightline here as a team carried the transfer case containing the remains of a fallen Marine off the ramp of a C-17 Globemaster III. A single tear slid down the face of a group commander who called the final salute for another nation's hero.

That dignified transfer was a difficult one for Col. Sharon Bannister, the commander of the 436th Medical Group. She has a unique honor as the officer who calls the orders during a dignified transfer when fallen heroes return home to their nation's soil.

During this transfer, the fallen Marine's unit, which came to witness the transfer with the family, sang the Battle Hymn as their way to honor their fallen comrade.

"Needless to say, I had tears in my eyes and was trying to figure out how I was going to make the calls, but I truly believe God stands next to us during the transfers," Colonel Bannister said. "Right as the carry team reached the transfer vehicle, they finished the song, and I found the voice to 'present arms.'"

Colonel Bannister has served as a dignified transfer host since taking command in 2009. She is one of nine colonels here who share the duty.

Each dignified transfer is different. Some occur in the freezing cold or on snowy nights. Some days are bright and breezy. Sometimes the fallen are honored in the middle of a downpour. For Colonel Bannister, they all stand out.

"Each one is different and meaningful," she said.

In the fall of 2009, Colonel Bannister stood next to a Boeing 747 on the ramp saluting the remains of eight fallen heroes.

"Of the dignified transfers I've had the honor to lead, this one was the hardest," she said. "One of the flag-draped cases contained the remains of my husband's star (lieutenant) - an honorable Airman who had volunteered to extend his deployment in Iraq. An Airman who I'd had to dinner at my home while stationed in Florida ... an Airman who lost his life way too early."

Losing someone unexpectedly is something the colonel can relate to.

On March 7, 1972, three days prior to her 6th birthday, her father's F-4 Phantom II was shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War. He was missing in action.

"I missed him every day and held on hope that he would someday return," she said.

Years later, her father's crash site was excavated and some of his remains were found and returned to Hawaii in a flag-draped case, similar to here. She wasn't there to meet him.

"In 2007, my dad's remains were identified by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii, and I had the honor to go escort my dad home and bury him with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery Nov. 30, 2007," Colonel Bannister said. "The day I had his remains placed in front of me was the day my healing really started."

In 2010, more of her father's remains were identified. The colonel drove to Arlington National Cemetery for a private second burial of his remains. She immediately drove back to Dover to serve as the officer for a dignified transfer of a fallen Soldier.

Doing both in the same day, only hours apart, was very special to her, she said. The commander shared her experience with the family of the Soldier when she greeted them. She said she hopes it offered the family peace knowing the officer bringing their son home understands their sacrifice.

"Each of the dignified transfers I do here makes me think of my dad's return," Colonel Bannister said. "As hard as I know it is for the family to watch their son, daughter, husband, wife or friend carried off the plane in a silver container draped with the American flag, I know from the bottom of my heart that this is when the healing truly starts. I would have given anything in my world to have watched my Dad come home in 1972 instead of 2007.

"I once heard it said that the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you knew why you were born," she added. "I didn't ask to come to Dover, but I can tell you that every time I am able to act as the dignified transfer officer, I feel that I am where I am supposed to be. Somehow, I manage to find the voice to call the commands and the strength to hold the tears until I get home, because I know that a family, whether or not they are at the (transfer) or at home, are having their loved one returned with the dignity, honor and respect that they deserve."