Two area groups — Friends of the Fallen and Delaware Federation of Garden Clubs — are giving back to families that come through Dover Air Force Base for dignified transfers, each in their own way.
When fallen soldiers’ family members and friends come to the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center in Dover, it’s one of the most traumatic times in their lives. The military has created the Center for the Families of the Fallen where families come to see dignified transfers after loved ones die in military service. In addition, a Fisher House was recently built where families can stay on base in an actual house. Along with the full-time staff, two Delaware groups have each reached out this year in their own way to make a difference and give comfort.
Delaware Federation of Garden Clubs | Memorial Garden
Alice Witterholt, president of the Delaware Federation of Garden Clubs, was driving past the Dover Air Force Base earlier this year and thought it would be a wonderful idea to add a Memorial Garden to the Center for the Families of the Fallen.
“If you had seen the building you would understand that it needs a little garden around it,” she said, referring to how stark the outside is when compared to the interior.
The plans, which have been drawn up by Wilmington garden designer Rodney Robinson, have an enclosed wall to make it a quiet, private place.
“I hope it will be a pleasant place for them to sit down and enjoy the outdoors,” Witterholt said. “You’re trying to offer them a place where they can be in peace and away from the eyes of others, that’s why it is enclosed, a private place.”
Therapeutic gardens usually incorporate a water feature and seating arrangements, Witterholt said. The memorial garden is small so certain bushes and plants will be moved in and out for the different seasons.
“It’s a soothing garden, it’s not real splashy in color,” she added.
The organization hopes to have the garden dedicated in April.
This was a big project for the Delaware Federation of Garden Clubs to take on, their biggest in fact.
The organization has helped put in gardens at nursing homes, schools and churches, but Witterholt said this was their first opportunity to do anything at Dover Air Force Base. The Delaware Federation of Garden Clubs is one of the smallest membership-wise when compared nationally to other clubs, which made her wonder if putting together such a big project so quickly was possible.
“I’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights wondering if it would ever come to fruition, and now I think it will,” she said.
And so far, the response has been tremendous, Witterholt said.
“It seems like everyone has a story and is interested in donating and that’s what has been wonderful,” she said.
In May, she explained the project at the national conference for garden clubs, which has drawn donations from across the country for the garden. Along with that the clubs in Delaware have been working hard to raise money and distribute brochures.
Karen Coombe of Dover, a member of the Sprig and Twig Garden Club, said their club volunteered to organize the dedication ceremony as well as provide a book that lists all the donors.
Those donors have come from all over. She said a garden club in New Hampshire took a collection on Veterans Day and received more than $2,000.
“I think everybody is so touched by this,” she said. “Having had a nephew in the Air Force and other members of the family in the military, it does have meaning to me personally.
“I just think it’s a wonderful thing to do. These families have been through such a traumatic experience, this is the very least we can do for them.”
The Delaware Federation of Garden Clubs is still taking donations, even though they are close to their goal for raising funds for the garden’s construction. Witterholt said they would put additional money into a trust fund for future upkeep.
For more information or to donate, visit http://memorialgarden-dover.org or call 302-468-1900.
Friends of the Fallen | Q&A with President Amy Dean
With the motto of “friends helping lift the families of the fallen,” this private, volunteer group has been around since spring, and formed in response to President Barack Obama’s decision to allow families — and the media — to travel to Dover for dignified transfers. The group of nearly 40 helps with the approximately 78% of families who come to watch those transfers.
President Amy Dean took a few moments to share her experience with the group since its inception.
Q What is the mission of the group?
A We are there to help lift the families of the fallen. We are just friends, community members. We go and offer the physical need support for these families that come in. We make sure we take care of that hospitality portion of it.
Families are notified and within 24 to 36 hours they are here. Because of the dynamics of that and the shock that they’re in many times they may forget things. We want to make sure we’re there and can offer that so that the center as well as the Fisher can be that home away from home. If they’ve forgotten those small items, we can fill that need for them.
Q What has changed since you’ve started?
A For one thing, we didn’t expect so many family members to come; that has been wonderful. But other than that every situation is so incredibly different that you really can’t expect a normal dignified transfer. There’s nothing normal about it.
Q With families coming in all the time at all hours are the volunteers on call?
A Yes, we have it worked out to where it’s a rotational monthly calendar. My volunteer coordinator puts it out there asking, “What day would you like to take?” They’ll find out certain days, and then at that point we are notified 24 to 12 hours before that departure for the family. They are on an on-call basis for that 24-hour period because the way it works is we have the bodies coming from Germany and we’ve got the families flying from all over the United States.
Q What do you tell the volunteers and how do you train them to deal with such a difficult situation?
A We take them through an orientation process and we let them know exactly what is our role in it. We are there strictly for the physical needs. We are no way an emotional support for them, aside from a look of comfort. We also are there to take care of children. We try not to be in direct support but with supervision.
We take the individual through their first dignified transfer, and then at that point, we say “Do you want more training?” We make sure they are never in an uncomfortable position. We also have a set of guidelines, a checklist for them so we don’t leave them stranded.
Unless you’re familiar with a funeral type setting, it’s very daunting. Like I said, every situation is so incredibly different that sometimes they’ll go and it will be two people and be completely silent. Other times they’ll have three or four families there and they’re each supporting each other, which is a really great thing and there’s very little we need to do.
Q What do you see that families really appreciate?
A It’s hard to kind of hard to put your finger on that because they’re at such a time of shock. However, I am aware of a couple of instances where there was some physical illness that happened because of stress, the turmoil and we were able to help them through that. I know they were very appreciative.
Sometimes they’re just appreciative of us being able to take care of their child while they’re dealing with the details of everything, and not having to worry about my kid’s crying.
I think we make it a homier atmosphere.
Q When the media covers a dignified transfer, does that have any impact?
A Usually, the family is really sheltered from the media. The Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations is very good at sheltering the families and because of that they have no impact.
Q What will your role be with the newly construction Fisher House?
A It’s a unique Fisher House. It’s the only one that has been built to take care of fallen soldiers, where other ones have been there for medical needs and there are longer stays.
What we’re going to do is try and make it a home away from home, try and supply it with food so they don’t have to go and get meals or fast food. There’s a full kitchen and a little media center. It is a home in every sense of the word.
We will be contributing frozen meals they can just put in the oven and not have to worry about it, and entertainment for teenagers and children so they don’t have to worry about it, especially if they’re over in the corner trying to make arrangements.
Q Do you have any particular memories that stand out?
A I can’t really speak specifically. However, there was a large dignified transfer, and I’ve seen this a couple times, and it’s very humbling. I’ve seen several times these who come in together and you see these mothers, these wives and they comfort one another. Many of them are from the same experience, so they know each other and they’ve got their families there, but they’re able to comfort one another.
I think that’s been the most touching experience because here in their most traumatic experience in their lives, what are they doing, they’re reaching out to others and trying to help them. And it’s very “Wow, me and my selfish life.” It really puts things in perspective.
Email Jayne Gest at firstname.lastname@example.org