Families of fallen military personnel coming to Dover to view dignified transfers have increased by 66 percentage points in the past six months, thanks to the new military policy paying for their transportation. In addition, 76% are allowing some sort of media coverage since the April 5 policy was put in place allowing limited media access

    A vast majority of families are traveling to Dover Air Force Base to see their family members’ remains returned to the United States now that the military is picking up the tab.

    As of Sept. 19, 71% of families — 167 out of 236 — made the trip to the base, compared to 5% prior to the policy’s implementation in April.

    1st Lt. Joe Winter, public affairs officer for the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center, said he’s only been in Dover for a month, but has heard from others they weren’t expecting quite so many families.

    But they were prepared for it, he said.

    “Families did come [here] before the policy was in place. It already had been well established, it was just a matter of ramping it up,” Winter said.

    The Mortuary Affairs Operations Center leases its space from Dover Air Force Base.
Lt. Col. (Chaplain) Timothy Wagoner said it was a little surprising the numbers of families went up so dramatically but understandable.

    “I think it’s very important in getting closure,” he said. “A lot of families are not connected to the military and this gives them a true sense how truly appreciative their country is.

    “I think that does them a lot of good,” Wagoner added. “They have told us that. You can see it in them as they go through that experience.”   

    Wagoner said transfers happen “around the clock at all hours, day and night” so they always have to be prepared to meet the family in the base’s spiritual operation center to share their grief and hear their story. Chaplains and mental health professionals sit, talk with them and offer prayer or support.

    Then everyone loads up on a bus and goes to the flightline for the transfer. He said when families first see the flag-draped transfer case it is a very powerful point in their journey.

    “In most cases it’s the most significant loss this family has encountered and it’s a great honor to share that extreme sadness, almost paralyzing sense of grief,” Wagoner said.

  The addition of financial support has been important, Winter said, because in some cases families only have 12 to 36 hours to get to Dover once they are notified.

    “You can imagine how much it would cost, especially from the West Coast, to buy an airline ticket that fast,” he said.

    Winter had no information on what each military branch has spent for the commercial travel in recent months.

    “I think as a country I think it’s the least we can do,” Winter said.

    All the increased traffic coming to the mortuary has led to a few changes as well. Winter said the military increased the number of chaplains available to spend time with families and the space where families wait is being moved and expanded.

    The number of immediate family members traveling to Dover depends on the situation, he said. If there’s a mother, father and wife with children, they won’t say no to adding the children.

    “We’ve never said no to families,” Winter said. “We want to make sure the family is taken care of here. They don’t just come here and leave.”

    A casualty assistance officer from the deceased’s branch of service goes to the family’s home, makes the airline arrangements and stays with the family for their entire trip. Once in Dover the families are housed in a local hotel and given financial support for food.

    Along with helping families travel, the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center also has been allowing media to record dignified transfers with the family’s permission. More than two-thirds of families have been allowing some kind of media coverage.

   Some opt just for Department of Defense media, which means they also receive a DVD of the transfer as a permanent record, but 61% have allowed all-inclusive media to be present.

    Winter said DoD coverage still means the photographs can be requested through the Freedom of Information Act but they aren’t quite as available. However, for a small percentage of families who can’t be part of the transfer, the DVD is important.

    With public media coverage, there’s no choice who gets the photographs, he said. The mortuary affairs operations center has an extensive database where press releases go out for those transfers.

  Email Jayne Gest at jayne.gest@doverpost.com.