News>Feature - Mortuary affairs: Remembering those who have passed
Staff Sgt. Jason Prescott, 28th Medical Support Squadron medical war reserve material NCO in charge, prepares to place a flag on a casket during Honor Guard training at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Feb. 22, 2016. Once fallen servicemembers have been brought to their duty location by a search and recovery team, Honor Guardsmen pay their respects by holding a ceremony. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Sadie Colbert/Released)
A folded flag sits on a casket during ceremonial funeral training at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Feb. 22, 2016. Search and recovery teams are in charge of finding, identifying and recovering remains of those who were lost in any incident, then bringing that individual back to their duty location where a ceremonial funeral is held. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Sadie Colbert/Released)
by Airman 1st Class Sadie Colbert
28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
3/8/2016 - ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- An Airman's Creed stanza reads, "I am an American Airman, I defend my country with my life," - some personnel make that ultimate sacrifice in defense of the U.S. Constitution.
When that happens, it is up to the 28th Force Support Squadron mortuary affairs personnel to ensure that the remains of the lost are honored and treated with respect; but even when there is gloom in the air, they still push forward and cope with the stresses of their job.
"It's not the easiest thing to deal with," said Tech. Sgt. Leigh Pears, 28th FSS fitness assessment cell NCO in charge. "You can sit there and have all the training in the world, but you're never going to know how it's going to affect you until you're out there."
Pears explained, as a search and recovery team member, once they are notified, they report to the unit control center where they are briefed by the chaplain, medical personnel and their commander on what occurred.
No one is allowed to go out onto the site until the area has been cleared by base agencies. In the event remains are present, the base will send out a search and recovery team to retrieve them or personal items.
Once everything has been recovered, the team coordinates transportation to the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Office in Charles C. Carsen Center for Mortuary Affairs in Dover, Delaware.
"When you experience it real-world, it really puts things into perspective," Pears said. "You get briefed 'Okay, you're going to potentially see dead bodies,' but when I got out there, it was so surreal. At first I kind of disassociated the body from a real body, and the more I started to move him the more blood came out, and then it hit me - this really is a body."
Even though they are facing the fact they're dealing with the deceased, they treat them with just as much respect, if not more, as a living person.
"It's a closure thing," Pears said. "We will go out there and get everything we can. If there is the magic toe ring or the lucky rabbit's foot that dad always carried in his pocket, we will do the best we can to search every inch to get everything the family wants. We want to give the family closure."
Each person does their best to maintain their military bearing, but there are outlets for them to go to whenever they need a break from holding it all together.
"Support is a big thing," he said. "If it wasn't there, I don't think anybody would be able to cope with it. The big thing is that you need to talk to somebody about it. The chaplains and mental health is something we recommend, and there are no repercussions with mental health. If you need to talk to them because [the situation] messed you up, go talk to them. It's better to do it early than late."
Pears added it did affect him and he would be foolish if it didn't, it helps to remember the purpose for what he does - that loved one was someone's family or friend, and they were able to get them home.
Even though the job can be tough, the flight always finds a way to keep going on. Because of that perseverance, they are able to honor those who have fallen in defense of our country.
"The reason I continued doing the search and recovery operation was because it was my duty to continue, and if I stopped it meant I let everyone down," Pears said.
Senior Airman Adam Clark, 28th FSS food service specialist, agreed what keeps him going is that it is his duty to continue and letting those families down is not an option.
"The military is a family," Pears said. "We want to get [fallen servicemembers] home."