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Dover trip proves humbling and rewarding

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Williams
  • 934th Airlift Wing
“No amount of video, powerpoints or briefings can prepare you for the sights and smells of the experience,” a calm yet resolute 2nd Lt. Dennis Davis said while explaining his most recent assignment. “It was by far the most difficult thing in my career, but it will be the most honorable and rewarding experience.” 

From the tragic losses on the battlefields in distant lands, to their final resting places all across our country, fallen warriors from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom arrive in a small east coast city to receive their last uniforms and decorations before going home. 

As one of his first experiences as a newly commissioned officer, Lieutenant Davis along with Tech. Sgt. Kristen Maloney, Senior Airman Joseph Cervantes and Senior Airman Robert Schaaf of the 934th Services Squadron deployed to the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs at Dover Air Force Base, Del., to process the remains of fallen warriors from today’s battlefield, including those of civilian contractors. The four squadron members had tours of various lengths that began in Sept. 2005 and concluded around Christmas. “The Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs holds an extraordinary life experience and is filled with great emotion.,” said Sergeant Maloney. 
“We are the last hand in fulfilling honor to our fallen comrades’ glory before returning home to family and to their final resting place. It’s a priceless and heroic mission to complete and holds the highest praise of importance.”
“You can never be prepared,” Lt. Davis said. “We do what we can, but until you’re there the first morning, you just have to do it. We process the remains of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines. It’s what we do there. But everything we do is done with the thread of dignity, honor and respect.” 

Lieutenant Davis has seen a lot of things in his six-year military career. After spending four years active duty as a gunners mate with the Navy, he joined the 934th Security Forces Squadron in April 2003 before receiving a Deserving Airman selection in July 2004. He was commissioned as a new 2nd Lieutenant in the 934th Services Squadron in February 2005.
Those three words – dignity, honor and respect. They can sum up practically anybody’s service career, but for those who served at the Carson Center, the meaning has a connotation that few others can understand. 

As an operations officer, Lt. Davis was responsible for the organization of “dignified transfer ceremonies,” when the flag-draped transfer cases were carried off the aircraft.
“I’ll never forget getting on an aircraft and there were 17. As we were checking the flags, occasionally we would find one that was dirty. Each time we worked a ‘dignity transfer,’ we made sure we had extra flags to replace the dirty ones out of respect, regardless of how someone died,” he said.
“One transfer is just as bad as 17. It means that someone died,” he continued. “You can be out on the flightline for two hours during a transfer. It gives you time to think about how this is one of the last times a fallen warrior will be saluted and dignified in that way.”
Lieutenant Davis said October 2005 was the fourth deadliest month in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He arrived in Dover Oct. 1 and started working the next day. His team processed 10 people that day, and he worked over 300 cases during the next three months. 

“We’ve been at war. The biggest thing is that we are not in the desert and being shot at,” he said. “A lot of the kids were proud to wear the uniform and proud to serve. Seeing that makes me want to carry on for them because they made that sacrifice.”
Occasionally something will happen to a member of the staff to create a connection between those who are serving and those who have fallen. Lt. Davis was no exception.
“One time I was asked by a Marine officer to tie a neckerchief for a Navy casualty, since I was prior Navy,” he said. “I hadn’t tied one in 14 years. To know I did that, and that it will remain forever, was quite emotional. While we did that for everyone, that experience was a connection for me.” 

During his downtime, Lieutenant Davis organized a trip to Washington, D.C., which included a visit to the White House where he and 30 others from the Carson Center met privately with Vice President Cheney. He also took a day trip to New York City. The trips and maintaining a sense of humor served as coping mechanisms during the time he was separated from his family. 

“The experience was a reality check. It put things into perspective. I got to come home to my family. They came home but will never be with family again,” he said.
“If similar sights, smells and sounds make me emotional, at least I have emotions.”
While working at the Carson Center was tough, it was still rewarding. 

“The highlight of the trip was doing my job due to the honorable nature of that job, tough though it may be,” Lt. Davis said. “Knowing that you helped pay respect to someone who made the ultimate sacrifice, and just knowing that you are paying respect by getting the fallen warrior back home to the family as quickly as we can, it’s an honor to be part of that process.” 

Other members of the 934th Services Squadron’s Port Mortuary team have served at the Carson Center previously. Members of the team were there in 2000 to assist with the processing of remains from the V-22 Osprey crash and the U.S.S. Cole bombing, in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks and in 2003 after the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart on reentry. This is also the second tour of duty at the Port Mortuary for 934th Services squadron members in support of OIF/OEF.