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Face of Defense: Mortuary NCO Ensures Dignified Transfer of Fallen

By Army Spc. Elisebet Freeburg
Special to American Forces Press Service

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, July 20, 2009 – Many people have trouble viewing the deceased or coping with the emotions of witnessing the transfer of a fallen comrade. For Army Staff Sgt. John A. Rosado, it is an honor to ensure fallen heroes are returned home in a timely and dignified manner.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Troops bow their heads during a chaplain’s prayer during transfer of a fallen comrade at a ramp ceremony on Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Ashleigh Bryant
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

It is a regular part of Rosado’s job to attend ramp ceremonies here, where U.S. and coalition forces stand in formation behind an open aircraft while the casket of a fallen hero is carried up the walkway. Paying their last respects to the one who gave all, troops salute the hero. The pallbearers, his former comrades, shoulder their heavy burden with somber faces as they slowly march past the long rows of servicemembers to the waiting plane.

“The purpose of a ramp ceremony is to give a final farewell to our comrades, especially for the unit who’s suffering the loss,” said Rosado, a reservist from Clermont, Fla. “It’s to pay respect to the person who paid the ultimate sacrifice.”

A soldier since 1993 and a civilian corrections officer for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Rosado has worked in mortuary affairs since 2000 and is the Joint Sustainment Command Afghanistan mortuary affairs noncommissioned officer in charge.

“Our job is to make sure to expedite our fallen comrades back to loved ones in a timely manner,” he said.

The mortuary affairs collection point here, one of two for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, serves regional commands South and West, and is managed by the NATO Maintenance and Supply Association. The collection point at Bagram Airfield serves regional commands North and East.

Rosado became a mortuary affairs specialist after a six-week course at Fort Lee, Va., that included working at a morgue, taking fingerprints of remains and assisting technicians in autopsies. Rosado helps to prepare fallen heroes for transfer to Dover Air Force Base, Del., where each receives a dignified transfer to the Dover Port Mortuary for final preparations of the remains.

When Rosado receives notification of a fallen comrade, he first alerts personnel to stand by while he collects information about the arrival of the remains.

“In a respectful manner, with the unit escorts, we’ll unload the remains from the plane,” he said.

The mortuary affairs personnel and the unit escorts proceed to the mortuary collection point, where remains are screened for unexploded ordnance, ammunition and sensitive weapons.

“Once they’re screened, they enter a holding area,” Rosado said. “A chaplain will do a small, informal prayer over the remains with the unit representatives.”

After the fallen troop’s comrades leave, mortuary personnel remove personal effects from the remains. Dover personnel later will cleanse the remains and conduct an autopsy. Once the belongings have been inventoried and paperwork is completed, the remains will be stored in ice inside transfer cases in refrigerated vans.

Rosado then contacts the movement control team at the airfield to receive a transportation control number, scans the documents and sends them to the mobility section to book a flight.

Rosado’s final duty is the ramp ceremony, organized through the 649th Regional Support Group. Rosado and mortuary personnel prepare by tying a U.S. flag over the transfer case. “It’s so when the pallbearers load the case on the plane, the flag is already folded properly,” he explained.

They then transport the flag-draped case to the flightline, where U.S. and coalition servicemembers line up in formation. The mortuary affairs specialists then bring the van forward to send the servicemember home.

“Not many people can [handle seeing] a deceased person, or the cause of death, in this state,” Rosado said. “It’s a privilege and an honor. It helps give the family closure.”

(Army Spc. Elisebet Freeburg serves with the Joint Sustainment Command Afghanistan.)

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