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Dover's New Mortuary Center Aims to Ease Family's Grief

By K.L. Vantran
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 29, 2003 – Military officials this week opened a new $30 million mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, Del. The Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs, which replaces a 48-year-old facility, is the Defense Department's only stateside mortuary.

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The Atrium at the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs, Dover Air Force Base, Delaware gives visitors, as well as workers, a place to rest and relax peacefully. U.S. Air Force photo by William M. Plate Jr.

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"The new building is state-of-the art," said Meg Falk, director of the Defense Department's Office of Family Policy.

The 70,000-square-foot facility was built in little more than a year, said Falk, who likened the project to the Pentagon's Phoenix Project, which rebuilt the portion of the Pentagon destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001, in a year. "It was built with that same kind of spirit and dedication," she said.

Since 1955, the remains of more than 50,000 service members have arrived at Dover for identification and funeral preparations. The mortuary staff prepares the remains of fallen U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, as well as government officials and their families stationed abroad in Europe and Southwest Asia.

The people at Dover have a very difficult job, Falk said, adding she's glad they now have a new, brighter facility to work in. The center features a foyer with a reflecting pool where the staff can sit and contemplate if they need to collect themselves.

"This peaceful space is a wonderful aspect of the new mortuary," Falk said. "There's also a break area complete with computer labs, a place where people "can remove themselves a little relax, regroup a bit."

New computers tie into the Services Casualty System and speed up the process for obtaining data on service members, such as awards they are entitled to and where their families live.

The loss of a loved one is the worst thing a family has to deal with, Falk said, and the Defense Department's goal is to respect the privacy and wishes of service members' families.

"It's a time of grief, of loss. The families are in shock, in disbelief," she added. "Over the years, the families have told us that their privacy is very important. They don't want to see on TV a casket that might contain their loved one's remains before they've had a chance to grieve."

Out of respect for families' privacy, defense officials do not allow arrival ceremonies for, or media coverage of deceased military personnel returning to or departing from Dover Air Force Base or Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, or any other site where remains are transferred.

All four service branches participated in the formulation of this policy, said Mark Ward, senior policy advisor for casualty, mortuary and funeral honors. "It was based solely on protecting and keeping the considerations and concerns of the families," he said.

The Carson Center is a mortuary, Falk said, and it is inappropriate for media to be at a mortuary.

"The mission of a mortuary is to prepare remains with dignity, care and respect," she added. "If we expose that process to the media we lose that."

The Defense Department policy has been in effect since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Falk said. Defense officials reissued the policy in November 2001 at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, and again in March 2003 to cover all military operations.

During Operation Desert Storm, some media and other organizations challenged this policy, claiming the First Amendment allowed them access to Dover. However, the courts supported the policy, and in 1996 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the decision.

The court's decision was based on reducing the hardship of families and friends of the deceased, who may feel obligated to travel great distances to attend arrival ceremonies if such ceremonies were held, Falk said.

"To expose a loved one's casket or themselves to the media is a '180' from the respect that we owe that family," she added.

Falk added that until the remains go through "a very careful, methodical process," it is not known whose remains are in which casket. "It's unfair to ask a family to go through this when you don't have 100 percent identification," she said.

The director said she has a great respect for the scientists and staff at Dover. "They are so careful to ensure they are absolutely positive that they have 100 percent identification," she said.

After attending the center's ribbon-cutting ceremony, Falk and Ward agreed the new facility is an excellent memorial to its namesake. Charles C. Carson served as the Dover mortuary director for 26 years. He retired in 1996 and died in 2002.

"He was revered in the mortuary community," said Falk. "Not only for his extensive knowledge but for his total dedication to treating every single casualty with the utmost dignity and respect. He was constantly seeking improvements to apply new and better processing to mortuary operations."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe Wall of Fallen Heroes greets each visitor as they walk into the impressive Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs, Dover AFB, Delaware. Each tragedy is engraved into the glass for remembrance of the date and number fallen heroes. U.S. Air Force photo by: William M. Plate Jr.   
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