Center Offers Respite for Families of Fallen
By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del., March 10, 2010 Robin Raine walked through the plush, richly appointed room with purpose, her eyes fixed on a lampshade that was askew, a flaw in the otherwise immaculate sitting area.
Robin Raine straightens up the sitting area of the Center for Families of the Fallen at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Feb. 22, 2010. The center offers a comfortable waiting area for families who travel to Dover to attend a dignified transfer, an event that marks the return of a fallen servicemember to U.S. soil. DoD photo by Elaine Wilson
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
She was intent on ensuring all was perfect for the families who would arrive shortly. They may not notice a speck of dust or a crooked lampshade, but to Raine, the spotless surroundings are the least she can do to honor their loss.
Raine is the director of the Center for Families of the Fallen, a place where grieving families can wait in comfort for their fallen servicemember to arrive home. All servicemembers who die in support of a combat operation come through the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center here, and their return is marked with what officials call a dignified transfer -- a respectful movement of the remains from the aircraft to a waiting vehicle, then to the port mortuary.
The center opened just a few months ago, but already has hosted hundreds of family members. The 6,000-square-foot building is equipped with sitting areas configured to offer privacy, a meditation room, play areas for children and babies, a fully equipped and stocked kitchen, and a separate room available for families’ needs.
“Every detail here was thought about with the comfort of the family in mind,” Raine said. “We wanted to offer families a serene environment with all of the creature comforts we could possibly provide to them.”
Before the center was built, families waited for a dignified transfer in a chapel annex borrowed from the base, a sparsely furnished area with folding chairs and stark, white walls that offered little privacy to families.
“It just wasn’t set up for hosting people, although it was generous of the base to offer its facilities,” Raine said. “It just wasn’t ever made for that.”
Still, the space had worked until recently, because few families traveled to attend the dignified transfer event. But a Defense Department policy change in April created an influx of family members. The new policy offers families an option of media coverage of dignified transfers and funds for up to three family members to travel here for the event.
Since the policy change, “we’ve had over 1,700 family members come here, and we’ve only been doing this for 10 months,” said Air Force Col. Robert H. Edmondson, commander of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center. “A tremendous amount of family members want to come.”
Leaders recognized the need for a bigger, better-equipped facility, and a visit from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz and his wife clinched the deal.
“They recognized we had to do something better, something designated for the families,” Edmondson said. “They championed the cause and really made it happen.” The center was built in an existing building in just 90 days.
Todd Rose, director of the mortuary affairs division and a licensed funeral director, and his staff infused lessons learned and private-sector knowledge into designing the center. The furniture, for instance, is purposefully situated in seating groups to optimize privacy.
“We wanted to create an environment that would allow families to be together, but also allow them separation if they should need to be maintained as a family,” Rose said.
As families arrive, they’re encouraged to make themselves at home. Raine and her two-person staff drift through the center, providing everything from fresh coffee to child care. Raine recently watched four children under age 5 in the nursery so their parents could attend the dignified transfer without worrying about their children being exposed to the rain and cold.
“We do anything we can to make families comfortable,” she said.
Also at the center are a family liaison and a family support team that comprises a funeral director, chaplain, chaplain’s assistant and mental health specialist. The family liaison, who is a member of the same service as the fallen servicemember, takes care of travel arrangements and serves as a focal point for any questions or concerns.
“When the families get here, they don’t see the time and energy that’s been put in by the center’s staff,” Rose said. “Their commitment is amazing.”
The family support team travels with the families to attend the dignified transfer on the flightline. The families then head back to hotels or home.
But every morning, without fail, Raine or one of her staff is back to set cushions and chairs back in place, straighten up the play area and ensure the center is as immaculate as possible. More families may be arriving, and Raine won’t accept anything less than perfection for them.