New center for families of fallen servicemembers opens at Dover AFB
Published: January 6, 2010
Last spring after President Barack Obama lifted the long-standing ban on media coverage of returning military casualties and the Pentagon began paying for families to fly to Dover Air Force Base, Air Force big-wigs attended a few dignified transfers to get a feel for the process.
Their conclusion: We can do better.
Today a 6,000-square-foot Center for the Families of the Fallen opened. The large space, which has the feel of a staged house on the market, has only a few walls but is set up with defined spaces of couches and chairs arranged around coffee tables. So each family almost has their own little family room to sit in as they grieve and wait. There are also side rooms for private counseling with one of the chaplains or counselors on staff, a kitchen and a children's playroom (In the 1960s the AAFES garden and toy store was located there).
The project went from concept to reality in less than a year - a near-miraculous feat for the Pentagon. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz was on hand for the dedication.
"The center is emblematic of our genuine gratitude to the families," he said, noting that it wouldn't be necessary if "the world was universally dedicated to resolving disputes peacefully, but alas..."
Schwartz emphasized the importance of taking care of the families, saying military service is really "a team sport" that includes the family of a servicemember.
Before the policy changed in April families had to pay their own expenses if they wanted to witness the dignified transfer of their fallen loved one, so not many were able to make it to Dover. Now a large a majority of families choose to attend the dignified transfers.
About 56 percent of families of the more than 330 fallen servicemembers since then have consented to a media presence. Another 25 percent allow internal DoD media only, which makes a DVD of the transfer for the family, and 19 percent want no coverage at all, according to Lt. Col. Les Carroll, a spokesman for the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center.
Nicole Goc, whose Air Force major husband was killed in a B-1 bomber crash 17 years ago, was at the dedication, the only spouse of a fallen servicemember in attendance.
She said she was impressed with the family center and stressed its importance, saying that the day you find out about your loved one's death everything is felt so acutely that a bad experience is remembered forever.
"Just to have a place that's comfortable makes such a difference," she said.