Dover facility 'befits the grief' of families of fallen troops

The Pentagon unveiled a new $1.6 million facility designed to offer comfort to families who come to Dover Air Force Base to grieve for the loss of loved ones in foreign wars.

Steve Ruark/AP
An Army carry team carries a transfer case containing the remains of a fallen soldier on Monday, at Dover Air Force Base, Del.

For years, grieving military families here to witness the transfer of their loved ones’ remains from war back to American soil were offered a coldly-lit room and plastic chairs as a place to mourn. Then military spouses realized the military had to do better.

Today, the Air Force has a new, $1.6 million facility with leather couches, overstuffed pillows, and soft lighting to give military families a comfortable place to go as they await the arrival of their deceased. The renovated building, unveiled Wednesday with VIPs including Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, in attendance, reflects how the military is still trying to meet the needs of families after eight years of war.

It seems like a simple thing – a nice place for families to grieve. But in a military that must balance hundreds of priorities, the “Center for the Families of the Fallen” was an initiative that took time to realize. Gen. Norton “Norty” Schwartz, the Air Force Chief of Staff, said the military had to have a place to offer families that “befits their grief.”

“Perhaps someday, a world without armed conflict will not longer elude us, but until then, this nation requires and values the efforts of its service men and women, and the love and support of their family members who sustain their efforts,” he said.

Secretary Gates steps in

It was less than a year ago when Defense Secretary Robert Gates changed a long-controversial policy that effectively barred families and the media from witnessing the return of caskets containing the war’s deceased. All deceased troops are brought to Dover before they are returned to their families.

Families were technically allowed to visit Dover to see their loved ones’ remains returned, but they were not encouraged to participate in the ceremony. Media were completely barred.

Mr. Gates made two changes:

• He offered all families the opportunity to be flown to Dover, at government expense, to see the return of their loved one’s remains,

• He offered the families the opportunity to choose to have the event covered by the media.

So far, Dover has received more than 350 deceased, and about 70 percent of the families opt to come to Dover to see what the military calls a “dignified transfer” of remains, in which the transfer box is pulled out of the plane by military pallbearers, lowered by a truck onto the tarmac, and driven to Dover’s morgue. About 60 percent permit open press coverage, according to Air Force officials.

'Every kindness is magnified'

But with all the families coming to Dover, military spouses quickly realized that the annex of a base chapel was not an adequate facility to host family members, many of whom arrive here just hours after being notified of the death.

Suzie Schwartz, the wife of the Air Force chief of staff, recalls one scene this summer in which she saw three families all expressing their grief differently. One was stoic, another angry, and yet another inconsolable. Putting all three in one small room exacerbated their grief, she said. Ms. Schwartz and other military
spouses got together to push for the new facility, which was built in two months.

Designers tried to think of everything, from a large living room with big, custom made furniture to meeting rooms, a meditation room, and a children's playroom. The women’s restroom includes a supply of cosmetics.

It’s these little things that can make the period of initial grief that much more bearable, says Nicole Goc, who lost her husband to a plane crash in Texas more than a dozen years ago. The amenities of the new facility are crucial, she says.

“Everything is magnified and every kindness is magnified,” says Ms. Goc, who attended the opening Wednesday. “So if you’re uncomfortable, it is magnified 1,000 times.”


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