Providing honor and pride even after death
By Senior Airman Tammie Ramsouer, 42d Air Base Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 07, 2016
MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- "It's not the dead that scares me, but rather the living," said Christine Bushby, 42d Force Support Squadron Mortuary Affairs and Readiness technician. "When a death happens, especially unexpected, the raw human emotion is hard to bear witness."
Every day, people enter or leave the military even if they leave by sacrificing their life for their country. It is the job of Mortuary Affairs to provide the services needed to show military members the honor they deserve when they pass.
During the Seminole and Mexican-American Wars, American soldiers were buried where they fell and were not properly identified. The American Civil-War was the first time in history for the deceased to be identified and given a proper burial. At the height of the first World War, this process was named The Graves Registration Service. According to www.qmfound.com, at that time, individuals would fill out a form writing information regarding the deceased military member and placed into a bottle and buried with them. Today, the process is a more in-depth recognition of the deceased.
Mortuary Affairs is one branch of four job categories within the Services career field which has merged with the Personnel career field.
"Typically, the Force Support Squadron commander will be the Mortuary Affairs officer," said Maj. Jeannie Sasnett, 42d Force Support Squadron commander and Mortuary Affairs officer. "The officers work with their enlisted services personnel who serves as the mortuary technician and assist in all aspects of the case."
Officers and enlisted learn how to be a Mortuary Affairs specialist through the Ira C. Eaker Center for Professional Development on Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.
Mortuary Affairs officers and technicians are trained to work as quickly as possible with the mortuary process. The process begins once there is a notification that a military member or dependent has passed, and does not stop until the deceased has been laid to rest.
"By AFI, we have to contact the person authorized to direct disposition and notify the next of kin within 24 hours to schedule funeral arrangements," Bushby said. "The process is quite a bit quicker if the family members reside within the state, but sometimes we have to do the funeral arrangements in other states."
During the process of each case, an autopsy may be conducted if the individual is not recognizable or the cause of death is unexplained. Technicians will not proceed until there is a positive identification of the deceased.
"Sometimes we have a visual recognition by the commanders, supervisor or first sergeant or by scientific recognition," Bushby said. "Normally OSI or the local authorities determine if an autopsy needs to be performed for the cause of death or identifying purposes. Until we have a positive identification of who the individual is, we cannot proceed to meet with the families."
The officers have a checklist of the steps they need to take to ensure the embalming process is done correctly.
Once the body arrives to the funeral home, an officer visually inspects the body before and after the embalming process is done. The deceased is then dressed and inspected. A final inspection of the deceased takes place once the body is placed inside the casket.
"We make sure there are no issues in this process so the body is ready for viewing during the funeral service," Bushby said.
This lengthy process also ensures that if the body is not viewable, the funeral director makes the determination for a closed or open casket service.
When military members die while overseas on a deployment or temporary duty assignment, the process is the same. The remains travel to the nearest qualified mortuary affairs or to Dover Air Force Base, Del., where mortuary specialists handle the notifications and disposition of the body per wishes of the family, Bushby said. Dover AFB is the only port for mortuary remains to be delivered in the U.S.
"Dover AFB will get involved and assist us if we have a training accident or if there is a mass casualty of four or more individuals," Sasnett said.
The mortuary specialists and officers meet with families and unit members on a daily basis providing them the support they need, but sometimes when they interact with the loved ones of the deceased, the emotions they experience stays with them.
"This job has its moments," Bushby said. "Sometimes we just have to get all the emotions out in some way by talking it out or taking a quiet minute to myself. I don't always do that but I am working on it."
The service mortuary technicians and officers provide to fallen military members humbles them.
"Having not worn the uniform, for me this is the one thing that I can do for every Airman," Bushby said. "Providing the respect and honor these individuals are entitled to is the last thing I can do for the member and their families."
Visit www.mortuary.af.mil for more information about Mortuary Affairs, or contact them at 953-3273.