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Chaplain at War with Grief: My Experiences at Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, Dover AFB, Del.

  • Published
  • By Chaplain (Capt.) Kevin Hostettler
  • 509th Bomb Wing
As I prepared to tip the commissary bagger, "To the Colors" sounded. Instantly, I turned to face the flag flying over the 509th Bomb Wing headquarters.

As I rendered honors to our flag during the National Anthem, a cold blast of wind hit my face. The music faded and tears formed. I was, for those few moments, transported back to the ramp at Dover Air Force Base, Del., where, just three weeks prior, I stood rendering similar salutes to flags covering too many of America's fallen warriors as they returned home one final time. I again heard the wails of sorrow and stood in sacred silence next to hundreds of grief-stricken souls.

I was flooded with faces - faces of both the living and dead. I almost broke into uncontrollable sobbing on the shoulder of what would have been a quite startled commissary worker. Fortunately for both him and me, the last note sounded and I returned to the present moment. I tipped the unsuspecting bagger and drove both my groceries and tears home where I shared both with my wife and children.

My memories are jumbled, but my records show that I served as the "Chaplain-in-Charge" (CHiC for short) of the Family Support Team for about 40 of our nation's fallen during my 110-day deployment to Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations (AFMAO) headquarters at Dover.

Fallen servicemembers from each military branch return home from the AOR through AFMAO. I was responsible for shepherding (the best I could) family members of our fallen heroes through the raw emotion and shock of seeing a flag-draped transfer case containing their loved one's remains being carried by an honor guard out of the cavernous tail of a military transport, into a waiting mortuary vehicle and from there - into memory alone.

In the course of my time there, I observed nearly 400 family members and friends express their pain in a myriad of ways - I don't suppose I'll ever forget the actions and reactions of those heroes behind our heroes. Dover has left its mark on me.

One day, my fellow deployed chaplain and I saw something particularly disturbing. He looked at me and said, "I just felt that go in and it didn't come out."

Whatever "that" was, I felt it too. I still feel it and can't quite define or express it. I was given a coin, a plaque, a quilt and a glowing letter of evaluation for my service at AFMAO, but I also came back with all sorts of intangible and inexpressible "things" that are now a part of me (many of which are still working their way out).

Writing this has been a month in the making. It is one of my first small steps in an attempt to bring order to the whirlwind of thoughts and emotions surrounding my ministerial experience at Dover.

I find myself reluctant to talk about my experiences at AFMAO. I think my reluctance may be due, in part, to a deep reverence for my memories of those fallen warriors and their grieving families. In meditation, I remove my "mental shoes" as I enter my inner sanctuary in which I find the tears of hundreds stored. It is a sacred place; it is holy - set apart. In prayer, I bow my head to the God who heals and binds up wounds in expectation that He will answer and heal.

I remember quiet tears and tenderly held mementoes representing loved ones - heroes and friends. I beheld the beautiful faces of cherished memories. I joined the bereaved for a few short moments of their immeasurable sorrow; I grieved with them in my own feeble way - wishing I could magically whisk away the pain. I stood upright in salutes, cold winter blasts piercing through what seemed at times to be my own soul. The current foremost feeling in my heart is gratitude.

I am so grateful that God and the Air Force gave me the opportunity to be a piece of the healing process for the grief-stricken as they took their first steps toward recovery from the worst news of their lives. I again offer my salute, this time for the grieving - those who walked away from Dover, returning to a home forever altered by the true cost of war.