What is Honor, Dignity, & Respect for The Fallen?
Our hearts and prayers go out to the Gold Star families of Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, and Sgt La David Johnson. The lost of life of our men and women in uniform impacts all American families throughout our nation.
Several of people have asked me, "Why haven't the Johnson family seen Sgt. La David Johnson's body?" It then that I realized that a lot of people were touched when they heard Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, say in a ABC news interview, “They told me that he’s in a severe, a severe wrap like I won’t be able to see him. I need to see him so I will know that that is my husband. I don't know nothing they won’t show me a finger, a hand. I know my husband’s body from head to toe. And they won’t let me see anything. I don’t know what’s in that box, it could be empty for all I know. But I need, I need to see my husband. I haven’t seen him since he came home.”
Like you, I was touched and in tears too. That’s when I turned on laptop and began to write this article.
For 12 years in the US Air Force, I served as a combat support troop. Part of my training and responsibilities included search and recovery and mortuary affairs. The task of recovering human remains from combat or an accident is done in a very methodical, safe and dignified way. Annual training is required through exercises across the US military spectrum that fosters an application, learning and stress management environment that prepare our troops for real world circumstances. What we learn is primarily for what to do in the times of war overseas, however everything we learn may still be applied in the event a major incident in our homeland as well.
We learn how to search an area and plot the remains and personal property that are found. Other members of the team collect the items and turn them into a field based port mortuary. The field mortuary properly labels remains and personal effects of the fallen and keep everything that’s recovered pertaining to each individual together. In the field, we don’t identify the lost, we use the term “believed to be “ Sgt. John Smith for an example. Identification actually takes place at Port Mortuary, Dover Air Force Base for all US military and civilian Department of Defense personnel.
At Dover, they have access to personnel DNA, dental, foot and fingerprints records. They identify us and get us prepared to be returned to our love ones in a honorable, dignified and respectful manner. It’s here at port mortuary where the initial decision is made whether or not our remains are viewable or non-viewable.
When our troops are determined to be "Non-viewable-Full Body Wrap" that means that remains are non-intact with extreme trauma, edema, dehydration, discoloration, or decomposition that cannot be restored to an appearance suitable for visual recognition. Condition of remains does not allow for dressing in uniform or other clothing. This is the exact wording in both US Air Force (AFI 34-501) & US Army (AR 638-2) instructions and regulations. Each family has the right to see the remains, but the casualty assistance representatives are trained to encourage family members not to see their loved ones in this condition. That’s a memory you will never forget.
A casualty assistance representatives aid family members as they work through the difficulty and pain of losing a loved one who served in the military. They help our families with the planning and details of the funeral or memorial service, and continues through the application and processing of all benefits and entitlements.
Our search and recovery, port mortuary and casualty assistance teams take their responsibilities very seriously and they strive to perform their duties in the most professional and respectful manner possible. That's what we would all would want if something like what happened to our fallen American heroes in Niger happened to anyone of us.