Moving a small brush lightly, Mable Justice applies a coat of makeup to the face of a young soldier. She pauses, studying her work, and then touches up several spots on his cheeks and brow with a flick of her wrist.
The room she’s in is large, cold and sterile – all white walls, stainless steel and cluttered with various types of medical equipment. The only sounds are the constant hum of a machine circulating air through several vents in the ceiling and the occasional swoosh and ting as Mable applies cosmetics and swaps tools.
She smiles as she works, her hands expertly applying cosmetics and bringing the young man’s features to life.
She wants him to look perfect, like he did when he was still alive. Like he did before duty called him to the Middle East, and war and weapons sent him home in a transfer case.
As a mortician at the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Office, Justice has seen many of these transfer cases. Some contain soldiers, some airmen or Marines or sailors. Others contain only body parts.
No matter the state of the remains, Justice’s job is to take them, clean them, dress them and prepare them for delivery to their families. This preparation includes using cosmetics and other beauty products to enhance the appearance of these mens’ and womens’ remains.
It’s a job most wouldn’t want to do, let alone could. But Justice doesn’t look at it as a job. She looks at it as a calling.
“These service members gave their lives for our country,” she said. “So doing this, making them look nice and putting them in their uniforms one last time, I look at it as a way to honor them … to show them the respect they deserve.”
She may be at peace with her job now, but there was a time it was the last thing in the world she would ever think of doing.
There was a time, after finding out she was being sent to AFMAO, all she could do was say one, small prayer over and over.
“God, give me strength.”
Answering the Call
Justice, who is also an Air Force Reservist, said this prayer over a decade ago. She was driving from her home in Maryland to Dover Air Force Base to report for an assignment at AFMAO and she was nervous, anxious and scared.
“Being in services (Air Force Services career field), I knew the possibility existed for me to get assigned here,” she said. “But then I actually got orders, and was told I would be handling remains and I just couldn’t imagine myself doing that.”
Justice called her sister while driving and asked her sister to pray for her. Then, she started praying herself.
“I prayed a lot during that drive,” she said.
When she finally arrived, it wasn’t long before she realized her prayers had been answered.
“God sent me an angel, and it was the person I worked with,” Justice said. “She was a staff sergeant and she basically walked me through the whole process and she was there to talk to me and guide me through what I needed to do.”
What she needed to do was not easy, either. Whenever a service member is killed, dies overseas or in a training accident in the U.S., the remains are sent to AFMAO. Once there, a team of medical examiners, embalmers and service members inspect and prep the remains for burial and deliver them to their family.
Justice’s job was to help dress the remains in the uniform the family chose for burial.
“It’s not something I wanted to do, not at all,” she said. “But the longer I was here, the more I realized how important and special this mission is and I was at peace.”
This peace soon turned into desire. Several years later, on her second tour at AFMAO, Justice watched one of the embalming morticians applying makeup to a fallen service member and she felt drawn.
“It was just like something happened inside of me and I knew that this was my calling,” she said. “I knew this is what I was created to do.”
Returning home, Justice applied to study mortuary affairs at the closest university, which was two and a half hours away.
“For two years I drove about five hours a day, just to go to school,” she said.
The miles paid off, though, and Justice earned her degree and was one step closer to answering her calling.
The next hurdle was finding somewhere to complete her apprenticeship. This also wasn’t easy and distance was once again her enemy.
“The closest funeral home I found that would take me was located several hours away in Virginia,” she said.
So, Justice once again logged a lot of miles and hours in her car as she worked at the funeral home and learned the ins and outs of mortuary affairs.
“The funeral home director told me he couldn’t pay very much, but I told him I would do it for free … I just wanted to learn everything I could about being a mortician,” she said.
He showed her everything he knew and she soaked it up, and before she knew it, Justice had fulfilled her internship and was considered a full-fledged mortician.
Taking her new title with her, Justice applied for a mortician position at AFMAO, was accepted and once again found herself in her car, headed to Dover. This time, though, she was saying a different prayer over and over.
“Thank you, Jesus.”
Blessings and Honor
It’s been almost five years since that day, but Justice still says the same prayer every day she leaves her house and heads to work.
“I feel blessed to do this job,” she said. “I feel like I’ve truly answered my calling.”
Justice doesn’t do this job for herself, though. She does it for the families, friends and loved ones of the service members she sees come through her building.
“I just think how I would want to be treated if I came through here someday, or if someone I knew or loved did,” she said. “So I just treat these fallen service members the same way I would a member of my family.”
This care doesn’t go unnoticed, either.
“I get letters from family members who say thank you a lot,” Justice said. “And that means a lot, because that’s why I do it – for the families.”
And as a last act of honor and respect for the fallen.
Justice looks over the soldier she’s been working on and nods approvingly. Two airmen take the gurney he’s lying on and wheel it out of the room and toward the next stage of his journey.
As the gurney leaves, Justice stares after it and says a quiet prayer. But this one is not for herself or for strength or for peace. This prayer is one of gratitude.
“Thank you and God Bless.”
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