Tuesday , 17 September 2019

Honoring the Fallen on Memorial Day

By Shannon Collins, 
Defense Media Activity

Sobs from grieving family members on the other side of a van were the only sounds I heard as I focused on participating in the dignified transfer of one of my fallen brethren to the transfer vehicle during a temporary duty assignment to Dover Port Mortuary in 2009. Holding a salute as a fallen brother in arms was carried to an awaiting aircraft while I was deployed in 2005. Then holding my mom’s hand at my dad’s funeral.

Throughout my life and my 14 years as an enlisted and officer airman in the public affairs career field, I’ve witnessed my share of death and those who’ve paid the ultimate sacrifice.

As we take time to honor the men and women who have died while serving in the U.S. military this Memorial Day weekend, I wanted to reflect on how it affects me and highlight a few of the organizations that are important to veterans like me.

Ms. Bonnie Carroll, TAPS President and Founder (left), and Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, embrace the mother and father of U.S. Navy electronics technician 1st Class Ronald Hemenway after the TAPS Grand Banquet at the 23rd TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp in Arlington, Va., May 27, 2017. Hemenway died at the Pentagon during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. DoD Photo by Army Sgt. James K. McCann

Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. My father served in the Air Force in the 1960s and died in 1979. My first brush with death and the meaning of Memorial Day was when I became a survivor.


The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors is the national organization that provides compassionate care for families of those grieving the loss of a military loved one. The mission of TAPS is to provide peer-based emotional support to all those who are grieving the death of someone who died during or as a result of their military service to the U.S. TAPS has assisted more than 75,000 surviving family members, casualty assistance officers, chaplains and others supporting bereaved family members since 1994.

TAPS holds its 24th Annual National Military Survival Seminar and Good Grief Camp this weekend in Virginia, culminating with many of the surviving families visiting their loved ones at Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis speaks with members of TAPS during their visit to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., May 25, 2017. The Pentagon hosted the families for a day of fun and remembrance in honor of Memorial Day. DoD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr

Arlington National Cemetery

On average, Arlington National Cemetery conducts between 25 to 30 funeral services each weekday and six and eight services Saturdays. It is the final resting place for more than 14,000 veterans, including some who fought in the Civil War.

For me, it is the final resting place of Jamin Wilson, a friend I served with at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, who died in a car accident.

For more than 60 years, the Army’s 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard, has honored American’s fallen heroes by placing American flags at gravesites for service members buried at both Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery just prior to Memorial Day weekend.

Army Pvt. Gabriel Thyfault, left, renders honors while Army Spc. Nayib Pagan places an American flag in front of a headstone during “Flags In” at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., May 25, 2017. DoD photo by Sebastian J. Sciotti Jr.

Angel Flight

In 2005, while I was deployed to Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa in Djibouti, Africa, as an Air Force Public Affairs officer, we had a sailor who died in a training accident in the Seychelles. The Marines ran the base at the time, and members of all service branches were deployed there to provide humanitarian assistance to the people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and the Seychelles.

I joined my fellow airmen, soldiers, Marines and sailors as we lined up silently while the remains of the fallen sailor were silently carried to the C-130 to be taken to Dover Port Mortuary in Delaware. In 2005, in the Air Force, we called them “Angel Flights,” but now they’re called “dignified transfers” throughout the Defense Department.

An Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center carry team transfers the remains of Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip A. Myers, of Hopewell, Va., from an aircraft at Dover Air Force Base, Del., April 5, 2009. Sergeant Myers died April 4 near Helmand Province, Afghanistan, from wounds suffered from an improvised explosive device. Myers’ family is the first to allow media to cover the dignified transfer under the new Department of Defense policy. Air Force photo by Roland Balik

Shortly after my deployment ended, and I returned home, two CH-53 helicopters crashed into each other on a training mission. I had flown many times with the crews and knew many of them. I still have the group photo I took with them and photos of flying with them. I’m still saddened that I wasn’t there for their Angel Flight, and I honor them every Memorial Day.

Honoring the Fallen 

While I served at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, in 2007, we had five military deaths and three military contractor deaths. We had two F-16 crashes – one pilot died instantly, and the other ejected safely. During a memorial ceremony, we held a roll call in which the names of the fallen were called out, followed by the playing of “Taps” and a 21-gun salute.

Afterward, each of us walked by an M-16 rifle in a pair of boots, adorned with a helmet and dog tags, and paid our respects.

Dover Port Mortuary

Air Force 1st Lt. Jamin Wilson died in a car crash while stationed at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany Dec. 14, 2006. DoD photo by Shannon Collins

The primary mission of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations is to fulfill the nation’s sacred commitment of ensuring dignity, honor and respect to the fallen and care, service and support to their families. When an aircraft carrying the remains of a fallen service member arrives at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, a solemn and dignified transfer takes place as the remains are moved from the aircraft to the transfer vehicle to the Port Mortuary.

In 2009,I had the honor of serving at the Dover Port Mortuary for a month to help establish the Air Force Dover Port Mortuary public affairs office. It was the hardest mission in my 14 years in the Air Force but also the highlight of my career. I assisted with some of the dignified transfers and ensured that the first media coverage of the dignified transfers since the 1990s was respectful to the families. I also had the chance to highlight the missions of the people behind the scenes.

I learned first-hand just how dedicated the airmen and Defense Department civilians there were in making sure our fallen are taken care of before they are released to their families. They would spend hours just to polish a belt buckle or to try to preserve a photo that arrived with those remains because they knew it would mean something to the families.

I remember them and their mission every Memorial Day as well.

As you take time this Memorial Day weekend with your families, enjoying whatever festivities you have planned, please also take a moment of silence and reflection to honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.

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