The military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, where U.S. war casualties from overseas are brought home, will open a new facility Wednesday to serve families who travel there to witness the return of their loved ones' remains.
The Center for Families of the Fallen will be staffed by counselors and support specialists who will assist families awaiting the return of their loved ones to the nation's largest military mortuary. Families also will be able to meet with casualty assistance officers who are assigned to them.
Officials said the new center will be more convenient both for families and mortuary officials than the space now shared by the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center at Dover with the base's active duty and reserve wings.
"Sadly, as the death toll has grown in Afghanistan and Iraq, we find we need a larger facility," said Maj. Shannon Mann, a spokeswoman for AFMAO.
Also, with the lifting of an 18-year ban on news coverage of returning U.S. war dead in April 2009, more families are traveling to Dover to witness the return of loved ones killed overseas. The new policy allows each family to decide whether to allow media coverage of their loved one being returned, and many families who consent to media coverage also choose to come to Dover themselves.
In the past year, more than 400 war dead have been returned to Dover from Iraq and Afghanistan, Mann said.
About 56 percent of families have consented to external media coverage of what military officials call "dignified transfers" since the media ban was lifted, said Lt. Col. Les Carroll, another AFMAO spokesman. Another 25 percent have allowed coverage only by the Air Force, which provides families with video and still photographs of the dignified transfers, and 19 percent of families have requested no media coverage at all.
The new center also will be used as a point of contact for Air Force families requesting follow-up counseling or other help as they cope with their loss. Other branches of the armed forces already have such long-term support programs based at other locations, said Mann.
The new, 6,000-square-foot center will be housed in a former base convenience store refurbished at a cost of about $1.6 million. The facility is about twice the size of the "spiritual operations center" that AFMAO chaplains and support staff have shared until now with chaplains serving Dover's 436th Airlift Wing and the reserve 512th Airlift Wing.
"We really needed a separate place specific to the AFMAO mission to bring those families," Mann said.
The new facility will be much closer to the mortuary than the multipurpose spiritual operations center, which is on the other side of the base, and will make it easier for support staff to assist not just families of the casualties, but mortuary workers as well.
"There's a high level of stress in the business that we do," Mann noted.
Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, was scheduled to preside over the dedication Wednesday.