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A Dignified Deployment
Staff Sgt. Caitlin Jones salutes on the flightline at Dover Air Force Base, Del., prior to a dignified transfer on June 30, 2012. Jones just returned from a six-month rotation documenting dignified transfers for fallen servicemembers at Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Roland Balik)
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A Dignified Deployment

Posted 12/6/2012   Updated 12/12/2012 Email story   Print story


Commentary by Staff Sgt Caitlin Jones
355th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

12/6/2012 - DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz.  -- "These quilts are for anyone who's been touched by war, and outside of a direct combat unit in Afghanistan--you have been touched by war more than anyone in the United States military."

Those were words I had heard a few times during my deployment to Dover Air Force Base, Del. Only this time, they were words being spoken directly to me as I prepared to return home to Tucson. I was standing at attention in dress blues in the atrium of our hallowed building receiving my Quilt of Valor.

"My name is Caitlin Jones, I'm an Air Force broadcaster for public affairs, and I just returned from my deployment in Dover, Delaware."

It's a phrase I've repeated a lot over the last month as I've gone through in-processing briefings alongside Desert Lightning Airmen who were deployed to places like Bagram, or Southwest Asia. And more times than not, I'm met with a blank stare, sometimes even a stifled giggle or a sarcastic smile.

"Deployment? Don't you mean TDY? Or manning assist? Or a six-month vacation?"

As an Air Force broadcaster for public affairs, and for the last five months, it was my responsibility to capture video of dignified transfers of fallen service members. It was my honor to produce a DVD of the dignified transfer that would then travel in the hands of a military escort until it reached a family on the same day their fallen loved one arrived at their final resting place.

I can't blame anyone for being oblivious to what goes on inside the walls of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, or AFMAO. Before my deployment, I was one of those people. I had been preparing for the deployment I had wanted -- a 270-day tour through the provinces of Afghanistan with the US Army, hearing stories about how we were aiding the Afghan people and sharing stories of heroism from all services. To my dismay, that deployment was cancelled and I was re-routed to Dover.

I arrived with a bad attitude, no idea what to expect, and a complete and utter ignorance of the mission. Not the way that an NCO in the Air Force should approach a deployment.

That all changes, and the change happens almost immediately, from the moment you step foot inside the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs. My metamorphosis began my first day, with three transfer cases coming home to American soil on a perfect east coast summer night. I thought I would be nervous, scared of my emotional response, apprehensive about hearing a family's reaction to seeing a flag-draped transfer case carrying their loved one, skittish about kicking a camera or forgetting to hit "record". But instead- I was hyper aware. Like an Olympian getting ready to compete, a musician on stage, a Soldier in battle.

It was a process, a routine, a methodical dance between our public affairs office, a chaplain corps, carry teams from sister services, and countless other volunteers, service members, patriots, and heroes. I repeated the process 210 times from June 11 until my last dignified transfer on November 10, 2012. A process that is completed in the same admirable way whether there's a camera recording the slow steps of a carry team carrying a flag-draped transfer case or not.

Our duty to capture the dignified transfer called us out of bed in the middle of the night, ordered us onto a flightline that was bathed in humid East Coast heat, pelted by a late-summer downpour or blasted by a mid-Autumn nor'easter. It didn't matter if the plane that carried the fallen home touched down at Dover at 2 p.m. or 2 a.m.--we were there. I was there.
I was there, looking through the camera's lens--trying to focus on the mission at hand instead of letting the sometimes horrific sounds of a grieving family on the other side of the van affect my ability to do my job. I would repeat a slow and emotionless mantra in my head, "Focus on the screen. Focus on the numbers, the shot composition, the basics of what you've done your entire career. This is important, this cannot be recreated, this is not an exercise--this is real world."

Those days and nights throughout the summer seemed to blend together as I stood next to AFMAO's commander, Col. John Devillier, during my Quilt of Valor ceremony in November surrounded by my best friends and compassionate professionals.

"I don't want you to say, 'I worked at Dover,' Devillier would say. "But, I want you to say 'I worked at Dover and I did this. We want you to be proud of your service here to your nation, and to your nation's fallen and their families."

I looked around the room, at the crew that had become my brothers and sisters, and realized that the sacred mission of taking care of America's fallen could not have been entrusted to a more committed group of professionals. Our leadership should write a book on how to take care of your Airmen. The young NCOs and even younger Airmen who work behind the scenes should all be given medals for the work they do on a daily basis to ensure our nation's fallen are quickly and honorably returned home to their loved ones. The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who are faced with the task of taking care of the families on the worst day of their lives--everyone across America should know their names.

While I carry around a secret pride for what I did during my deployment to AFMAO, my heart swells with immense pride for the men and women I witnessed taking the burden of this complex and challenging mission on their shoulders.

It all begins with a name-- a name that echoes through the halls of the mortuary, a name that appears on boards and slides through the center of AFMAO, a name that is connected to a horrible event in a distant land. You'll receive a name, and slowly you'll start to hear bits and pieces--you'll receive a stack of papers that spell out their career, that list the people closest to them, and a small paragraph that will encapsulate in the simplest of speech how they departed from the earth in the dirt of a foreign country.

AFMAO personnel will clean, sort, and remove the rags of combat to replace them with a dress uniform that might not ever be seen. They will take ID cards, money, pictures, hand written notes, and coins that once jingled in the pockets of living, breathing human beings and return them to a family who is in a black ocean of grief, struggling to stay afloat.

I wasn't assigned such a grim and heavy task. I was merely a broadcaster behind her camera, struggling with the honor of a mission, the guilt of their sacrifice while I slept safely in Delaware, and the weight of wanting to do more. I was an Airman who wasn't prepared for the responsibility of a deployment to Dover, but who begged to stay even after my tour was over.

There's a routine, there's a methodical sequence that begins and ends with a metal box. You want to do more, you want to help them, you want to make their lives matter. Make their deaths matter. Make their sacrifice matter even more.

There's a tradition-- the tradition of bringing the fallen home. The tradition of leaving no man or woman behind, and sometimes it falls to an Air Force broadcaster. I was unwavering, whole-heartedly committed and deeply dedicated to that tradition for the last five months. A month later I still meet the eyes of those who don't understand what a deployment to Dover AFB means, and I tell them a story. I take a deep breath and ignore the laughter, and I tell them how many fallen I brought home this summer. I blink away tears that come out of nowhere when a sarcastic comment cuts too deep, and I tell them about the incredibly professional service-members who dedicate themselves to the mission of mortuary affairs.

My name is Caitlin Jones; I'm an Air Force broadcaster for public affairs. For the last five months, I was deployed to the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base and every day of my deployment, I did my best to provide dignity, honor, and respect to our fallen warriors--while trying my best to care for, support, and provide service to the ones left behind. My deployment is over, but my mission goes on -- the mission to honor, respect, and remember.

4/6/2013 8:32:57 PM ET
Well since we are using the term deployment so loosely I'm going to deploy to the bathroom real quick. Stop sugarcoating your TDY you can be proud of it but shame on you for trying to put yourself in the same category as the men and women who actually go overseas and risk their lives.
Kevin, ohio
12/16/2012 12:36:10 PM ET
As a parent of a battlefield airman I am comforted to know there are people like Staff Sgt. Jones who have the highest levels of compassion professionalism and patriotism to receive our fallen heros home. Thank you Staff Sgt. Jones for what you have done you help this country stand strong and tall in the face of our most painful times. God bless you and your fellow AFMAO service members.
Nate Sheffield, Huntington Beach CA
12/14/2012 1:36:24 PM ET
To JJ in Texas why don't you read the article again. And then check yourself. To SSgt Jones great article thanks for writing it. It neeeded to be written.
Mike, Florida
12/13/2012 12:19:59 PM ET
beautifully written...thank you for your service.
Debbie D. , St. Louis MO
12/12/2012 8:47:35 PM ET
Caitlin your commentary completely captures what it's like to serve a tour at AFMAO. I also worked with AFMAO PA in 2010 for a couple months and will never forget the professionalism dedication and passion of those charged with ensuring our fallen are given the proper dignity honor and respect they deserve when returning home. I wasn't there long but it was definitely the most meaningful job I've ever had and probably ever will. Thank you for your service
Erin T, DC
12/11/2012 1:23:43 PM ET
Wonderful article I don't understand why people are debating deployment or not she was away from family and loved ones she was not in her normal base wasn't allowed to take leave And had a grim task I was SEC FOR for 14 years and yeah I was at some worse locations however that was pretty much the description Granted I am Bias as SSgt Jones is my baby sister and followed in my foot steps only better I couldn't do what she did and wouldn't want to So great article and I am proud to call you my sister sibling in arms and hero
Some guy formerly known as SSgt Hall, Ocean Springs MS
12/11/2012 10:12:04 AM ET
How embarrassing that someone could read such a great piece describing the behind the scenes look at the work these men and women do and make a holier-than-thou editorial comment about whether it's a deployment or not. Really SSgt Jones thank you for your service to our nation and the families of our lost during your deployment from a non-PA who has been shaken out of his bunk from a rocket attack or two while downrange.
MJ, Stateside
12/11/2012 8:57:58 AM ET
JJ how crass of you to make that comment. The Public Affairs professionals in the Air Force and DoD are some of the hardest working people in the military. Their assignments take them to places all over the world into environments and situations most people never see. A deployement to Dover AFB is an AEF tour and is every bit as stressful difficult and all consuming as any other AEF tour. They are the Airmen that are telling the story and representing the Air Force for you me and all our brothers and sisters in arms.
Dave H, Pennsylvania
12/10/2012 5:43:32 PM ET
JJ...... Wow. I can't explain how wrong you are. This isn't the forum to make those comments regardless of your opinion.
Dave T, GA
12/10/2012 10:11:02 AM ET
Well you got plenty of support from the Public Affairs commnity--they seem to be the only people commenting. But gussy it up all you want a TDY to Dover is not a deployment.
JJ, Texas
12/10/2012 9:29:56 AM ET
What a well-written and powerful commentary SSgt JonesAs I read through I was struck by how well you embody the Air Force core values. Specifically your time at AFMAO is a shining example of Excellence in all we do. Although you were not sure what to expect on your assignment you dove in head-first and began what you call a metamorphosis on the first day. With professionalism and sensitity you performed your role and helped AFMAO carry out its mission. Thank you for taking the time to write this and thank you for your service.
Michelle Martz, WPAFB Ohio
12/10/2012 4:34:43 AM ET
Your proud supervisor MSgt Martin pointed me in the direction of this story and I'm glad he did. Not only is it a well written piece you put yourself on the line to expose your feelings and emotions making it that much more personal. Thank you for your courage and dedication to your job and to telling this storyVRChief Bobbitt
CMSgt Bobbitt, Kandahar
12/9/2012 7:22:47 AM ET
Great article on a very important and yes dignified mission. I hope it reaches a larger audience of our countrys political leaders and the general public and someone asks the question of why 210 dignified transfers in five months is 210 too many and yet thats just a drop in the bucket of what the last decade in Afghanistan has cost us.
Stuart, Deployed to an undisclosed location on Planet Earth
12/8/2012 1:27:31 PM ET
Caitlin this is an outstanding piece. I echo David's sentiments...all of us from back at Ft. Meade are very proud of you and your service. Thanks for writing this.
Z. Anderson, KS
12/8/2012 11:49:27 AM ET
Caitlin this is an oustanding piece. I echo David's sentiments...I'm extremely proud of you and your service. Thanks for writing this.
Z.Anderson, KS
12/7/2012 3:39:53 PM ET
A wonderfully written commentary that really made me feel like I was back at AFMAO which I had the opportunity to visit earlier this year as part of a civic leader tour. You captured the essence of what everyone who works there must feel and struggle with as they go about one of our most noble and difficult missions.
Dan Hawkins, 82nd TRWPA Sheppard AFB Texas
12/7/2012 2:38:33 PM ET
Great piece of writing Staff Sgt. Catilin Jones. I too served at AFMAO PA in 2009 and two others from our Delaware Air Guard unit have served there a driver from LRS who transported the families onto the flight line for DTs and a chaplains assistant in the vehicle. I am sure they each can relate in their own unique way. I really appreciate your words. Dignity honor and respect. And I still have my Quilt of Valor.
Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Matwey, New Castle Air National Guard Base Del.
12/7/2012 1:24:57 PM ET
Thank you for sharing your experience with others Great article and it was an honor having you serve here with the incredible TEAM who provide the support for this solemm mission The families you have touched will be forever grateful for the honor you all give to our Fallen Heroes
Joan Cote, USO Delaware Dover AFB
12/7/2012 12:48:01 PM ET
SSgt Jones Your article brought tears to my eyes as I read your in-depth insight into what most individuals would say was just another day at work. Your dedication to your profession reminded me of why I joined the Air Force and made it a career. Thank-you for your service Eugene Melvin MSgt Retired
Eugene Melvin, Portland Oregon
12/7/2012 3:04:20 AM ET
Thank you Caitlin. I am a retired Army broadcaster and this article perfectly sums up the feelings of being a part of this process. Over my eleven plus years of service I was witness to countless memorial services transfer of remains and other ceremonies honoring the dead. Before my young Soldiers deployed this past year to Afghanistan I told them that PAO lives each death 3 times: when we first hear about it, when we are at the memorial, and when we painstakingly detail the ceremony for the family back home. It's an unique and sometimes painful job, but one we are honored to do.
Catherine, Texas
12/7/2012 1:22:10 AM ET
Excellent article Caitlin. You have made myself and everyone from Ft. Meade proud of what you have done and will do in the future.
Dave T, GA
12/6/2012 9:20:39 PM ET
Staff Sgt. Catilin Joness commentary is by far one of the best commentaries Ive ever read as far as being able to relate to. As a fellow public affairs specialist writer the chances to tell our own story are few and far between in our career which beckons us to tell the story of others.
SrA Luis Loza Gutierrez, Grand Forks AFB ND
12/6/2012 4:42:47 PM ET
Caitlin amazingly well written and poignant article. Very proud of you and of everything that you do for our great country the US Air Force and the Desert Lightning Team Thank you for taking the time to write about this often overlooked but critical part of duty.
Drew Kapuscak, Tennessee USA
12/6/2012 2:27:19 PM ET
SSgt Jones As a fellow PA member I don't typically read a commentary throughout. I generally realize the intent of the often overstated message and stop a few paragraphs into the story. Yours however urged me to continue reading and I'm glad I did. Beautifully articulated and what a powerful message. Cheers to you. And congratulations on the opportunity to be part of such a noble mission.
K.Gradishar, Buckley
12/6/2012 2:11:06 PM ET
Wonderful article SSGT Jones. You should be very proud of your service. I am.
Lt Col Daniel Green Retired, Omaha Nebraska
12/6/2012 1:54:09 PM ET
Staff Sgt. Jones your story left me speechless. Thank you for your dedication and devotion to the mission of honoring America's fallen. They deserve nothing less. You and all who support this mission at Dover have much to be proud of.
Carla Pampe AFGSC Public Affairs, Barksdale Air Force Base La.
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