In December 1985, when 248 soldiers and eight crewmen died in a plane crash in Gander, Newfoundland, the remains were dug out of the ice and snow and transferred here to be identified and prepared for burial.
Nearly 400 servicemen stationed at Dover Air Force Base volunteered to work around the clock at the gruesome task, cleaning the building, running errands, putting together uniforms - all to see that the bodies were returned to their families before Christmas.The long hours in which the tragic became the mundane inevitably led to a special kind of stress, and that in turn led to a special kind of counseling at this base, which serves as the U.S. military's morgue and mortuary.
The counseling program for the volunteers is called "critical incident stress debriefing."
"The debriefing process is basically designed to help normal people . . . deal with exposure to overwhelming and traumatic events in terms of dealing with it personally, emotionally and professionally," said Michael J. Robinson, director of the base Family Support Center.
"What ended up happening," Robinson said, recalling the aftermath of the Gander crash, "was that early on, probably about four days into the operation, people began to notice that people were having a lot of trouble coping, dealing, functioning.
"And a lot of the behavior we saw people dealing with were situations that you find in battle fatigue-like situations, combat stress situations."
It wasn't the first time for Dover Air Force Base.
Inside the main door of the mortuary is a simple wooden plaque, headed "Significant Events," listing numbers and faraway place names that evoke memories of flag-draped coffins.
The places - Gander, Jonestown, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf - are reminders of the thousands of dead U.S. servicemen and the civilians whose remains have come home through the base.
War, disasters and terrorist acts - the "significant events" - have sent 23,722 bodies through the mortuary, 21,693 of them during the Vietnam War.
The Jonestown, Guyana, catastrophe, where followers of cult leader Jim Jones committed suicide, resulted in 913 deaths in November 1978.
The base received the remains of the seven astronauts from the space shuttle Challenger.
Nearly 200 volunteers were on hand when the bodies of 237 U.S. servicemen were returned from Beirut, Lebanon, victims of the terrorist bombing of a Marine barracks in October 1983.
As is most often the case, the bodies from Beirut were identified and embalmed before arriving. At Dover, they were given cosmetic work and dressed for burial.
Gander was significant because the remains came directly from the crash site, Robinson said.
To help alleviate the stress, a mass debriefing was held and psychological counseling was offered.
Since the Gander disaster, the Defense Department and all branches of the military have begun to explore the implications of the exposure to and the handling of dead bodies.
During the Gander disaster, base personnel reacted intuitively and from knowledge of post traumatic stress disorder, Robinson said, adding that officials learned ways to "shelter people from some of the factors that would increase the likelihood of showing long-term effects from post traumatic stress disorder."
During a stress debriefing, he said, small groups discuss what they experienced - "what it was like for them, what was the hardest part about that, because what we know is that if someone talks about exposure to that type of event, the likelihood of them ending up with long-term post traumatic stress disorder symptoms is going to be markedly decreased."