JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. — Stephen Harris needed a moment the first time he and a crew of airmen at Dover Air Force Base met the remains of service members killed in an overseas attack.
"I can't go in there," he said.
His team paused and wondered whether he was up to the emotionally demanding job following the 1998 terrorist attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
"I've got to say a prayer first."
They clasped hands, bowed their heads and prayed. That brief ceremony became a tradition for Harris, who has since cared for hundreds of bodies in repeated assignments to the Delaware air base.
"We have to put a cover over us because we don't understand why things happen," said Harris, now a senior master sergeant from Bremerton in Joint Base Lewis-McChord's 446th Reserve Airlift Wing.
"Lord, look over us while we look over our fallen heroes."
Harris was at Dover to handle remains from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He saluted fallen soldiers as they returned from the bloodiest days of the Iraq War in 2007. And he was there to begin a new phase of the detail in 2009 when the Obama administration started allowing family members to watch their loved ones return.
Lewis-McChord's reserve air wing has been sending airmen to Dover in small groups throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, usually for four-month assignments.
As the last American ground troops leave Iraq this month, the local reservists have shared a solemn duty on behalf of the ones who didn't make it home from the war alive: 4,487 U.S. service members, including 293 from Lewis-McChord or Washington state.
These days, Harris has been praying for the airmen working the mortuary detail as the Air Force investigates charges that cremated, partial remains of 274 service members were taken to a Virginia landfill after families signed forms asking the military to dispose of them properly.
The Washington Post reported this month that the Air Force Inspector General and Office of Special Counsel documented cases of missing body parts and "gross mismanagement" at Dover.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has since ordered a further review but has said he was satisfied with the Air Force's investigation, which resulted in discipline against three mortuary supervisors.
Harris said the allegations "hurt my heart," because the people who made the decisions were dedicated to honoring fallen service members. The reports also threaten to tarnish the public perception of the care airmen put into their work at Dover.
"I hate to see great men fall," Harris said.
The reports from the Air Force Inspector General cited by The Post contrast with the solemn assignment remembered by the Tacoma-area airmen who have worked the Dover mortuary detail. It's a life-changing assignment, said Staff Sgt. Andrea Barrow, who completed her first Dover mission in April.
Barrow, 31, was awed by teams of airmen transferring the remains of service members from an aircraft to the Dover mortuary. It's a ceremony that has been performed with precision for thousands of service members over the past decade.
"The thing that made my heart ache was when I saw the dignified transfer — every time was perfect," she said. "I just stood there at attention, crying."
Barrow, a mother of two from Puyallup, helped open a private hotel for the grieving families who travel to the air base to escort their loved ones home. That space, a Fisher House, gave the families "a sanctuary" where they could mourn in their own way.
"Just to be there for them was an honor," she said.
Harris, 55, has so much experience at Dover that he becomes the superintendent and highest-ranking noncommissioned officer on his deployments there. He has voluntarily extended his time when he felt he needed to be there.
The process of caring for a fallen service member begins when a plane lands at the Delaware air base, usually returning from a combat zone. A team conducts the dignified transfer to take the remains to the mortuary, where airmen and civilian employees prepare bodies for funerals. Afterward, the bodies are flown to their final destinations — or driven if their resting places are within 300 miles of Dover.
Harris said the airmen preparing the bodies aim to make the remains presentable in case time runs out to dress them for a funeral at home.
"When they open the casket, you want them to know someone took time," he said.
Each assignment to Dover has been different for Harris, but the biggest change took place in 2009 when the Pentagon opened the base to the news media and families of fallen service members.
Harris said the airmen at the mortuary performed the mission with the same care and compassion as they had when the services took place in private. But mourning family members brought home the cost of war in a new way. Without them, it was possible to shut down and tell the fallen soldier, "I'm going to take care of you and get you home to your family."
With grieving loved ones, "the next day, when you have to go to work preparing the remains, you still hear that family member." He and other airmen say they were busiest during the Iraq surge of 2007. At least 80 service members died in Iraq each month for the first eight months of that year.
"You don't have time to think, you just do it," said Master Sgt. Jake Chapelle of Tacoma, who has served at Dover with Harris. He is now a spokesman for the 446th.
"That might be why 2009 was a little bit harder because it slowed down and you had time to think."
The Defense Department tries to compensate for the emotional toll of the mortuary detail by assigning counselors to Dover and arranging activities for the airmen. Harris said those are relatively new touches that help service members check in on each other and keep up their spirits.
Harris does not anticipate another assignment to Dover before he retires. He says he's leaving the mission in good hands.
"There are young men and women in the Air Force that are performing at a level to which their country has no clue, day in and day out," he said. "They have no clue how much these airmen give, these 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds performing their duties with dignity and respect."
Information from: The News Tribune, http://www.thenewstribune.com