Return of the Fallen (Part 3 of 3)

Written by Steve Palmer, AFCCA Board Treasurer, Westcott Funeral Homes for Nomis Publications monthly blog.

The dignified transfers are one step in a fallen service member’s long journey home. –Nate Rawling, Time Magazine

The family has received the heartbreaking news that their family member has died in active service. If their fallen hero will be transferred to Dover, the family is invited to witness the dignified transfer. The transfer is not a ceremony but a dignified and somber conveyance of the flag-draped transfer container from the plane to the vehicle that will take the fallen hero to the Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs.

Why would a family want to possibly travel thousands of miles to witness this brief event? It is their first opportunity to face the reality of the loss of their loved one. It returns this service member to their homeland.

There are some families that would not miss this moment and there are other families who will await their fallen hero’s return to their town or city. No family should be judged on whether they witness the dignified transfer or not.

There is no opportunity for the family to view their loved one at Dover. That time will be wherever they wish this enlisted service member to be transported to.

Former Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Norton Schwartz and his wife were present for a dignified transfer in 2009. They became aware of the need for facilities for the families attending. At that time, families were housed at the chaplain’s administrative building, the Spiritual Operations Center.

Out of these concerns came a campus of comfort for these families. Its environs include three unique buildings: the Fisher House for Families of the Fallen, the Meditation Pavilion and the Center for Families of the Fallen.

The Fisher House for Families of the Fallen was the 50th Fisher House for the Department of Defense. It was built by the Fisher House Foundation. The Foundation builds homes near Veterans Administration Hospitals and bases as “comfort homes” for temporary lodging for families who want to be with their service members during treatment.

The Fisher House for the Fallen is individual, as its mission is to give a safe environment to families who wish to attend the dignified transfer of their fallen hero at Dover Air Force Base.

Ken Fisher, CEO of the Fisher House Foundation said, “That was the most important Fisher House that we’ve ever built.”

The 8,462 square foot house was designed to be a safe haven for families. It has nine suites and can provide beds for 26 people. The floor plan helps families feel alone, even when multiple families may be present or disagreeing families need distance. It has the feel of a country inn and the common rooms have the feel of living rooms and family rooms, including large screen TVs with a wide assortment of DVDs and video games, and a children’s room with books and drawing boards. Adjacent is a kitchen area with all the features of an upscale bed and breakfast where families can share meals, snacks and coffee. There is a playground set in the backyard. Uniformed personnel stationed at Fisher House told us of a young girl who looked out at the snow on the playset and wished she could make snow angels. The enlistee put on her winter wear and made snow angels with the young girl.

The family is protected in this environment. No outsiders such as lawyers, politicians, military officers or the media are allowed in. If the family wishes to meet with these people, they can do so in the other buildings. The family knows this is their protected place for the short time they will be there.

Zachary Fisher started his young career in construction and later moved to a very successful career in real estate in New York. He was kept from serving his country due to a leg injury but wished to serve those who wore the uniform. He started the Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher Armed Services Foundation. They helped many families of the fallen of the 1983 Beirut bombing of the Marine Barracks. In 1990, the Fishers established the Fisher House Foundation, providing temporary housing for military families of those hospitalized. Among the many prestigious honors bestowed, Zachary Fisher received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton in 1998. There are, at last count, 78 Fisher Houses located on 24 military installations and 33 VA medical centers. Zachary Fisher passed away in 1999.

The Meditation Pavilion is a simple, peaceful and open building where families can take respite from the sanctuary of the Fisher House. In this building, they can meet with whom they wish, have counsel with chaplains or simply relax away from other family members. The grounds and its statuary make for peaceful contemplation.

The Center for Families of the Fallen is a meeting place and a gathering place. This building has the design of a progressive funeral home; comfortable, functional for meetings, but also designed for the dignity of its purpose. This is where families gather before they go to the flight line to witness the dignified transfer. Vans will be staged outside to take them to the planes. Dignitaries such as presidents, vice presidents, ranking military, cabinet officers and such will greet the family, express official condolences and accompany the family to the dignified transfer. A chaplain is assigned to the family and available for comfort and counsel. There are stuffed animals and other handmade articles that volunteers make and donate to the center.

All the branches of service have resources for the family. These are given to the family and representatives are available if the family wishes to meet with them. They range from Survivor Outreach, to Gold Star Family Support, Casualty Assistance, and Wounded Warrior programs.

It is a comfort to know that when a family of a service member receives the worst news possible, those who understand will stand with them during those first few weeks and make themselves accessible for years to come.

“Family members serve, too,” said the general, noting that their efforts enable the military to do the nation’s work and so “we must pay tribute, and provide loving care, service and support—in every way that we can—to our families.” –General Norton Schwartz at the groundbreaking of Dover’s Fisher House for Families of the Fallen