The point of the day is to remember those who gave their lives in the defense of our country…and I don’t remember ever being as touched on this subject as I was reading this story about the way the remains of American war dead are taken care of at Dover Air Force Base. Read it, and be grateful.
The soldier bent to his work, careful as a diamond cutter. He carried no weapon or rucksack, just a small plastic ruler, which he used to align a name plate, just so, atop the breast pocket of an Army dress blue jacket, size 39R.
For each of the war dead, the journey through Dover begins with the arrival of a cargo jet that is met by military officials and, usually, family members. A team of service members wearing white gloves carries the coffins, covered with flags, to a white van that takes them to the Armed Forces Medical Examiner. Once an autopsy is completed, the work of the mortuary staff begins.
Remains are first embalmed and then washed. Hands are scrubbed clean, hair is shampooed. Where appropriate, bones are wired together and damaged tissue is reconstructed with flesh-toned wax. Using photographs, or just intuition, the embalmers try to recreate the wrinkles in faces, the lines around mouths, the corners and lids of eyes.
“It has to look normal, like someone who is sleeping,” said Petty Officer First Class Jennifer Howell, a Navy liaison at the mortuary who has a mortician’s license.
Working so intimately with the dead can take a toll, so the mortuary has a large gym and a recreation room where workers are encouraged to blow off steam. A team of chaplains and mental health advisers are available for counseling.
Mr. Zwicharowski, a former Marine, said many workers were haunted by the youthfulness of the dead, and by the fact that so many leave behind children. He counsels his staff to avoid researching their backgrounds, but he has not always abided by his own advice.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, he read a note placed in the coffin of a boy who died on the jet that crashed into the Pentagon. It was from a brother, thanking the boy for defending him on the playground days before.
“It was something I wish I didn’t do, and I learned my lesson not to do it again,” Mr. Zwicharowski said, fighting back tears. “If I knew the story of every individual who went through here, I would probably be in a padded cell.”
A week later, Captain Blanchard’s remains were flown to his home state, Washington, where he was buried in a military cemetery near Spokane.
His mother, Laura Schactler, said Captain Blanchard enlisted in the Marines after high school and served two tours in Iraq before marrying and returning home to attend college on an Army R.O.T.C. scholarship. After graduating, he learned to fly Apache attack helicopters, fulfilling a boyhood dream.
Before his funeral, Ms. Schactler spent time alone with her son but did not open his coffin. But later that night, she said, her husband and two other sons did, wanting to say one last farewell.
Inside, they saw a uniform, white gloves crossed, buttons gleaming, perfect in every detail.