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Humbled by their service, floored by commitment.

Over the past 11 years, I've had the honor of interviewing the amazing men and women who perform the Air Force and joint mission every day. From maintainers to nurses, aerial porters to security forces, I continue to be impressed by what they bring to the mission.

The highlights of my career include interviewing a prisoner of war who was in the Bataan Death March and a surgeon who served in Vietnam. Both shared with me their brave stories.

In March and April this year, a group of Airmen, Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and civilians floored me with their commitment and the importance of their mission. The men and women who work for the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center at Dover Air Force Base, Del., will humble you with the reverence they show their mission, ensuring dignity, honor and respect to the fallen; care, trust and support to the families. These words are more than motto or slogan; they're a way of life for these military members.

This is the final stop for military men and women who die overseas, primarily those who sacrifice their lives for our freedom while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I had the distinct honor of going behind the scenes, seeing the process firsthand, watching as the remains of the fallen were taken through the processes of identification, embalming and shipping. I witnessed the meticulous care of the combined team as they prepared uniforms for the fallen heroes to wear home and spent hours cleaning a simple dog tag that will be returned to the grieving family. I also had the solemn honor of serving on one of the dignified transfer teams; helping carry the transfer case of one of our fallen from the aircraft to the transfer vehicle.

A truly humbling experience was being there when the remains of Staff Sgt. Phillip A. Myers came through Dover. He died April 4 near Helmand Province, Afghanistan, from wounds suffered after an improvised explosive device was detonated.

It was the first time since 1001 that family members were allowed to attend the dignified transfer and, with the approval of the family, the first that media were allowed to cover.

More than 80 international media representatives were there, but only the quiet click of the cameras could be heard. Some of us cried openly but many held tight, silent tears falling, as the transfer took place.

Sergeant Myers' family stood on the other side of a bus, and all I could see was their feet and shadows. I just kept thinking about what they must be going through and watching their shadows shake before popping to attention.

The AFMAOC military members who deal with this each and every day, who focus on their mission, spending hours processing remains or cleaning potential heirlooms, have my respect. I've laughed with them; I've cried with them. I'm awed with what they do and how much commitment they give to their mission.

I have to admit, like them, it was hard to be there, but since I've left, I feel like I need to go back, to help serve the fallen and their families. I'm truly blessed to have been a witness.


Capt. Shannon Collins was once an enlisted Air Force journalist. Now, as a public affairs officer, she's still telling the Air Force story from her new assignment at Kunsan Air Base, Korea.

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Title Annotation:NOTEBOOK; Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center
Author:Collins, Shannon
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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