In December, 1985, when 248 soldiers and eight crewmen died in the crash of a troop transport plane at Gander, Newfoundland, their remains were dug out of the ice and snow and sent here to be sorted out and prepared for burial.
Nearly 400 of the men and women stationed at Dover Air Force Base volunteered to work around the clock at the gruesome task. They helped clean the building, ran errands, put together uniforms--all so that the bodies could be returned to their families before Christmas.
The long hours of dealing with the tragic as the routine inevitably produced a special kind of stress, and that, in turn, led to the institution of a special kind of counseling at this transport base, which serves as morgue and mortuary for all the armed forces.
The program for the volunteers is called “critical incident stress debriefing.”
‘Debriefing’ as Therapy
“The debriefing process is basically designed to help normal people . . . deal with exposure to overwhelming and traumatic events . . . personally, emotionally and professionally,” Michael J. Robinson, director of the base Family Support Center, explained.
“What ended up happening” in the aftermath of the Gander crash, Robinson said, “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 this had happened at Dover Air Force Base.
Inside the main door of the mortuary is a simple wooden plaque, headed “Significant Events,” on which are listed numbers and faraway place names that evoke flag-draped coffins.
The places--Gander, Jonestown, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf--are reminders of the thousands of dead U.S. servicemen and civilians whose remains have come home through Dover.
A plain, 30,000-square-foot building houses the largest mortuary used by the armed services.
Nation’s Biggest Morgue
“It’s really the largest mortuary in the country,” said Charles Carson, a civilian government employee who started in the funeral business in 1950 and has run the base facility for 17 years.
The mortuary can handle up to 100 bodies per day, and there is storage space for 1,000 corpses. The average workload is 55 to 60 bodies a month, but the average workload is not what the mortuary is noted for.
War, disasters and terrorist acts --the “significant events"--have sent 23,722 bodies through the mortuary. Of those deaths, 21,693 occurred during the Vietnam War.
The Jonestown, Guyana, catastrophe of November, 1978, in which members of the cult led by Jim Jones committed suicide, resulted in 913 deaths.
Dover also received the remains of the space shuttle Challenger’s crew of seven.
Whenever a major tragedy occurs, there is an outpouring of volunteer service from among the ranks of those stationed at Dover, as in the case of the Gander crash. “The troops on this base, they really rallied to this thing. They really wanted to help,” Carson said.
Before bodies arrive, Carson talks with volunteers to find out how they perceive death and whether they “have hang-ups about dead bodies.”
When the bodies of 237 U.S. servicemen killed in the terrorist bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 arrived at the base, nearly 200 volunteers were on hand.
As is most often the case, the bodies from Beirut were identified and embalmed before they were shipped. At Dover, they were given cosmetic work and dressed for burial.
Gander was different because the remains came directly from the crash site, Robinson said.
The volunteers, working 10 to 14 hours at a time, “were exposed to some things the average person has a great deal of trouble dealing with.”
“There were some people who had real physical discomfort, people who were nauseous. We had some people who were coping extremely well, able to do the job and keep going,” Robinson said.
Some Get Counseling
To help alleviate the stress, a mass debriefing was given 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 exposure to and handling of bodies.
Robinson and four others at the base have taken training designed to help firefighters, police and emergency medical personnel learn to cope with the intimacy with death that they find in their jobs. Robinson hopes to have at least eight or nine people so trained at all times.