The Bad Scene at Dover, Where Military Caskets Arrive

Notes from a military wife.
June 30 2010 10:00 AM

The Bad Scene at Dover, Where Military Caskets Arrive

And how one military wife fought to change it.

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Most military families receive word of their loved one's death 24 to 48 hours before they reach the airfield. They fly through the night to reach Dover and are still in shock as they wait on the tarmac. Though nothing can soften the blow, Suzie believed that private, calming spaces for the families, a tacit acknowledgement of their pain, might ease an unbearable situation. Technically all of the requirements for the mortuary at Dover were already being met—the system functioned to meet its goals and requirements, a model of military efficiency. But Suzie saw that the system failed the families, and she said so. Loudly. "This was no way for America to treat relatives who were hurting, and who would remember this moment forever. I knew we had to make a change. I told my husband, 'We have got to fix this.' "

She immediately took on the project, spearheading efforts that culminated this past winter in the opening of the Center for the Families of the Fallen, a $1.6 million, 6,000-square-foot space that gives families a place to assemble privately before being taken to the flight line. It's an odd thing to celebrate a beautiful building for inconsolable people, so for Suzie it's not a celebration, but a long-overdue gesture of respect toward service members and their loved ones. There are areas for meditation, several private rooms, a kitchen, and a children's room with a crib and toys. A Fisher House hotel for military families will open next year. "I'm proud of it," Suzie says modestly, in her Arkansas drawl.

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Suzie's example gives me hope that military spouses can affect a system that asks them to give up much but gives them no official role in return. She admits to closing the door and crying over what's been lost for her personally, but when she opened that door she emerged fighting, calling out problems even when they reflected negatively on the military. She put to use her background in management along with skills she acquired during two decades as an Air Force wife, and the knowledge of human nature that comes from closely observing a diversity of people in many different situations—precisely the quality I spotted in her as she sat alone in a dark television studio. In speaking up and speaking out within the system, she altered profoundly the landscape of military memorials. More important to her, she changed the experience of countless American families who will pass through Dover on the worst day of their lives.

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Alison Buckholtz is the author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin 2009), which will be released in paperback this spring with a new afterword and reader's guide.