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.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel.

I have encountered many straight-shooting women during my years as a military spouse, but none quite like Suzie Schwartz, whose husband is current chief of staff of the Air Force. I met her last fall, at the taping of a television show for children of service members. At one point I noticed that she momentarily broke away from the large, gregarious group of senior military wives she'd arrived with to sit by herself in a corner of the dark studio. It was a move that reminded me of myself, so, in spite of her obvious desire to be alone, I walked over. Within minutes of shaking her hand I was confessing, unexpectedly, my anguish over my husband's yearlong Navy deployment and a potential future of family sacrifices. I expected her to comfort me with platitudes and stories of how much worse other service members' wives have it. Instead, she looked into my eyes and admitted, "When my husband made general, I closed the door to my office and cried. I knew that our personal goals, and hopes for the future, were going to have to be put off for a long time."

I nearly hugged her. Such candor is unusual among the spouses of senior military officers; after decades of publicly supporting their husbands' ascent up the ranks, they tend to be guarded about sharing stories of marital tradeoffs. I first noticed this reticence when I was writing Standing By, my memoir about our experience as a military family. I was desperate to connect with other wives who were struggling to keep a marriage afloat when the aircraft carrier steams away with their husbands for months at a time. But it's a little like a woman who is thinking about getting pregnant asking an experienced mother what childbirth feels like; the latter hesitates to tell the former how horrible it really is, because then no one would ever want to have a baby. (About these pronouns: Female members of the armed forces make up an ever-growing and important portion of the military's enlisted and officer ranks, and I don't assume that all service members are male. However, my peers have always been fellow military wives, and my language reflects that.)

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It's not just about such private matters that military wives tend to restrain themselves. Openly criticizing or actively trying to change military policies is usually considered taboo because it exposes the spouse to accusations that she's "wearing her husband's rank"—that is, that she thinks she holds the same level of power and influence over the spouses that he holds over the troops. In military circles, this can lead to a disastrous scenario and even affect the morale of the service members themselves and the functioning of a unit deployed to a war zone.

But Suzie Schwartz successfully breached traditional boundaries of what a senior military officer's wife should say and do. As I continued getting to know her during the next few months, I learned that her insightfulness and outspokenness affected a critically important change in a sensitive military policy: the way American families welcome home their war dead.

Families' presence at the scene of caskets' transfer to U.S. soil at Dover Air Force Base, Del., is relatively new. One year ago, the Pentagon reversed an 18-year ban on photographs and news coverage of the flag-covered caskets; the military also began paying travel and lodging expenses for relatives who wanted to travel to Dover for the event. As the New York Times reported in April, Dover officials had no idea how many families would want to witness the 15-minute event, known as a "dignified transfer," but so far about 75 percent have. In the past year, the remains of 462 service members have passed through Dover, along with about 2,000 relatives. However, since for almost two decades families were discouraged from greeting caskets at Dover, there were no appropriate facilities or accommodations for them when the Pentagon policy was overturned.

The first time Suzie witnessed a dignified transfer at Dover, she stood with her husband to pay her respects on behalf of the Air Force. Family members of the soldiers were there to meet the caskets as they were carried off the plane, and the scene in the cramped, no-frills waiting area was typical. An angry, vocal family stood next to a sad, quiet family, each grieving in their own way. Knees buckled as flag-draped caskets were carried off the airplane. There were tears, but also tension between the two families, nearly igniting an already volatile situation. "It hurt my heart," Suzie recalls.

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.

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.

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