DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Delaware — There is no room for mistakes here.
The flag-draped silver case with a soldier’s body must be carried slowly down the ramp of a U.S. Air Force cargo plane. No tilting. No slipping. The final uniform jacket worn to the grave must be wrinkle free, the pants' creases razor sharp, with all rank insignias, stripes and tiny oak leaf clusters perfectly placed. And for the surviving families who come in tears, there must bowls of chocolates and mints — and even a refrigerator full of pizza and meatloaf in a hotel-like compound.
Nothing can be left out or guessed at.
Such is the unspoken commitment of the soldiers — and even some civilians, too — who labor in a nondescript building at this Air Force base in the Delaware flatlands that has become the unlikely bridge to America’s endless wars.
Officially, it’s called Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations unit. Unofficially, it’s where America tries to bring some comfort to a moment that is exceedingly uncomfortable — when the bodies of those lost in overseas combat zones are brought home.
Recently, NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK were granted exclusive access to the behind-the-scenes workings of the mortuary unit. What emerged was not so much a story of death but a tale of ordinary people struggling to preserve some small flicker of humanity amid the carnage of war.
Their assignment — in one of the U.S. military's most sensitive and gruesome units — could call on them to search for the right brigade patch for a final uniform that a soldier will wear to the grave. It could also mean looking into the eyes of a young wife who lost her husband in Iraq or Afghanistan and saying, "It's OK not to be OK." In recent years, it has also meant dealing with an alarming increase in suicides.
“We do the behind-the-scenes stuff that nobody wants to think about,” said U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Nicole McMinamin, one of several soldiers who assemble uniforms for the dead at the mortuary unit.