Meet the Airmen Who Comfort Families of the Fallen During Dignified Transfers > U.S. Department of Defense > Story

Families of U.S. service members who die while on duty overseas face unimaginable grief, as well as a lot of questions that need to be answered to bring their loved one home. A vast network of caring folks based at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, help them through that process.  


When what’s known as a dignified transfer of remains is scheduled at Dover, a lot of moving parts kick into gear. There are experts who work specifically with the remains, but then there are others whose sole mission is to support the families of the fallen. Those folks work as part of a team at Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, which coordinates dignified transfers for U.S. service members of all branches. 

When preparations for a dignified transfer begin, AFMAO will contact the fallen service member’s branch liaison, who will get in touch with the family to determine if they’ll attend the transfer and what, if any, services they might need.  

When families arrive at Dover, there’s a special section of the base that houses three important locations for them: the Fisher House, where they stay at no cost during their visit; the Center for Families of the Fallen, where they are brought as the aircraft bringing in their loved one lands; and the Meditation Pavilion, for when they need time to mediate, pray or just be alone. 


Full-Service Care 

The Dover Fisher House is unique because it’s the only one where families can witness a dignified transfer. It’s also the only Fisher House manned by deployed active-duty airmen and Reservists, such as Senior Airman Huston Crayton, who makes himself available to comfort the families and answer any questions or special requests they might have during their stay.   

“We stay with them the whole way. They’re never left unattended. We work 24-hour operations when we do receive a family,” said Crayton, who volunteered for the role. He said the fact that he’s a service member might make him more relatable to grieving families. “We’re wearing the uniform. We’ve been deployed to the same areas that our fallen ones have. I just feel like it’s a different level of care.” 

Deployed airmen like Crayton rotate in and out of the position every six months and are often handpicked for the role due to specialized skill sets they bring to the table. Once these airmen arrive at Dover, chaplains and grief counselors prepare them for the “do’s and don’ts” of what to say and do.  

“One is, don’t make any promises to them or tell them, ‘I know how you feel,’ because ultimately, you don’t,” Crayton said. “You have no idea what’s going on in their minds or their experience.”  

He said it’s a job that requires a lot of patience and understanding. “We’re here to make this experience as painless for them as possible. So, anything we can do to alleviate stress and pain, we’re here to do that,” Crayton said. “This is really from the heart, because everybody’s family grieves differently.” 

When families get to the Fisher House, they’re met by a service branch liaison and a service-specific chaplain. Families also have access to a support team of five that consists of a senior chaplain, a staff chaplain, a deployed religious affairs airman, a deployed mental health technician and a military family life counselor.  

“Without [deployed service members], we couldn’t be as effective as we are,” said Air Force Capt. Benjamin Quintanilla Jr., AFMAO’s senior chaplain. Quintanilla is relatively new to AFMAO, but he’s been an active-duty chaplain for nearly a decade. He said the initial calling came to him while he was an enlisted airman in Germany who was helping to work on a patient injured in Afghanistan who died in the operating room. After that experience, he left the service, went to the seminary, then returned to the Air Force. 


Professional Support 

At AFMAO, permanent family support team members are sent to grief training to learn how to comfort families. Quintanilla said that part of their role is to go through the grieving process with them.  

“For many of them, just the reality of the death, that is the No. 1 thing that is happening here — they’re meeting that reality. So, for us, we try to just to be here with them, meet them right where they’re at and say, ‘How can I serve you?'” Quintanilla said. “Sometimes that’s … letting them gain some control of their life by making their own coffee, because their lives are so out of control whenever grief is so intense.” 

He said he’s noticed that for many, it’s the little gestures that mean the most, including having them talk about what made their loved one special.  

“It’s just sitting with people … and being comfortable in that environment and genuinely listening to and hearing their story,” he said. “That’s going to leave a lasting impact on that family.” 

When a soldier, sailor or Marine dies on duty overseas, a chaplain from that branch will join the Air Force family support team. When it comes to the family’s religion, they’ll look at their accommodation requests and make adjustments.  

“If it’s a Jewish family, we’re going to do our best to get a rabbi here. If it’s a Muslim family, we’ll get an imam,” Quintanilla said.  


Guiding Them Through 

The day of the dignified transfer, the families are moved from Fisher House to the Center for Families of the Fallen. Quintanilla said that’s where the reality of the family’s loss starts to sink in. The support team will explain to them how the dignified transfer works, and distinguished guests, such as military senior leaders, may also stop by to give their condolences (after being briefed by the team on the family’s state of mind). 

The Center for Families of the Fallen has several rooms, including some that are more private for the folks who don’t want to receive condolences. There’s also a children’s room.  

“I get emotional about this one,” said Quintanilla, a father of three little girls. “As you walk into this room, you’ll see a chalkboard, and there’ll be a kid who has written all over that board, and it just looks like scribbles. I always like to tell people that come here and visit, I say, ‘That’s what grief looks like to a child.'” 


He said the team often reminds parents that rebellious behavior is normal for children in mourning. 

“They’re just trying to tell you that they need a little more love. They need a few more hugs. They’re grieving and mourning. They miss mom or dad,” Quintanilla said. “So, slow down, because this is what their life looks like right now. … We always tell people as our mentor taught us: If a child is old enough to love, they’re old enough to grieve.” 

He said the job is hard, but having a great support system gets him through. “It’s definitely a calling that comes with a burden. But I always have to reach back to my faith,” Quintanilla said.  


When the dignified transfer is ready to begin, the support team will take the family to the flight line and stay with them through the entire process. A member of the team also joins the service members carrying the transfer case to meet and support the escort – a person typically from the service member’s unit who has made the journey with the fallen service member.  

“There are a lot of complex emotions that come with 13- to 15-hour flights with someone who was possibly their supervisor or best friend,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Nicole Schambon-Martinez, the current NCOIC of religious affairs who plays that role. “In that initial meeting with that person, a lot of it is determining what their body language is and how their demeanor is. Then, from there, shifting to what it is that they may need in that moment.”  

Martinez connects the escort with the service branch liaison, then returns to the carry team to see how they’re coping. 

“I’m given the opportunity to take care of a small number of people, and that gives me the ability to create genuine connections — to know them on a personal level and see how I can help them,” she explained. “That creates a very authentic and very precious relationship that you can’t find anywhere else.” 

A Selfless Task 

After the dignified transfer, the family of the fallen goes back to the Fisher House, where airmen like Crayton will make sure they have what they need and prepare them for their impending trip home. 

For members of the family support team, the whole endeavor is a rewarding but selfless mission. 

“It’s not about me,” Martinez said. “This is about taking care of the families of the fallen and taking care of the people who are having to go through traumatic events. I’m here to create space for them to do whatever it is that they need in that moment.” 

For Quintanilla, the most important aspect of the job is as simple as it is complex – love. 

“How do we love and care for that family whose world and life has been turned upside down?,” he asked. “It’s easy to love when you’re call to it, but what does that mean for that family? And how is that family going to receive it? That’s the complexity of it.”

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