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August 27, 2014

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A final salute: Precision demanded in dressing of war dead

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AP

Staff Sgt. Miguel Deynes prepares the dress uniform of Capt. Aaron Blanchard, an Army pilot who was killed in Afghanistan, at the Dover Air Force Base in Deleware, April 27, 2013. At the Dover Port Mortuary, where the bodies of service members are brought to be prepared for funeral, no detail is too small, whether the coffin is closed or the body slated for cremation. (Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times)

Delaware Military Mortuary

Staff Sgt. Miguel Deynes prepares the dress uniform of Capt. Aaron Blanchard, an Army pilot who was killed in Afghanistan, at the Dover Air Force Base in Deleware, April 27, 2013. At the Dover Port Mortuary, where the bodies of service members are brought to be prepared for funeral, no detail is too small, whether the coffin is closed or the body slated for cremation. (Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times) Launch slideshow »

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — The soldier bent to his work, careful as a diamond cutter. He carried no weapon or rucksack, just a small plastic ruler, which he used to align a name plate, just so, atop the breast pocket of an Army dress blue jacket, size 39R.

“Blanchard,” the plate read.

Capt. Aaron Blanchard, a 32-year-old Army pilot, had been in Afghanistan for only a few days when an enemy rocket killed him and another soldier last month as they dashed toward their helicopter. Now he was heading home.

Before he left the mortuary here, however, he would need to be properly dressed. And so Staff Sgt. Miguel Deynes labored meticulously, almost lovingly, over every crease and fold, every ribbon and badge, of the dress uniform that would clothe Blanchard in his final resting place.

“It’s more than an honor,” Deynes said. “It’s a blessing to dress that soldier for the last time.”

About 6,700 U.S. service members have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and almost every one of their remains have come through the Dover Port Mortuary.

Recently, the Air Force, which oversees the mortuary, allowed a reporter and a photographer to observe the assembling of dress uniforms for those who have died. A small slice of the process, to be sure, but enough to appreciate the careful ritual that attends the war dead of the U.S. military.

And enough to glimpse the arc of two long wars.

Housed in a partly unheated building before the wars began, the mortuary moved into a new 72,000-square-foot building in 2003 after the invasion of Iraq. Then, as the wars expanded, so did the mortuary staff: from seven workers in 2001 to more than 60 today.

War also brought, for a time, unrelenting work. During the peak of fighting in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, 10 to 20 bodies arrived here each day, and embalmers often worked all night to get remains home on time.

“I have deployed to Afghanistan,” said Col. John Devillier, the commander of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, “but I’ve seen more war here.”

For each of the war dead, the journey through Dover begins with the arrival of a cargo jet that is met by military officials and, usually, family members. A team of service members wearing white gloves carries the coffins, covered with flags, to a white van that takes them to the Armed Forces Medical Examiner. Once an autopsy is completed, the work of the mortuary staff begins.

Remains are first embalmed and then washed. Hands are scrubbed clean, hair is shampooed. Where appropriate, bones are wired together and damaged tissue is reconstructed with flesh-toned wax. Using photographs, or just intuition, the embalmers try to recreate the wrinkles in faces, the lines around mouths, the corners and lids of eyes.

“It has to look normal, like someone who is sleeping,” said Petty Officer First Class Jennifer Howell, a Navy liaison at the mortuary who has a mortician’s license.

Once the body is ready, dress uniforms are prepared for each, even if the coffin is closed at the funeral with the uniform laid on top of the remains, and even if the body is to be cremated.

The process has to be “100 percent perfect,” said William Zwicharowski, the Dover Port Mortuary branch chief, because “a lot of times, families are in denial and they want to find something that gives them hope that it wasn’t their son or daughter.”

Working so intimately with the dead can take a toll, so the mortuary has a large gym and a recreation room where workers are encouraged to blow off steam. A team of chaplains and mental health advisers are available for counseling.

Zwicharowski, a former Marine, said many workers were haunted by the youthfulness of the dead and by the fact that so many leave behind children. He counsels his staff to avoid researching their backgrounds, but he has not always abided by his own advice.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, he read a note placed in the coffin of a boy who died on the jet that crashed into the Pentagon. It was from a brother, thanking the boy for defending him on the playground days before.

“It was something I wish I didn’t do, and I learned my lesson not to do it again,” Zwicharowski said, fighting back tears. “If I knew the story of every individual who went through here, I would probably be in a padded cell.”

Zwicharowski was one of several employees who reported problems at the mortuary several years ago that included workers losing body parts and sawing off the arm of a dead Marine without consulting his family.

According to a report issued in late 2011 by the Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that handles complaints from whistle-blowers, senior mortuary officials tried to cover up the problems and then punished the employees who reported them, including Zwicharowski. Since then, the Air Force has removed those officials, installing Devillier as the commander and promoting Zwicharowski to mortuary chief.

“We’re in a posture better than we ever have been,” said Zwicharowski, who was the director of a private funeral home before joining the Dover mortuary in 1999.

Deynes began putting the final touches on Blanchard’s uniform immediately after it returned from the base tailor, who had sewn captain’s bars onto the jacket shoulders and purple and gold aviator braids onto the sleeves — 3 inches above the bottom, to be exact. The sergeant starched and pressed a white shirt, ironed a crease into the pants, steamed wrinkles out of the jacket and then rolled a lint remover over all of it, twice.

Gently, he laid the pieces onto a padded table. Black socks protruded from the pants and white gloves from the sleeves. The funeral would be a closed coffin, but it all still had to look right.

“They are not going to see it,” he said. “I do it for myself.”

A week later, Blanchard’s remains were flown to his home state of Washington, where he was buried in a military cemetery.

His mother, Laura Schactler, said Blanchard had enlisted in the Marines after high school and served two tours in Iraq before marrying and returning home to attend college on an Army ROTC scholarship. After graduating, he learned to fly Apache attack helicopters, fulfilling a boyhood dream.

Before his funeral, Schactler spent time alone with her son but did not open his coffin. Later that night, she said, her husband and two other sons did, wanting to say one last farewell.

Inside, they saw a uniform, white gloves crossed, buttons gleaming, perfect in every detail.

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