For about five years during America’s long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tech. Sgt. Loren Wells had what he called the “best and the worst job in the Air Force.”
He felt filled with purpose at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where he participated in the detail that handles the bodies of slain military service members when they return to U.S. soil.
Each one deserved a hero’s treatment. Each sacrifice pulled at his heart.
“There’s nothing like it,” said Wells, 41, of West Seattle.
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He recently came home from his latest assignment there. It was a significant one because it marked what’s expected to be the last time the Air Force calls up a team from Joint Base Lewis-McChord to round out its mortuary staff at Dover.
JBLM’s 446th Reserve Airlift Wing has been sending groups of airmen to Dover for that assignment regularly since 2001. The Air Force no longer needs to maintain that connection because the pace of the wars has declined, although individual airmen from JBLM might be called to Dover for one-off assignments.
In the latest deployment, five airmen from the Reserve wing spent the past six months on the mortuary detail. Wells noticed the slower pace compared to some of his past deployments there.
“It’s a little bit different, which is a good thing,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are still fallen heroes coming in.”
I’m emotional. It’s the most rewarding mission you can ever get.
Senior Airman Leatha Brown
Wells and his partners were on hand when six airmen killed Dec. 21 in a suicide attack outside Bagram Air Field arrived at a National Guard base near Dover.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter was among the group that stood at the runway as the airmen were lifted of a C-17 cargo jet.
They also helped bring home Staff Sgt. Matthew McClintock, a Green Beret from the Washington National Guard who was killed Jan. 5 in Afghanistan.
McClintock’s death left an impression on Senior Airman Leatha Brown, 32. It was her first deployment to Dover.
“We give the same dignity, honor and respect to the sacrifice they made for our nation to everyone,” Brown said. “For me, the last one we had because he was from here, and I’m from Washington, it got me.”
She spent the second half of her deployment on the staff of Dover’s Fisher House, a space where families of slain troops can spend time while awaiting the arrival of their loved ones.
Several families passed through during Brown’s deployment. She wanted the house to look “pristine” for them.
“It’s their house,” she said. “It’s never a good a thing when there’s a family in the house, because you know there’s been a fallen hero.”
Unfortunately, there are still fallen heroes coming in.
Tech. Sgt. Loren Wells
Wells has done just about every job on Dover’s mortuary team, from making travel arrangements to minding personal belongings of slain troops and embalming bodies.
He had an especially long stint at Dover from 2004 to 2006, a period when 23 to 141 military service members were killed in Iraq every month.
“There’s not a whole lot of time to think” when the mortuary team works with that many casualties. “You just adjust and adapt. That’s what we had to do. We all worked together.”
Col. Bryan Runion, commander of the wing’s mission support group, said mortuary assignments such as the ones at Dover were behind-the-scenes tasks handed to military service members who sacrificed to accomplish them.
He thanked the airmen for the volunteering for the assignments.
“They’re going through the same stresses,” Runion said. “They’re away from their families for an extended period of time. Don’t forget the people who are serving in the continental U.S. and are still supporting the war effort.”
Brown and Wells are heading back to their civilian jobs. Wells works for a Seattle manufacturer. Brown is returning to work as a civilian employed by the Navy.
Brown sounds as if her heart is still at Dover.
“I’m emotional,” she said. “It’s the most rewarding mission you can ever get.”