On Dec. 12, 1985, a chartered Arrow Air aircraft en route from Cairo, Egypt, to Fort Campbell, Ky., stopped for fueling at Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. Returning from a six-month mission in the Sinai Peninsula were 248 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division (the legendary “Screaming Eagles”) who had monitored Egypt and Israel’s compliance with the 1979 Camp David accords.
They were on their way home for Christmas! According to news reports, the soldiers ran to airport phone booths and excitedly made collect calls to those waiting. At the gift shop, many bought T-shirts proclaiming: “We survived Gander, Newfoundland.”
During takeoff the plane crashed and burned. None of the 256 passengers (soldiers plus eight crew) survived. On Dec. 16, in an emotional memorial service at Ft. Campbell carried live on TV, President Ronald Reagan consoled family members.
As he spoke, the transfer of the dead from Gander to one of the largest mortuaries in the world — at Dover Air Force Base — began.
I was stationed nearby at the U.S. Army Military Personnel Center in Alexandria, Va., where I was an Army operations sergeant and career advisor for 26,000 Signal Corps soldiers. Arriving for work on Dec. 23, 1985, I was reminded I had an additional duty with Casualty and Mortuary Affairs. I would go to Dover, Del., to augment the recovery operation.
A brigadier general gave me an individual briefing on the sensitive and highly visible task. I scrambled to get ready and drove two and one-half hours to Dover, arriving at the mortuary at 5:30 p.m.
The Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations unit at Dover has the mission of processing those who died overseas as well as responding to mass casualties, like the 1978 Jonestown Massacre (918 children and adults died) and the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombing (241 military personnel died). Directly handling and identifying human remains there were Army, Air Force and FBI as well as civilian morticians, pathologists and investigators.
I had a “need to know” and so had access to all areas of the mortuary, which was strictly controlled. Prior to entry, our orientation included viewing a video of mortuary operations following the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marines Barracks in Beirut. A chaplain and a psychologist described what we might experience and feel, and discussed methods of stress management. Then came a briefing and walk through of nine refrigerator trailers that were covered under camouflage nets to prevent photographs by the merciless media.
We coordinated and reported to the Pentagon the status of the dead — identification, notification of next of kin named by the soldier, autopsy and preparation for transportation home per the family’s request. This was a 24-hour operation and I was part of a skeleton crew of three — two Army and one Air Force members — who worked from midnight to 7 a.m.
But the frantic 24-hour pace paused for Christmas. Around 1 a.m., there was a knock at the door. It was the base commander, a full-bird colonel, and I was surprised to see he brought a visitor with him: Santa Claus!
Santa wished us a Merry Christmas. After that we chatted quietly about the families waiting, and the magnitude of their grief and sadness. The eyes of all five of us, ranking from colonel to private (to Santa), welled up in tears. We were strangers thrown together, into the eye of the hurricane, by tragedy. We hugged each other as human beings, shook hands and thanked each other for being where we were. It was extremely emotional.
A few weeks later, on Jan. 28, 1986, about 15 of us who worked for Casualty and Mortuary Affairs were honored by our commander, the brigadier general who had briefed me. The TV was on in his conference room during the ceremony, and we watched the live launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
The Challenger exploded and disintegrated, killing all seven astronauts. We all knew that Dover’s phones were about to ring.
On August 1, 1990, I retired from the U.S. Army. The next day, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. Operation Desert Shield started, and began building up to Desert Storm and the Gulf War.
In October 1990, my home phone rang. Did I want to come back to active duty? I had special skills that would be useful for mass casualty operations.
My reply? “When you exhaust the draft, call me back.”
Being part of the recovery operations for the Gander tragedy was a privilege and an honor — and an unfortunate highlight of my 22-year military career, which included three tours in Vietnam. It was the worst job I ever loved. I learned that people are not their bodies. And even today, decades later, whenever I imagine Santa Claus, he’s at the mortuary door, bringing gifts of love and kindness to a bunch of guys who really needed them.
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