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Sunday, December 18, 2011

One Soldier's Story: "A Dignified Transfer" by guest blogger Jorge Duarte

On September 11, 2001, America witnessed a terrifying nightmare. We all felt a sense of helplessness as we watched it firsthand on national television.

Preparing for school, I began to watch the morning news, wondering what happened and trying to figure out what I was seeing on the screen.

As I continued to dress, I kept my eyes fixated on the television. News footage continued about the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and I saw what most Americans watching the news saw that morning, the second plane striking the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

At that moment I was overwhelmed with a sense of urgency; I did not know the reasons, but I felt that something was not right.

I discovered that my school was on high alert for anything suspicious. Every class had a television with the news channel broadcasting the events.

Many Americans would come to know, the events that unfolded on September 11, 2001, were acts of terrorism against the United States. As the days continued, the individuals responsible for the attacks began to surface and the rest was history.

In 2006, I would make a decision that would change my life. I decided to enlist in the United States Air Force.

Many people believed the acts of September 11th were my deciding factor, but that became one of many. My decision to join the military began on a routine day at a local food store where I worked as a pharmacy technician.

While I was performing my duties, I was interrupted by a news broadcast on a portable television inside the pharmacy. The news broadcast was about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the moment I remember as the main reason for my decision to enlist.

While the news aired, a female coworker said, “My husband wants to join the military so bad, but they won’t take him because of a medical condition.” I remember thinking, “If a man who is not medically fit is willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for his country, what does that say about an able bodied man like me?”

I remember going home and contemplating the decision to enlist. I remember the local news broadcasting tributes to the fallen Arizona natives that served in the armed forces.

I decided to enlist in the military, not because I was angry and wanted justice for the acts of terror that affected the way many people lived.

I joined to replace the soldier that was deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, to give them a chance at seeing their loved ones again.

The endless stories of a family’s sorrow and knowing that I may have the ability to bring a soldier back to their family was more than what I needed to join the military.

I joined the Air Force, and my first duty assignment was at Dover AFB as a cargo aircraft mechanic on the Lockheed Martin C5 Galaxy and the Boeing C17 Globemaster III. My duties involved preparing the aircraft for missions, launching, and recovering.

I soon realized that many aircrafts recovered by our unit came from bases embedded in the Middle East. I also discovered a unique characteristic of Dover AFB that no other air base had.

I discovered Dover AFB was the only port mortuary for all the armed forces.

Every soldier killed overseas would have to make the stop at Dover AFB before continuing to their last resting place. It was not long before I realized that many of these soldiers were transported on the aircrafts I would be recovering.

I still remember the briefing I had regarding “Dignified Transfers.” Our squadron would get briefed on the time an aircraft would land carrying the remains of our fallen soldiers.

The reason we were briefed was to make sure all engine driven equipment on the flight line were shut down. The ceremony for a dignified transfer required complete silence on the flight line.

 Much of the aircraft recovery for dignified transfers were tasked by a separate sister unit on base. The ceremony conducted by the Honor Guard was private; neither public nor media were allowed to attend.

In April 2009, President Barack Obama lifted the media ban on the dignified transfer ceremony. Among the media, the families were also allowed to attend.

In late August of 2009 I recall arriving at my squadron and being briefed on my assignment. I was tasked to conduct maintenance on top of the tail section of the aircraft.

While I was working on the aircraft, I was interrupted by a broadcast over my portable radio, “Attention on the net, attention on the net. Please be advised aircraft 5007 will be arriving with a dignified transfer.”

As the plane landed, I could see personnel gathering near the aircraft. I was unfamiliar with this scene as I was only used to seeing the Air Force Honor Guard during the ceremony.

Sitting on the top of the tail section 60 feet in the air and about 400 yards away, I could still see the Honor Guard preparing. I also saw a group of people that were not in military uniforms.

 The ceremony began as the coffin was carried out of the aircraft. As I sat there, fixated on the events unfolding before my eyes, the night’s silence that blanked the flight line was shattered by the soul wrenching screams of a mother. The sight of the coffin holding the remains of her child triggered her uncontrollable actions. When the ceremony ended, the family was escorted off the flight line.

 Before the media ban was lifted, I had become complacent with the ceremonies that were conducted during a dignified transfer. It had become a routine that was normal on the flight line.

Not until I witnessed the pain and suffering that was endured by the family was I brought back to reality and found the purpose of my duty in the military yet again.

As I look at the picture of the dignified transfer, I relive the moments of why I joined the military, hoping that the public realizes the reality of duty for a soldier.

No longer shielded by a government ban, the public can witness what was once emotionally endured by a selected few. This picture brings meaning to my purpose; I can only hope it brings purpose to others around the country.

Photo by: (U.S. Air Force photo/Roland Balik) “Dignified Transfer,” 4/6/2009 - An Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center carry team transfers the remains of an Air Force Staff Sgt. who died April 4 near Helmand Province, Afghanistan, from wounds suffered from an improvised explosive device. He was assigned to the 48th Civil Engineer Squadron, Royal Air Force Lakenheath, United Kingdom. His family is the first to allow media to cover the dignified transfer under the new Department of Defense policy

Dignified Transfer. (2009, April). Official Website of the U.S. Air Force.Retrieved from