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Ensuring the fallen are sent home with honor

On March 15, an Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter crashed in western Iraq, killing all seven members on board. All service members were processed through the 387th AEG, prior to being sent home.

Members of the 387th Air Expeditionary Group Force Protection Flight practice the transfer of service members remains with an empty transfer cases, at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Oct. 13, 2017. On March 15, an Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter crashed in western Iraq, killing all seven members on board. All service members were processed through the 387th AEG, prior to being sent home. (Air Force photo illustration by Staff Sgt. William Banton)

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Senior Airman Edward Reta, a 387th Air Expeditionary Group Force Protection Flight Airman, remembers watching the C-17 Globemaster III as it taxied to its parking location at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia.

Watching a tail ramp lower, he felt moved by the setting and circumstances as he was one of six Airmen from the 387th AEG Force Protection and 387th Civil Engineer Fire Department to come to attention.

Still, Reta was grateful to be part of a group that came together as they made their way on to an aircraft, in unison. They carefully moved the aircraft’s most significant cargo, a transfer case with the remains of a fallen warrior, to a theater mortuary evacuation point truck waiting on the tarmac.

There is a heaviness that never becomes routine when dealing with loss of a life in today’s warfighting environments, he says but also there is a reverence involved demonstrating how vital and distinctive it is to be helping get the fallen home safely.

“When a service member is involved it is a huge deal,” said Reta. “It was emotional for me to actually be able to see it in person.”

In a deployed environment, the process can bring in an additional set of emotions for the team and they have to learn to manage in their own ways while completing the mission with care.

“It’s hard to disconnect yourself from the situation that is going on at the time,” said Tech. Sgt. Cody Owens, 387th Air Expeditionary Group Force Protection day shift lead. “It’s hard to not get emotional and just maintain your military bearing, while trying to pay homage to the fallen member.”

On March 15, an Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter crashed in western Iraq, killing all seven members on board. All of those service members passed through the 387th AEG, prior to returning home.

“At first it was difficult but I have learned to be able to separate myself from the event,” Owens said. “I knew a bunch of people personally that knew them, so it kind of hit close to home.”

“I’ve never experienced that; a lot of thoughts go through your head that this is real and that it can happen to anybody,” said Reta. “Obviously the family and friends of the deceased goes through your head and then your thoughts are of your family and friends.”

Upon returning from the theater of operations to the United States, a solemn dignified transfer is conducted upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, when a U.S. Air Force carry team transfers the remains from the aircraft to a transfer vehicle to honor those who have given their lives in service to America. Fallen service members, however, have stops to locations like here along the way before they head home to their family.

Reta described this particular transfer as an honor, saying it was an experience which he will be able to take with him to future transfers. The rest of the team echoed those sentiments.

“There’s a lot of pride sending [Airmen] back home and [I have] torn feelings about it,” said Owens. “I hate doing transfers but I’m also proud of what I get to do.”