Preparing Fallen Soldiers For Their Final Journey

By Dona Fair

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del.—After an unexpected knock at the front door or a phone call, for the family and friends of service members who pay the ultimate sacrifice while serving their country, the painful process of grieving begins.

For the daughter of an Elizabeth couple, the painful task of identifying the remains, scanning for unexploded ordnances, performing an autopsy, and preparing each service member for burial in a casket chosen by the family for the final trip home begins.


Air Force Reserve Senior Airman Karina Urgilez-Santamaria, daughter of Angel and Josefina Urgilez of Spofford Ave., Elizabeth, and the other civilian and military members who work at the 70,000-square-foot, Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs, are tasked with making sure that the remains of every service member is treated with dignity, honor, and respect.

Urgilez-Santamaria is assigned to the mortuary as a mortuary assistant.
“My job involves assisting x-ray technicians during the processing of the remains, and assisting the medical examiners, doctors, and morticians during and after the autopsies,” said Urgilez-Santamaria.

Before the remains are taken to the mortuary for preparation for their final resting place, they are honored for giving their lives in the service of our country by what is called a dignified transfer.

The dignified transfer begins when the fallen military member is returned to Dover, usually within 24 to 36 hours after their death.  It is here, along the flightline and out of the sight of the media, where family members are allowed to witness the transfer.

The dignified transfer is a solemn, precision movement of the transfer case by a carry team of military personnel from the fallen member’s respective service.  Always conducted the same, a senior ranking officer of the fallen member’s service oversees each transfer.  The transfers are conducted for every U.S. military member who dies in the theater of operation while in the service of their country.

“Our job is very important because our main mission is to bring home our heroes who gave their life for us to continue to be safe,” said Urgilez-Santamaria, who graduated in 1998 from Elizabeth High School, and received certification as a surgical first assistant in 2009 from Dover Business College, Clifton, N.J.

Beginning with the Persian Gulf War in 1991, a moratorium was placed on media access to cover dignified transfers.  The policy was reissued in 2001 when Operation Enduring Freedom began, and again in 2003 for all military operations.  Since 2001, more than 4,000 dignified transfers have taken place.

Because of the moratorium, few people are aware that Mortuary Affairs exists, and what their role is in preparing the remains of a fallen hero before being returned to their loved ones.

“Our main mission is to take care of and return our deceased heroes quickly and properly to their loved ones,” said Urgilez-Santamaria, who has been in the military for four years.  “We also take care of their families during this tough time of losing a loved one.”

Urgilez-Santamaria and her fellow team members continue to make sure that each military member receives the utmost dignity, honor, and respect that they deserve.

Air Force Reserve Senior Airman Karina Urgilez-Santamaria is a mortuary assistant at the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs, Dover Air Force Base, Del.  (DoD photo by Benjamin Faske)

An Army carry team transfers the remains of a soldier killed during combat operations in Afghanistan, from a C-17, during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base, Del.  (DoD photo by Benjamin Faske)

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