Passion essential for mortuary affairs officers

  • Published
  • By Steve Hoffmann
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
The saying "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" doesn't end upon death. For James Taylor, Keesler mortuary affairs officer, death is where that principle begins.

"It's one of those jobs you have to be passionate about," said Taylor. "For families or individuals who have lost loved ones, I take care of them as I would want to be taken care of myself."

As a mortuary affairs officer, Taylor is responsible for taking care of deceased active-duty, dependants of active duty, retirees who pass away in a government medical facility and the family members they leave behind. Care for the deceased entails recovery of the body, cleaning, dressing, casketing and transportation.Care for their grieving family can be a bit more tricky.

"It's harder when you know them," Taylor said. Taylor recounted a story of a case in which he was involved where he had to drive to Florida to meet with and brief the wife of a deceased service member.

"I didn't realize who she was -- who he was -- until I pulled into the driveway of her house," said Taylor, holding back tears. "We used to work together and I just hadn't put the name with the face. But when I saw her face, we both just broke down and cried together. Yes -- it's harder when you know them."

Taylor tries to get in touch with the families within two hours of notification or the next morning if word is received late the night before. He uses a checklist to detail what the Air Force can do for the families, the associated costs that will be covered and suggestions on how best to navigate the funeral process. He also advises commanders and first sergeants to make his office one of the first points of contact when dealing with a death in their unit or squadron.

"I try to get families to make the right choices and to present an optimal path," said Taylor. "One of the hardest things for the families is viewing the body because they want to see their loved one one last time. But sometimes the body is not viewable. In those cases I advise they not look. But if they choose to look I always tell them to remember their loved one as they were, not as they are now. What they see is just the shell of a person, not the person."

Over the years, Taylor has developed good working relationships with some of the local funeral homes, but admits that there are some who are just out to make a buck. However, there are reputable ones that will often work with families to get costs within the allotted amount the Air Force will pay. Taylor also closely monitors the funeral process to make sure the funeral homes are adhering to Air Force standards.

Taylor also oversees and inspects the honor guard detail. When it comes to Air Force standards, the honor guard prides itself on exceeding them. Covering an area of more than 48,000 square miles in 68 counties throughout southern Mississippi and Louisiana, the honor guard is responsible for traveling to provide military honors at funerals for families who have lost Air Force service members.

Those chosen to serve in the honor guard detail go through an initial two-week training period and serve for 90 days. During that time, they train once a week and will sometimes perform two or three details per day.

"You either love it or hate it," said Taylor. "Some who get selected end up falling in love with it and they'll stay for a second and third rotation. They see the good it does for the families to know that the Air Force cares about them to provide these honors."

That's also why Taylor has been a mortuary affairs officer for 11 years.

"I was an honor guardsman myself when I was active duty," said Taylor. "And when I had the opportunity to do this job as a civilian I jumped at the chance. When people ask me what it is I love about this job, my answer is simple -- helping the families."

Search and recovery is another aspect of Taylor's job that he and the Air Force pride themselves in doing well. The role of the mortuary affairs officer in search and recovery operations is to direct the search for and recovery of a deceased Airman or other military service member if it's a joint operation. It's a meticulous, thorough process aimed at recovering everything possible as it relates to the body, personal belongings and positive identification of the deceased.

"We don't want to have to go back out, or worse, a family member go back out and find something," explained Taylor.

For a crash site, an area will be cordoned off and then scoured north to south, then east to west with a flag being placed on anything Taylor and his search team find. Depending on how the plane hits, this area can cover thousands of yards.

Then, everything must be carefully sorted, catalogued and transported to Dover Air Force Base, Del., for positive identification and storage. If there are two or more bodies involved, positive identification must be made to determine who is who. This can be done through simple facial recognition or through dental and DNA matching.

"The hardest part is when you can hardly find anything," said Taylor. "I was involved in an operation in Florida where a Navy pilot went in nose first. The only thing we found were some teeth."

Sometimes search and recovery involves the use of heavy equipment to dig down deep enough to capture everything. Then all the dirt gets sifted to search for the smallest fragments.

Depending on the nature of the crash and the size of the area that needs to be searched, Taylor could be called on to provide just-intime training for search parties. Although Keesler was not involved, this happened after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster where teams searched hundreds of square miles.

"There are some cases that have yet to be closed," said Taylor. He described a case where a plane crashed more than 40 years ago on a glacier in Alaska in an unreachable location and just now the remnants of that crash are being recovered as the glacier breaks off into the sea.

"Again, the Air Force prides itself on recovering everything," said Taylor. "There is no stone we will leave unturned."