Oct. 5, 2011

Finding life in death: Air Guardsman helps families of fallen

By Master Sgt. Carlos J. Claudio
192nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. — When Senior Master Sgt. Mark A. Lounello volunteered for a temporary duty assignment at the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at Dover Air Force Base, Del., he seemed to have all his bases covered.

 

Senior Master Sgt. Mark A. Lounello, 192nd Fighter Wing chaplain's assistant, participates in a dignified transfer of a fallen U.S. military member's remains from aircraft to a waiting vehicle June 21, 2001, at the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at Dover Air Force Base, Del. Lounello spent six months at the AFMAO, and performed more than 200 dignified transfers. (Courtesy photo)

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Orders? Check. Transportation? Check. Billeting? Check.

What he did not count on was how this deployment would change his life.

"For me, to see someone who has made the ultimate sacrifice return home and having the privilege to be there and render honor, has been life-changing to me," said Lounello, a chaplain's assistant with the Virginia Air National Guard's 192nd Fighter Wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis.

The Mortuary Affairs Division is comprised of three branches: Entitlements, Past Conflicts and Contingency Response and the Families of the Fallen Support. The division is supported by 18 personnel from both the civilian and military workforce.

Additionally, the Mortuary Affairs Division provides support to family members of all services who travel to Dover AFB for the dignified transfer of their loved one.

This support occurs on the Campus for Families of the Fallen which encompasses the Fisher House for Families of the Fallen, the Meditation Pavilion and surrounding gardens, and Center for Families of the Fallen.

During Lounello's 179-day tour, which lasted from Dec. 26, 2010 to July 1, 2011, he performed more than 200 dignified transfers of human remains.

He also spent countless hours at the Campus for the Family of the Fallen, meeting and comforting families of U.S. service members who died in theater and were returned to American soil.

"I had an opportunity to experience and see grief in a way that I've never had before," Lounello said. "To pay tribute to someone who's made the ultimate sacrifice is not done by watching it on TV or by hearing about it. It's done when you live that experience."

When military members return to the U.S. in a perfectly draped American flag transfer case, it is a visual reminder of the danger and risk taken when volunteering to serve and fight during war.

As a result of Lounello's experience at AFMAO, two songs are now more noteworthy.

"Today, when I hear 'Taps' or the 'Star Spangled Banner,' I always associate my experience at AFMOA in rendering the honors, where I didn't so much before," he said. "When you witness, visibly, the price that's being paid, it not just something that's cognizant and important; it takes on a greater meaning."

With chapel-based ministry, chaplain assistants typically witness positive and spiritual events like worship services, baptisms and weddings. However, Lounello's duties at Dover contrasted heavily to normal church duties, he dealt with mourners.

The Air Guardsman assisted families struggling with some of the most difficult emotions possible; loss of a spouse, son, daughter, father or mother. It was a challenging process.

On Feb. 26, 2009, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates removed the ban on news media coverage of the dignified transfer of military casualties from war.

When cargo planes land and taxi near the Campus for the Family of the Fallen, families are escorted to the flight line.

The new policy allows each family to decide whether to allow media coverage of their loved ones being returned. Many families who consent to media coverage also choose to come to Dover themselves.

They witness their loved ones' transfer case being moved from the plane by a "carry team" to a large white van. This is called a "dignified transfer." It is at this point that Lounello saw families needing his support, the type of support he had to gain knowledge in.

"Finding the right words and the appropriate way of reaching out to someone in that grieving process is what I had to learn," he said. "In some cases, it doesn't require saying anything, except being there, being available, be appropriate and just listening to them. That's all we needed to do."

Lounello enlisted in the Air Force in 1976. In 1988, he joined the Air National Guard and held positions as an administrative specialist and a structured specialist. As a chaplain's assistant, he cared for wounded warriors in Landstuhl, Germany Regional Medical Facilities in 2005 and 2007. In 2008, he volunteered as a chaplain assistant to a B-52 crash where seven crew members were killed at Andersen AFB, Guam. A year later, he served in Balad's Air Force Base Hospital in Iraq.

Lounello feels his six months at AFMAO taught him a great deal and changed him. Although his capacity as a chaplain assistant is the same, his ability to listen and understand today's "Warrior Airman" is much greater.

"After witnessing so many of our military members returning home in a transfer case, my sensitivity to the concerns and challenges of our young Airmen has taken on a greater meaning," he said. "I take every opportunity to influence, encourage and mentor much more seriously than I did previously, and I engage them with a greater purpose to provide the guidance and support necessary for them to succeed."

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