DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — This is the place where widows wailed, where mothers buckled to the tarmac in grief and where children lifted their teddy bears to see daddy carried off in a flag-covered box.
This is where presidents stood and generals saluted because this is the place where the price of the war in Afghanistan was made plain.
This is the place where Chaplain David Sparks saw it all. This is the place he found his calling.
“This,” the minister says, “is holy ground.”
The end of the war is sobering for those who have tended to the battle’s dead, who unzipped their body bags, dressed them in uniform one last time and clutched their bereft families.
Virtually all of the Afghan war’s dead arrived back on American soil here at Dover Air Force Base. Seeing to those remains is such trying work that many do it for just six months. But Sparks was here when the war was launched and the first casualties arrived, through waves of bloodshed, and now, two decades years later.
In the belly of C-17s carrying the fallen, his voice quivered in prayer, and in the autopsy suite, he smelled the stench of death. He watched a father reaching for his dead son, repeatedly bellowing the Marine’s name, and he heard little boys weep. In anger, families cursed him, and in gratitude, they held him tight.
After two decades of it, two decades of decimated bodies returned home, of survivors so haunted they turned to a bottle or their own gun, of folded flags and mournful trumpets and torn families, it’s finally ending. America’s longest war is nearly over. And Sparks will walk away, left with the emotional remains.
“My heart has been torn out so many times,” the 74-year-old says, “I can hardly count.”
Dover Air Force Base has housed a mortuary since 1955, when airmen first received the dead in a pair of Quonset huts. In the years since, it has seen victims of base shootings, aircraft crashes, terror attacks and space shuttle disasters. More than 20,000 of the Vietnam War’s dead passed through here.
As if its history alone didn’t make Dover synonymous with sacrifice, the base is teeming with reminders.
At a uniform shop, posthumously awarded medals are polished to a high shine and positioned on jackets with a ruler so a slain servicemember can be dressed perfectly one last time.
In a building reserved for the personal possessions of the dead, workers inventory every belonging of a troop, from love letters to stashes of Sour Patch Kids to ultrasounds of a baby they’d never meet.
And in a waiting area for relatives, copies of “When You Become a Single Parent After a Loss” are lined on a bookcase and a blackboard in a play area has a child’s drawing of a family with the letters “RIP” hovering overhead.
Precision dictates everything, down to the V-formation of Yoo-Hoos in a Subzero and flawless stacks of Hershey’s Miniatures in a candy dish at the base’s lodging for bereaved families.
“We want to make sure everything is done to perfection,” says Army Sgt. 1st Class Nicole McMinamin, who runs the uniform shop. “They put their life on the line for this country.”
Sparks arrived on base in 1980 as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves and largely was tasked with the spiritual needs of the 436th Airlift Wing, organizing Sunday school and seminars, talking through servicemembers’ problems at home, attending events, and otherwise becoming a familiar face while juggling his full-time job as pastor of a small Nazarene church.
By the time he’d been at it for 21 years, he’d risen to lieutenant colonel and was starting to think about his military retirement. Then Sept. 11, 2001, arrived. He was called to active duty and assigned to the mortuary, where the Pentagon’s dead were being brought, and where he was to be a source of solace for those charged with the somber task of identifying, autopsying and preparing the dead.
Weeks turned to months, one war turned to two, and by the time Sparks submitted his resignation from pastoring a third time, the church board accepted. He found himself with a life entwined with death.
He’d don a white Tyvek suit and draw a black cross on the breast, standing by as x-ray technicians, dentists and medical examiners worked on remains. If they needed help moving a body, he’d pitch in, but mostly he talked with workers about their cat or their crazy ex-girlfriend or anything that would get their mind off the horror laid before them on a gurney.
“Normal conversation,” he says, “in an abnormal venue.”
At the height of the war, the pace at the mortuary could be staggering. The staff raced to keep up as remains arrived almost daily. Chaplains, in turn, were swamped as the work took its toll on the staff.
“You couldn’t really grasp it. It was a firehose,” says Electa Wright, a former Air Force reservist who is now a civilian mortuary worker. “You had to learn how to cope with that amount of death.”
Though Sparks had rarely spent time at the mortuary before 9/11, he found he was unwittingly prepared. As a seminarian, he volunteered as a pallbearer, and as a young minister, he shadowed a mortician friend at work. Dying congregants kept him in and out of hospices and hospitals for years.
He was able to shift his focus from what lay before him in the morgue, a scene that was often jarring.
“All we receive may be a hand or a leg,” says Air Force Col. Alice Briones, a former combat medic who went on to become a forensic pathologist and now runs the military’s medical examiner system. “But with every remain, whether it’s a fingernail, a hand or the whole torso, it’s the same dignity, honor and respect.”
Sparks’ office is off an atrium that houses a koi pond and is crowned by a curved glass roof that mimics the huts of the base’s first mortuary. Red Sox paraphernalia and bereavement books line his desk and his computer is a repository for the prayers he slid into the acetate sleeves of a small photo album and read aboard or beside the plane when remains arrived, covered by flags, in aluminum crates.
The military calls the movement of remains, from planes onto grey Ford cargo vans with the silhouette of saluting servicemembers painted on the back, “dignified transfers.” Aside from the quiet commands of seven-member honor guards who carry the boxes, the short prayers of the chaplain typically are the only words spoken during the ritual, and feeling the weight of such a responsibility, Sparks wrote a new one for each of the more than 400 times he was called to that duty.
He saves them in Word files named for something defining about the day. “One Suicide May 2005” references loved ones of the soldier “whose confusion is overwhelming and whose sorrow is deeper than we can begin to imagine.” “Christmas Eve 2004” notes the irreparable imprint left on the family of the Marines “for whom Christmas future will always bring back the awful memory.” “40 Transfer Cases (Jan 05),” marvels at the enormity of what the victims gave their country, calling it “the price of freedom.”
“Where do we find such men and women who prize liberty and freedom over the risk to their lives, and who knowing the price they might have to pay, are willing to volunteer for the mission, put on the uniform and serve in harm’s way?” he prayed that day. “We look around and see them everywhere.”
After the Afghan war’s deadliest single incident, when a transport helicopter carrying 30 Americans and eight Afghans was shot down in 2011, their bodies arrived at Dover. As Sparks climbed the ramp of the plane, his eyes welled at the sea of flags, and as the honor guards broke their at-attention stance, they shifted their gaze downward to cue the start of his prayer. He opened his mouth but nothing came out.
Seconds felt like minutes as he blinked away tears, took a deep breath and coaxed his voice to emerge.
“It’s easy for most of us to go about our day and do our job and put the pegs in the holes and not think, ‘How am I affecting the lives of the people around me,’” Sparks says. “When I’m staring at a flag-draped transfer case of someone who has given their life, it’s a good opportunity to think if we can do better.”
He’s repeated the routine too many times, though, and the memories run together in his mind. The shell-shocked spouse, the inconsolable parent, all those flag-draped crates. He no longer recalls the first time he stood before a soldier’s corpse much less the stories of each of their lives.
“The movements and the prayer can become routine. And when I discover that I don’t really like it,” he says.
At the start of the war, Sparks’ attention was almost exclusively on the mortuary staff. But a 2009 policy change offered troops’ next of kin the opportunity to travel to dignified transfers at government expense, bringing a surge of families to Dover and a second congregation to Sparks.
As a pastor, he was used to relationships with churchgoers that continued for years. Here, so many families come before him that he knows he can’t keep up contact forever. He centers himself before meeting them, listening to jazz and reminding himself he can only be with them for part of their journey.
“They may not remember my name, probably don’t,” he says, “but I know that I had an impact.”
Some families seem to sink into a catatonia that he knows means he should give them space. Others come clutching photos of the lost or otherwise tip Sparks off that his conversation might help.
“Tell me about your love story,” he’ll ask a spouse. “What did you call him?” he’ll ask a parent.
Sometimes, he’ll find a child hasn’t been told why they’re there. Others pose wrenching questions, like a boy who asked the minister who would play catch with him now that his father was gone.
“We don’t talk about closure anymore,” he says. “That’s always going to be with you.”
The work can bring some of the steeliest to crumble. He’s seen drivers who transported families of the dead bawling and embalmers who reached their breaking point and found a new profession. A handful of times over the years, a mortuary staffer has died by suicide or suffered through an attempt.
“You can’t focus on the horror,” he says. “You can’t focus on that all of the time and survive.”
Images of the most gruesome remains are still in his mind and dreams of dying soldiers have stirred him. He insists he’s not haunted by the visions and says his counselor tells him he’s healthily processing it.
Sparks never expected to be here this long. On 9/11, he thought he’d be deployed a month. Even once he resigned his church post, he wasn’t sure this is something he’d be doing for years.
Now, he’s long past the military’s mandatory retirement age. He submitted his papers and traded his battle fatigues for business casual years ago and was promptly hired back to the job as a civilian.
This year is his last. He hasn’t set a retirement date yet but thinks either the 20th anniversary of 9/11 or his 75th birthday, on Nov. 28, would make meaningful last days in a place that’s come to define him.
“It just feels like I’ve been here forever,” he says.
The frenzy of the war’s darkest days has now passed. The last of 2,312 U.S. military deaths may already have been recorded in the Afghan war. American bases in Afghanistan have emptied out. Troops are heading home.
Today, the transfer vans are idle in the loading dock; the gurneys are unused inside. On a file cabinet outside the autopsy room, a sign says “Make Good From the Bad,” and through the door, the 10 bays are empty. There are no families to host, no uniforms to prepare, no prayers to write.
Sparks doesn’t look back in sadness at his years here. As he walked with the grieving and stood with the dead, he found constant reminders of hope.
“It’s in those moments,” he says, “that the presence of God is most real to me.”