No memorable scenes at Dover U.S. gulf casualties arrive at air base with little fanfare. PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN


DOVER, Del. -- As morning broke -- brisk, violet and bright -- Albert G. Haddad Sr., retired military man, arrived at Dover Air Force Base to collect the body of his only son.

Haddad wore a borrowed Air Force uniform. He had shaved his beard. Both steps were taken so that he could serve as military escort and accompany his son's casket to Lewisville, Texas, for burial this week.

"We traveled together for years," Haddad, of Menlo Park, Calif., said Monday of Al Jr., who was born at Dover's base hospital. "I wanted to make this trip with him, too." Al Jr., 23, was killed in a helicopter crash last week in Saudi Arabia, among the first Americans to die in the gulf area since the war began.

Bodies of U.S. war casualties are beginning to arrive at the Dover base, a 3,700-acre, wind-swept tract on the outskirts of Delaware's historic state capital.

So frequently have the nation's dead returned to Dover that the town is as synonymous with collective mourning and remembrance as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Capt. Chris Geisel, the base spokesman, discovered as much last summer when he told friends he had been assigned to Dover. "They said, 'Oh, that's where all the bodies come back,' " said Geisel.

The base is primarily a cargo port. The mortuary was built in 1968. Since then, it has processed 50,000 to 60,000 bodies of soldiers and civilians, during both peace and war:

* From Vietnam, 1966-73, 21,693 dead.

* From Jonestown, Guyana, 1978, 913 dead following the mass murder-suicide.

* From Beirut, Lebanon, 1983, 237 dead, killed in a terrorist bombing of Marine headquarters.

From Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada to Operation Just Cause in Panama. From Lockerbie, Scotland, to the USS Stark. Remains of the seven Challenger astronauts lay here, too.

Ceremonies for the dead have etched an image into the public consciousness. The name "Dover" elicits images of caskets, neatly lined up, draped by American flags, shadowed by ramrod-straight honor guards.

But the public won't see that this time around. On Jan. 18, two days after the war began, the Pentagon announced that no arrival ceremonies would be held at Dover and no media coverage of arriving bodies would be allowed.

At first, Geisel wasn't given a reason for the change. Now, he has a Pentagon statement that says ceremonies "may create hardship for family members and friends who may feel obligated to travel great distances to come to Dover." Instead, the Pentagon suggests that ceremonies be held in hometowns. A military escort from Dover will accompany each set of remains, Geisel said.

A desire to censor bad news was not the reason for the change, a Pentagon spokesman said.

But some families of soldiers in the gulf disagree.

"It's a disgrace," said a spokesman for the Military Families Support Network, who has a son in the Army and did not want to be identified. "They don't want us to see the cost of war."

Debate over the expected planeloads of remains has filtered into Dover, which was founded more than 300 years ago by William Penn.

At the base, they are prepared for those deaths: Bodies that return to Dover will arrive in black bags placed inside reusable metal "transfer cases." As each is removed from a transport plane, an honor guard will stand by.

At the base mortuary, a staff of 30 -- tripled in preparation for gulf casualties -- identify, embalm, restore and dress the remains in the appropriate uniforms, complete with ribbons and medals, according to Charles Carson, Dover's chief mortician. Makeup is applied.

The restored bodies are then placed in metal caskets for the final trip home.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad