David Sparks, Air Force Chaplain, Offers Comfort To Families Of The Fallen
Mention the United Service Organizations -- almost universally known as the USO -- to most Americans, and the first thing you'll likely hear is "Bob Hope." The USO is eager to alter that image. Not that organizing performances for the troops isn't an integral part of their mission, but the expansive programs and services they provide does so much more than entertain.
Through Independence Day, HuffPost Impact is running a series of stories called "Breaking the Roles," highlighting the servicemen and women of our armed forces who don't typically see the media spotlight, and the remarkable work of the USO, who are tireless in their efforts to support all who defend our country.
Dover Air Force base has been operational since December 20, 1941, a short 13 days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Though construction on the base began in March of that year, the timing of its opening indicates a prescience of the changing strategy of war. Dover began as a training ground for air units, but has evolved to become a final destination for the bodies of fallen soldiers.
This is the place where families arrive to greet the American flag-shrouded coffins that bring back loved ones, often only 24 hours after receiving the news.
Lt. Col. and chaplain David Sparks knows this process well. He's been a reserve chaplain for 27 years and was called in for active duty after 9/11. Even after retiring in 2007, he chose to stay at Dover as a civilian chaplain. His position, as he told me over the phone last week, serves two primary purposes.
One: Counseling young people who come to work in the mortuary.
"As you can well imagine this is a stressful job," he said, "exposed to sights and smells and to the trauma of war in a way that certainly they had never had before."
He reminded me that many of the young men are no older than 19, some who've never been to a funeral before, let alone one for a young man around their age whose life ended at the unpredictable burst of an IED. Sparks explained how his role is indelibly tied to these experiences: "The need for psychological, social and spiritual support through those circumstances and the aftermath of that and our hearts and minds is our number one job as chaplains."
They are certainly kept busy. Dover AFB is home to just under 3,500 people. Though his title does connote a high level of religious involvement, his counsel is by no means relegated only to the spiritual. Though his own experiences may lean toward the God-inspired, he is adamant about providing service members with any level of needed counseling.
"They've left families behind, they've left kids, and those things are on their minds," he said. "Our chaplains don't wait for someone to come. We are embedded in the program of the mortuary."
Sloan Gibson, CEO of the USO, sees the work of the chaplains as instrumental to the emotional health of their work force.
"[Clergymen] are there first and foremost to care for the fallen," he said. "or for people who have a particular need. They're going to seize that opportunity. We give away tens of thousands of phone cards every year and when they give one out, they say, 'This is from the USO.'"
Dover AFB houses five chaplains and two mental health workers.
Two: Being there for families who've lost loved ones.
"I meet virtually all of the families," he said. "So they are still in shock when they arrive at Dover and by the time they get to us there sometimes is a wait of 45 minutes to an hour before they can get out to the flight line for the ceremony. We spend time providing as much support as we can and as they need."
It was only just recently, in 2009, that the press and families were invited to Dover for the return of fallen servicemembers, a process called "dignified transfer." To provide as much comfort as possible to these families, the USO and the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations (AFMAO) created the Families of the Fallen center, a donor-funded place for bereaved families to stay, reflect or rest.
Despite his personal sacrifices, Sparks emphasized the pride he feels to be around those he works with at the mortuary.
"What an honor to work with these folks who are doing a duty that really can't be described or imagined," he said. "To keep them as healthy as possible as they do their work -- it's a huge privilege, it's what called me to the ministry 30 years ago. Every day I walk away feeling fulfilled. Exhausted, but fulfilled."
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