Families of the fallen find respite at Dover AFB Fisher House
Air Force Master Sgt. Stasia T. Smith knew the broad outlines of the job she was applying for, but she didn’t fully grasp the emotional nature of her work and its importance to families until the first time she met and served a family that had recently lost a loved military service member.
“I came to Dover and honestly I knew the job description was, which was taking care of families of the fallen,” she said, “but I had no idea of what that really entailed, if that makes any sense.”
“The first family that we were able to take care of and to help was a very emotional situation for, not just myself, but for the airmen that help us take care of them,” she said. “And so you're not only shouldering and helping out a family who's just lost their, their loved one, but you're also looking out for your fellow airmen to make sure that they're okay to be able to do the mission.”
Smith and the airmen she works with were assigned to the Dover Air Force Base Fisher House for the Families of the Fallen. Most Fisher Houses serve the families of service members and veterans when a patient is undergoing care at a Department of Defense or VA medical facility. But the Dover House is different.
“Our mission here and at [Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations] is to honor and respect the fallen and to provide care, service, and support to the loved ones who come to witness them coming home to American soil,” she said.
The Dover Fisher House is a big part of that mission. And the airmen who serve there take pains to ensure that every family who arrives feels like the house exists just for them to heal within.
“From the meals that we cook to the beds that family members sleep in, we train our airmen to meticulously do certain things so that each family, they don’t realize that other families have come there,” Smith said. “It’s their home as they walk through the threshold of the door.”
The entire experience is catered to the family that is staying there. The house staff and other members of the AFMAO team learn about the family and make decisions about security, whether to put out toys, and even a grocery list that is specific to the family. They can even get medicines in case the family needs it during their visit.
“We've got to roll out the red carpet when a family walks through the doors. I want them to feel at home. I want them to know that the people that are there are taking care of them, they mean it, and that their deceased member, their loved one, did not pass away in vain.”
To protect families and staff from the spread of coronavirus, leadership has had to alter processes at the Dover Fisher House but tried to do so while minimizing the impact on families.
“We, in conjunction with our sister services, have implemented a screening process for families prior to their departure from their homes and upon arrival at Dover,” said Col. Brian Eddy, Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations commander. “Additionally, we screen all those involved in the dignified transfer to ensure everyone is healthy ... ensuring the safety of everyone. The level of care has not and will not change. Our mission to provide dignity, honor and respect to our fallen is constant, and we are all committed to ensuring we continue to meet our sacred charge and the standard set before this national emergency.”
“It can sometimes be difficult to avoid the typical ways you may show support to a grieving family member,” said Tech. Sgt. Michelle Johnson, Fisher House for Families of the Fallen NCO in charge. “Some families need that physical interaction or display of affection in order to feel comfort. Our mission will never change and we are committed to providing our families a warm ‘home away from home’ atmosphere where they can focus on coping with the loss of their loved one. Continuing to provide the care, service and support for the families of our nation’s fallen is paramount. We will do this with the precautions set in place and continue to keep our Airmen as healthy as possible.”
The Dover Fisher House was the 50th house and was turned over to the Air Force by the Fisher House Foundation on Nov. 10, 2010. It will mark its 10th anniversary later this year.