TWIN FALLS — There is a seldom-seen world between sacrifice and ceremony.
It is the world between the many ways we know soldiers die — from bullets to mortar shells and improvised explosive devices — and how they are respectfully buried and honored in white glove military rites this day, Memorial Day.
Rev. Lance Jennings has seen this other place where enlisted men and women are tasked each day with opening body bags straight from war to clean, dress and prepare this nation’s dead soldiers for burial.
To many it would be an unbearable experience.
But Jennings said he revered his experience. Had he not seen so much grief and death in his years before, he said he could not have handled his five-month tour in 2009 at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
It is a reminder of the real cost of war. A reminder that “Memorial Day is not National Barbecue Day,” said Jennings, 66, now the pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Jerome.
“I would hope so,” he said when asked if people would change their minds about war if they saw the things he did. “I was handling people younger than my own kids and filling in for some of the young people who couldn’t handle it.“
PREPARING THE FALLEN
Each day, a plane carrying soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan arrived at Dover Air Force Base. Jennings was one of several chaplains in the U.S. Air Force Mortuary Affairs Office tasked with comforting families, participating in the ceremony of receiving the dead, and aiding in the mortuary’s duties.
The planes would often land between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. carrying up to 18 “fallen heroes,” Jennings said. For each, the chaplain wrote a unique, personal prayer. He recited it as their containers were lifted from the plane and escorted into a white, unmarked van.
“Sometimes it just came, others not,” he said of writing these blessings.
Often, the families were too far away to hear these prayers. The grieving arrived without their support systems, hungry and tired, he said.
Nervous chatter on the bus ride to the base was replaced by a silent sorrow when the ominous plane beyond the fence came into view.
At the sight of the flag-covered metal box, some froze, clutching large portraits of their only son or only daughter. Others broke through the barricade and flung themselves onto the container, sobbing. In any case, chaplains were there to help, Jennings said.
Once the body was taken away, it went to be processed and autopsied. This lengthy procedure provides valuable information about how soldiers die in hopes of saving lives on the battlefield, Jennings said. The military often makes changes to medical equipment, tactical gear and vehicles based on what they observe.
The containers were opened and the bodies photographed in detail. A “hard enclosed” scanner would ensure the body did not have live ammunition or explosive devices remaining within.
The body was weighed and measured for a custom burial uniform. A mortician examined it to determine what cosmetics needed to be applied, “striving at his best to have the body viewed.“
The soldier’s effects were removed, documented and sent to a room to be claimed by the family. Each body was fingerprinted for identification — pilots were foot-printed, too — and dental records were checked.
After an X-ray and a CT scan, the body was wheeled to the mortuary where the soldier was stripped and washed for the medical examiner to determine his or her cause of death. All organs were removed and tissues sampled.
All soldiers, except those of Jewish and Muslim faith, were embalmed twice. After their organs were placed back into their cavities, the body was sewn shut with thread and sent to “dress and wrap.“
“They were dressed as if they were getting up in the morning, put on underwear, socks, slacks, military shoes, shirt and coat with all their awards and ribbons,” he said. “… We tied a lot of the ties because these young kids didn’t know how to tie them.“
The mortician applied final cosmetics and the body was lifted and placed into a casket. A final photograph was taken.
This process has been repeated 6,808 times for each soldier killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
PREPARED FOR DEATH
Jennings wanted to be a pastor since he was in 10th grade. He also wanted to serve his country — his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all “in the war.“
During Vietnam, his number was never called. Five days before he turned 40, he raised his hand for 20 years in the Alaska Air National Guard. He volunteered for missions all around the world.
In Germany, he was one of six chaplains at the Army hospital overseeing disabled and wounded soldiers.
Those who were expected to die were flown there and kept alive to have their religious ceremonies administered. Many times, Jennings read them their last rites.
Chaplains, standing second on the left, would also help offload the wounded from airplanes. He was there to reassure them they were about to get the “the best care anywhere.“
“You hear their machines gurgling,” he said. “Sometimes, they would reach out and grab my hand, something to anchor. Or they would look me in the eye, scared, disoriented. That searing-depth of eye contact was there.“
His first day at Dover, Jennings only did what his body would allow and mind would absorb. Most of his learning came on the job, he said.
Although the chaplains rotated duties, he focused on the mortuary.
He and colleagues had a very structured physical, emotional and spiritual program to decompress from their work. Each day, they prayed and exercised.
“We had to care for one another,” he said. “If we saw anyone isolating, not involving themselves, they weren’t scolded, but they were encouraged and supported.
“They had a big meditation room in there where you could hang a thing on the door and escape. It had flowing water, any kind of music and a big vibrating chair.“
FINDING LIFE AGAIN
After his service at Dover, Jennings was presented a “quilt of valor.“
But, he left with more.
“When I did the military checkup from my 22 years, I didn’t even put down PTSD,” he said. “But, a year and a half later … it grabbed me.“
The nightmares and sleepless nights came. His left hand began to shake. He saw “something different” in himself.
In his mind’s eye, he’d see the grotesque things he’d blocked out at Dover.
Since the, he’s had treatment through Veterans Affairs, seeing a psychologist, counselor and doctor. He fishes often.
“They gave me a giant jar of pills that said, ‘For Nightmares,’” he said, laughing. “I asked, ‘Is that so I have them?’“
Each Memorial Day, he thinks about all the living soldiers he met, his enlisted son Chad, and the fallen heroes he served. Jennings doesn’t regret his time at Dover. In fact, he misses the military family.
It was an honor, he said, to care respectfully for the nation’s dead warriors. Among the crosses, rosaries and other emblems on his wall hangs a picture of soldier’s flag-wrapped casket resting under a full moon.
“That’s been one of the most sacred places I have ever been,” he said. “I revered being there and that’s why I have the picture on the wall.
“It was profound.“