Exercise Folded Flag tests USAF mortuary affairs' capabilities

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- The Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, in conjunction with Team Dover active duty and Reserve units, and off-base Army, Marine and Navy units, conducted Folded Flag 2017, a mass fatality exercise, April 7 to 13, 2017, here.

AFMAO is the only Department of Defense mortuary in the continental U.S. Its unique and solemn mission is to fulfill the nation’s sacred commitment of ensuring dignity, honor and respect to the fallen and care, service and support to their families. The purpose of Folded Flag 2017 was to stress AFMAO’s capabilities by receiving a high number of remains over several days.

“We haven’t had a mass fatality dignified transfer, luckily, in a long time,” said Col. Dawn Lancaster, AFMAO commander. “Unfortunately in our business, a mass fatality incident isn’t an ‘if,’ but a ‘when. That’s just the reality for us in the military.”

On any given day, there could be an attack on a convoy in Afghanistan, a bombing at a U.S. military base overseas, or a plane crash anywhere around the world. These incidents can result with one or two dozen casualties.

“We have to be able to support that and prove that we can care and provide that dignity, honor and respect, just like we receive all the ones and twos all the time, for the 20, the 30, the 40, or the 50, at the same time.”

Not only is AFMAO responsible for providing dignity, honor and respect to the fallen, but also care, service and support to their families, many of whom travel to Dover AFB to attend their loved-one’s dignified transfer.

This exercise was to test AFMAO’s readiness for those high-numbered incidents.

Capt. Brian Scallion, AFMAO dignified transfer officer in charge, was in a group who planned and organized this year’s exercise.

“The main goal was to exercise receiving a large amount of remains and stressing port mortuary on receiving those remains and then having another incident in the middle of preparing those, with more inbounds,” said Scallion. “It’s to see where our breaking point is. We have to determine at which point we need to reach outside AFMAO for assistance, whether it’s our Naval morticians, who are nearby, or working some other avenues to get support to help prepare all the remains to go back to their final destination.”

Folded Flag 2017 was truly a team effort. It featured support from Dover AFB’s host unit, the 436th Airlift Wing, and Team Dover’s other mission partners, the 512th Airlift Wing, the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System and the Joint Personal Effects Depot. The 436th AW provided more than 60 civilian and military volunteers to play the role of family members, helping make the exercise more realistic for the chaplain team. It also featured support from off-base units. 

The exercise climaxed with two simulated mass fatality dignified transfers. Scallion elaborated by saying that there are a lot of  'what ifs' when it comes to dignified transfers. 

“We had a lot of discussions on unique situations that might happen and how we would work through them,” Scallion said. “In our world, there is always a ‘what if.’ Whatever crazy topic you can come up with, it might happen.”

Every dignified transfer is a Team Dover dignified transfer, said Lancaster. 

“We had folks from the Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Division, out of Fort Knox," said Lancaster. "We additionally had the Marine Casualty Mortuary team to provide an inspection for them and assistants for the number of casualties that we had. We also had folks from [Secretary of the Air Force for Public Affairs] come in, folks from our Air Force A1 Staff, who we fall under, come. Additionally, we had Marine and Army honor guard teams from the D.C. area come down because it’s a great training opportunity.”

Overall, both Lancaster and Scallion believed the exercise to be an accomplishment with lessons learned. 

Lancaster said she was very pleased with her team, especially when there was a real-world dignified transfer that took place during the exercise.

“A lot of work went into prepping for this and it’s been a very busy week," she said. "I’m proud of Team Dover as a whole. Nobody played as though it was just an exercise, they treated every transfer case as if it was real world.”