Mortuary affairs supplies 'pillar of confidence ' to next of kin

  • Published
  • By Tyler Hemstreet
  • Staff writer
During a time when grief can take over the situation, it is a shoulder to lean on; when feelings of anxiety start to creep in, it is a calming voice; and when important decisions need to be made, it is the first to be contacted. 

When an active duty Airman with family in the area is killed or seriously injured, 62nd Service Squadron Mortuary Affairs is where the family turns in order to help them deal with what to do next, said Tech. Sgt. Melinda Oden, 62nd SVS. 

"We're just there to try and make their wishes a reality in a bad situation," she said.
That can mean giving the family its burial options, making arrangements for honors or helping put them in touch with other agencies that can assist them, Sergeant Oden said.
In each case, mortuary affairs assigns a family liaison officer from the injured or deceased Airman's squadron to help the family through the situation. 

"The FLO's main focus is giving [the family] timely service and making sure they get accurate information," she said. "They are facilitators -- kind of a go-between with a heart." 

Each situation can be different based on the situation the FLOs enter into -- each family can deal with its grief in different ways. Each FLO must be sensitive to the situation. 

"We don't know what stage [of grief] we're going to catch them at," Sergeant Oden said. "You never really know what you're going to encounter with the next of kin. We only have one chance to get our interaction with them right." 

That's why each case must be handled with care. Some families decide to handle the funeral on their own. In cases where Airmen are seriously injured, Sergeant Oden said the FLO helps loved ones get financial support for travel expenses while they comfort the injured Airman. 

"It's up to the family to decide how much interaction they have with us," she said. "We just want to make sure they are taken care of." 

After a motorcycle accident overseas left one Airman paralyzed from the waist down, Staff Sgt. Daniel McLean, 62nd Maintenance Squadron, got the call to be an FLO to the Airman's family after the Airman was flown to a veterans affairs hospital in Seattle. 

Sergeant McLean said he was apprehensive about the assignment at first. 

"I was petrified," he admits. "I had so many questions." 

But after being told the story and advised on the situation, he said he knew he could do it.
One of the challenges for all FLOs is finding the right balance, he said. 

"You have to have some empathy and the ability to make that contact," he said. "You're there to help them, so naturally you're going to feel what they feel. But you need to control it -- you have to be a pillar of confidence and provide energy that they might not have at the time." 

Despite the fact Sergeant McLean was assigned to the case in December 2005, he said he has stayed in touch with the Airman and his family to this day, even bringing him a small gift on his birthday. 

"They are family and always will be," he said.