When the tragic events of September 11 unfolded, I knew that I would be called to active duty. I am an Air Force Reserve chaplain assigned to Dover AFB, Del., the site of the only military port mortuary in the nation. All victims of the Pentagon crash were brought here for identification purposes.
In all my years of training nothing had prepared me for what I experienced first hand during this mass casualty. In many ways it didn't seem real, but sights and smells told me otherwise.
No one who participates in such an event walks away unchanged. I am not the same person I was before September 11. I will not put a value on this change. It just is. Shattered lives and charred remains have a way of doing this to you.
While at Dover, I worked with three separate teams designed to provide services to persons immediately handling the remains. At times I met the delivery flights coming into the base. Each reception of remains was given the utmost respect and dignity. This is important to remember, because the remains of innocent victims and terrorists were indistinguishable.
While on the flight line, I prayed over the remains and counseled other team members. I also served on the critical incident stress management and mortuary teams.
My responsibilities included providing pastoral support and counsel to the 250 men and women working at the mortuary. These people included military members, National Safety Transportation Board representatives, and FBI agents. Some had never performed this duty before. I hold a deeper appreciation for not only all these people, but for the many emergency workers who face problems great and small on a daily basis.
While the work went smoothly, it was not without incident. Overall, though, there was a resiliency in the American spirit to see this tragic moment through. It was a time for all of us to remember the fragility of life, to touch base with our own faith, and to step boldly into an uncertain new life.
I was fortunate to work with a dedicated and supportive leadership. Twenty-seven chaplain assistants and chaplains quickly melded into a team. This despite the fact that we came from bases around the United States and that one chaplain had lost at least 27 members of his congregation in the World Trade Center crashes. The support we gave to others was the same support we gave to one another out of our various traditions.
On a more personal note, I have faced M60 automatics and undergone body and vehicle checks before, but having an USAF airman point an M60 at me on U.S. soil was disconcerting.
Furthermore, I needed to navigate around entrance barriers to get where I needed to go. Parking areas on the base were restricted and removed from immediate buildings that were blacked out and locked. Signs everywhere were covered. I had to show identification before being permitted into any building.
It is only by the grace of God that we move and have our being. It is with hope that we step boldly in the future. A new spiritual awakening, sense of being and purpose, and dedication to principles of freedom and life has emerged from the carnage. Out of the shadow of death there is a new morn.
The United States is at war now and I am on call for additional duty, if needed. It is a just war; let there be a just peace.
The Rev. Mark J. Stewart is a Chaplain, Major, in the USAF Reserves.