Finding Kindness in the Darkest Hour
The USO’s Support for Families of the Fallen Leaves a Lasting Impression
By Derek Turner
The big plane’s engines rumbled high above the Atlantic Ocean. Captain Dana Lyon sat still and quiet, her expression blank, her mind racing in endless circles, always returning to the same thought.
“There’s no way this is real. There is no way this is what I’m doing right now.”
A few days earlier, she’d celebrated Christmas with her husband. People buzzed all around, but that day, for that brief time, they were the only two that mattered. It had been one of the happiest, strangest days of her life. Christmas in Afghanistan.
Captain David Lyon, Dana’s husband, volunteered for a one-year deployment. He left for Afghanistan in February 2013. A month later, Captain Dana Lyon got her assignment to deploy in August. For four months, the two officers who fell in love as track and field stars at the Air Force Academy were mere miles apart in Kabul, with her based at Camp Phoenix and him at Camp Morehead.
Dana Lyon’s deployment mostly consisted of “FOB hopping,” traveling from post to post, overseeing flight support contracts and providing quality control. David Lyon trained Afghan special forces in logistics.
On Christmas Eve, David traveled to Camp Phoenix to pick up supplies for his unit. Once each had finished their duties, David and Dana, both devout Christians, spent Christmas together.
Morning arrived on December 26 and sent them back to reality. They said goodbye. Dana flew to Bagram for a job there. David lingered in Dana’s quarters. He wasn’t to fly out until the following day. The two spoke on the phone around 10:45 the morning of December 27, and David said that he would fly back to Camp Morehead shortly. He told her he loved her and promised to call when he landed.
Dana waited for his call. Hours passed. It never came.
Air quality was poor and visibility was limited, so David’s flight was canceled. Eventually, he got clearance to join a group driving back to Camp Morehead. Their Mitsubishi Montero Sport had barely left the gate at Camp Phoenix when a vehicle sped from an alleyway and collided with the Americans, detonating 500 pounds of explosives in the process. In the back right seat of the SUV, David died instantly.
And so on December 31, 2013, Dana rode in silence as the big plane flew high above the Atlantic Ocean, now approaching Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. A steel transfer case carried the remains of David Lyon, her husband of four wonderful years. She thought about all that had happened in the last few days. She thought about their families waiting below, and she wanted nothing more than to stay on that plane forever and not face the cruel reality on the ground.
Again and again, she thought, “There’s no way this is real. There’s no way this is what I’m doing right now.”
Joan Cote was the force of nature behind the founding of USO Delaware in 1991, bringing it under the USO umbrella from its origins as an unaffiliated, grass-roots charity organization. Under Cote’s guidance, USO Delaware steadily grew and evolved and is now at the epicenter of one of the military’s most sacred missions.
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken the lives of nearly 7,000 American service members. The remains of each one of them have first returned to American soil at Dover Air Force Base.
Upon arrival on the flight line, a solemn dignified transfer is carried out in which an honor guard group—known as a carry team—removes the remains from the plane and loads them onto a vehicle bound for the mortuary, where they are prepared to be moved again to the service member’s final resting place.
Behind the scenes, the USO is there for every dignified transfer. USO staff and volunteers host the carry teams at a lounge area in the terminal, loaded with food and refreshments, or at the nearby USO center with every comfort they could ask for.
They also ensure that families and friends are well taken care of. Overnight accommodations are available near the terminal at the 8,000-square-foot Fisher House with nine guest suites, a kitchen, a laundry room and all the comforts of a full-service inn.
Just across the parking lot is the Center for the Families of the Fallen. The spacious facility features a fully stocked cafe, a lounge with televisions and video gaming systems, a children’s activity area with games, toys and a chalkboard wall and private spaces where family members can be alone with their sadness.
The USO also coordinates the travel plans of family members going to and from Dover. It’s no easy task, considering families come from all over the country on a moment’s notice.
It’s a scenario that Joan Cote could not have imagined during her early years with the USO in Dover. Not when she regularly encountered carry teams waiting uncomfortably for long hours in the passenger terminal. Or when loved ones were left to make their own travel arrangements, flying into Philadelphia or Baltimore, likely renting a car and then navigating the back roads that wind through Delaware chicken country, only to be met in a parking lot outside the base’s north gate, bused to the flight line for the dignified transfer and immediately bused back to their cars.
The progress didn’t happen all at once. Cote’s transformation began by requesting access to a wing commander’s conference room, where they could host families awaiting a dignified transfer. She took the time to find out what the families needed, what comforts the USO might provide. Often it was extra clothes or warm coats when a family from Southern California flew in hastily, unprepared for the chill of a Delaware winter. Or it was prepaid calling cards or a simple cup of coffee.
By 2009, the USO regularly hosted families in the chapel annex. It wasn’t bad, but it meant they were essentially kicking out whoever was using the facility at the time—a wedding rehearsal, a Boy Scout meeting, a first communion class.
In June of that year, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz visited Dover to attend the dignified transfer of a fallen airman. In a quiet moment, they thanked Joan for the USO’s efforts and inquired about her situation.
“Joan, what do you need?” Schwartz asked.
“I need a place to do this where we don’t have to keep moving around,” she said. “We never know where to tell the families to go, and we’re also disrupting the lives of the people on Dover Air Force Base.”
Things happened quickly after that.
An Army and Air Force Exchange Service facility across from the terminal was about to be gutted and repurposed as temporary office space. Plans were promptly revised, and renovations moved at lightning speed. A contract was awarded in September, construction began in November and six weeks later, Schwartz dedicated the Center for the Families of the Fallen.
By November 2010, the Fisher House opened next door, and since then the USO has worked closely with the Friends of the Fallen, a private nonprofit organization, and the Fisher House Foundation to support families at these new facilities.
When the big plane landed, Dana Lyon became a member of a small club. Only two people, she said, maybe three, have accompanied their fallen spouse home from war.
“It was an honor,” she said, “but it was miserable.”
David’s family was waiting when the plane touched down. Dana’s, too. Her brother, Eric Pounds, is an Air Force major and pilot. He knew the lay of the land at Dover because not only had he been stationed there for nearly five years, he’d also flown fallen troops home from Iraq. He’d always understood the magnitude of those missions, but it did not prepare him for the moment when Dana returned.
“Just to see her face, it’s kind of imprinted in my mind,” he said. “My sister has always been a strong woman. To see the grief on her face was almost unbearable.”
Their father, he said, repeatedly lamented that there was nothing he could do to make his daughter’s pain stop.
The USO knows that it, too, cannot make such pain go away. What the USO can do is provide every comfort possible in times of grieving.
Before the flight landed, the USO prepared the rooms at the Fisher House. The kitchens there and at the Center for the Families of the Fallen were filled with food and drinks. The USO gave the families gift cards for local restaurants and because Dana was traveling light—nothing to wear beyond the uniform on her back—the USO took her family to Target to get her extra clothes.
“It was amazing,” Dana said. “My parents and Dave’s family, they didn’t have to think about all the details. What you’re trying to do is deal with the grief of it all. And then all of those details are taken care of so my family could be present for me.”
Before and after the dignified transfer, Dana joined family and friends at the Center for the Families of the Fallen. She was struck by the turnout. Beyond their immediate families, close friends, colleagues and dignitaries poured in from around the country to pay their respects. Several drove over from the Washington, D.C., area. Someone drove from South Carolina. Another traveled from Alabama.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James arrived from the Pentagon. It was the first dignified transfer she attended as secretary. Dana was honored by her presence and humbled by her humanity.
“She sat down right next to me and looked me in the eye and cried with me,” Dana remembered. “She was very, very sincere about her purpose there.”
In all, Dana estimates 40 or 50 people gathered in the Center for the Families of the Fallen. She took the time to greet them all, knowing that David was special to all of them.
Eventually, the crowd thinned out and Dana retreated to the Fisher House with the immediate families and a couple close friends. The refrigerator was full, she remembers, but she only wanted coffee. Cup after cup of coffee.
Dana stayed at the Fisher House only one night. When she woke the next morning, they headed north toward the airport in Philadelphia, bound for Colorado Springs and a funeral.
“Unfortunately, the USO has done it enough that they know what needs to be done and how to prepare for it,” she said. “We didn’t want for anything.”
Being part of the team at USO Delaware means that most of your life is spent working or being prepared to work at a moment’s notice. Though the pace of dignified transfers has mercifully slowed in the past year, the phone could ring at any time, setting in motion a hurried series of events to prepare the facilities and coordinate the travel and accommodations for the carry teams and families.
When Cote accepted a new position in 2015 as director of National Guard support with USO Delaware, she left behind a well-trained, well-coordinated team that understands the importance of this critical mission.
Bruce Kmiec took over as center director at Dover, and his full-time staff leads a group of roughly 250 USO volunteers, including seven entrusted with supporting dignified transfers.
“It’s just a blessing having this team,” Kmiec said. “We’re solid. That’s the only word I have for it. We’re solid.”
Your donations help the USO support families of the fallen when they need us most.
Dignified transfers happen with little notice. They might just as easily happen at 2 a.m. as at 2 p.m. They go on regardless of blinding snow or sweltering heat. Only when lightning gets too close is there ever a delay.
And always the USO is there, taking care of the families and service members who conduct the transfers. That the families have arrived on schedule is a testament to the coordination of the USO team. When the USO receives word of a death overseas, USO Delaware staff begin arranging travel plans for friends and family members coming to Dover.
Working through liaisons in the mortuary and the individual services, they schedule flights and alert the families of the fallen teams at any airport that the loved ones will be traveling through. At each stop, the families are escorted, ensuring the smoothest possible experience and the space necessary to face their grief.
The facilities at Dover are quickly prepared. The Fisher House is stocked. The lounge area for the military teams is organized. Often, they see the same carry teams again and again. They get to know them and their preferences. One group likes pizza. Another prefers sandwiches from Subway. It’s the little things. And they are never overlooked.
The morning after she arrived back on American soil with her husband’s remains, Dana Lyon faced a brutal day spent in transit, crossing the country with a long layover in Houston.
At the airport in Philadelphia, a USO volunteer met their car at the curb and helped members of the group check their bags. Dana and her best friend joined David’s parents on one flight. Dana’s parents were flying on another airline so they could make a brief stop at their home in Kentucky before flying to Colorado Springs for the funeral. The USO made sure the group was reunited in the USO center after helping them through security. They were invited into a private area and served breakfast while they waited for takeoff.
“The USO really protected me and shielded me and took care of all the little details that a normal traveler would have to take care of,” she said. “It was that constant protection and coverage, which was huge for me. Dave was this big guy, 6’4”, 240, and from the moment I fell in love with him and knew that he was the one, I always felt this shield of protection. He’s protecting my heart, he’s protecting me.”
At the airport in Houston, a USO volunteer named Bob Wilson requested to escort the family during their layover. Retired after a career spent in business, Wilson has spent six years working with the USO but only once before that day had he escorted grieving family members in transit.
He greeted Dana’s group as they came off the plane and walked them back to the USO center, where they could have a bit of privacy while they awaited the final leg of their journey. Wilson doesn’t remember saying much to Dana, only that he was he was sorry for her loss but grateful for David’s service and for her own.
“He was just so sweet and sincere,” Dana said. “He wasn’t invasive. You could tell that he was just honored to be able to provide that presence. He made sure that we got lunch and then got us on the next plane to get us to Colorado.”
A few weeks after the funeral, Dana was flying from Colorado Springs to visit her parents in Kentucky and once again she had a layover in Houston. While waiting for her next flight, she headed for the USO center and spotted Wilson’s familiar face.
“He looked up and he knew exactly who I was and I knew who he was,” she said. “He embraced me and it was the same deal, just took me in and protected me and sat with me until it was time to walk me to my plane again.”
Before they parted, Dana presented Wilson with a set of memorial dog tags that were made for David’s funeral. “Honoring Our Heroes,” they said, and listed his name, rank and the date he was killed.
Wilson promised her that he’d take them home and put them in an appropriate place. Every day since, they’ve hung from the corner of a bookshelf in Wilson’s home office. And every day he looks at them and he thinks of David’s service and his sacrifice. He thinks of Dana and her loss. And he hopes she’s finding peace.
Faced with rebuilding her life without David, Dana started by reimagining her career path. The Air Force gave her broad latitude, and Dana chose to return to the Air Force Academy. Back to the place where she has a history of overcoming adversity and finding happiness.
Dana came to the academy to prepare to serve her country, but also to play basketball.
“Basketball was my life, growing up in Kentucky,” she said. “I didn’t know I was 5-foot-2 until I got to the academy.”
But she quit the team after clashing with the coach as a freshman. Ever competitive, she wound up on the track and field team. Amazing things started happening. She had never thrown the javelin before college, but she became a two-time NCAA champion. She nearly made the U.S. Olympic team, falling inches short of qualifying.
And she met David Lyon. David was a star athlete in his own right, a team captain whose name is etched in the Air Force Academy’s record books.
So the academy holds a special place in Dana’s heart, and today she serves as a strength and conditioning coach in the athletic department. She takes pride in working with cadets. She treasures the chance to share her story of perseverance, both in athletics and in the harsh realities of life in service of our country.
“Even at my worst, I know that I can teach and coach,” she said. “I can’t help but think that I’m making a difference.”
Dana still has plenty of moments when none of it seems real, but if nothing else, she can teach those cadets something about strength. About the strength earned in the weight room or on the practice fields. About the strength that comes from the love of someone special or from the kindness of strangers in your darkest hour.
—Derek Turner is a Maryland-based freelance writer and a former senior editor of On Patrol. This story appears in the Spring 2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.
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