Amidst Immense Loss, Gold Star Spouses Can Lean on USO Delaware

By Danielle DeSimone

Movement defines military life: service members and their families moving from one duty station to the next; troops leaving for deployment; military spouses moving away from their personal and professional communities; military children transferring from school to school every three years; transitioning from the military to civilian world at the end of one’s service.

However, there is one final and solemn step in the military journey that some families must face – the dignified transfer of their fallen service member back home. The loss of a loved one and the process of a dignified transfer can be an incredibly emotional and difficult process for military families.

During these most challenging moments, the USO is committed to being by the side of Gold Star Families at every step of this difficult transition as they mourn the loss of their loved one.

The Challenges of Attending Dignified Transfers

For Families of the Fallen, also called Gold Star Families, the process of a dignified transfer doesn’t begin on the tarmac of Dover Air Force Base in Delaware – it starts the moment they are notified of the passing of their loved one. After receiving this news, they are then informed of the process of bringing their loved one home via a dignified transfer and must make the decision of whether or not to travel to Dover Air Force Base to be present for the dignified transfer.

Depending on the circumstances, this notification can sometimes be short notice, giving some families and spouses only 24 hours to prepare to travel across the country – or the world – to be there for their service member’s arrival. The travel process itself can be difficult, with the added stress of rearranging personal schedules and making connecting flights in time, all while grieving the unexpected loss of their service member.

Amidst the shock and grief of having lost a loved one, the journey to Dover can be an overwhelming one for Gold Star Spouses and military family members. That is why, although they are escorted by a military casualty officer during their travels to Dover, grieving military families can also lean on USO Delaware and its vast network of support, which has been assisting Gold Star Spouses and Families for the past 30 years.

Supporting Gold Star Spouses and Families as They Travel to and From Dover

As soon as a dignified transfer is set into motion, a military liaison contacts USO Delaware, informing the team of the Family of the Fallen’s travel plans to Dover. USO Delaware then contacts any USO airport centers that are in the family’s flight plan, alerting them of the family’s arrival and creating a network of USO support for the family along their journey.

Photo credit DVIDS/Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations

A U.S. Air Force carry team transfers the remains of Staff Sgt. Austin Bieren, of Umatilla, Ore., on April 1, 2017, at Dover Air Force Base, Del.

From the minute the Gold Star Family arrives at their first airport, USO centers across the country are ready and waiting. Typically, USO teams of both staff and volunteers at each of these locations set aside a designated quiet space for these Gold Star Spouses and other family members to rest in private at the center. They also make sure the family’s needs are met, whether that’s a hot meal, a book or movie to entertain children or even a spot to take a brief nap.

Additionally, the USO teams across this network contact the airports themselves, notifying them of the family’s arrival to ensure easy travels. Airport and USO staff will often quickly guide these family members through TSA security checks to avoid lengthy lines and potential delays, making the trip from one airport to the next seamless. If there is no USO center at the particular airport the family is traveling through, USO Delaware contacts the airports so they know to assist the family and provide support along the way.

On some occasions, the USO is even able to help a Gold Star Spouse or Gold Star Family make their flight on time. If there is a flight delay due to weather or other unforeseen circumstances, the USO is sometimes able to step in and arrange for the family to get on another flight at the last minute, or will even work with the airport and air traffic control to hold the plane as the family rushes through the airport to make it in time. This is crucial, as dignified transfers are rarely – if ever – delayed or rescheduled. If a Gold Star Family misses their flight, they could very likely miss their service member’s dignified transfer.

USO Delaware’s network of support extends to Gold Star Families during their return trip home, too. This support fosters a sense of trust between the grieving family and the USO.

“If they’re traveling to memorial services or funerals and that kind of thing [later on], they build a connection with us and they will typically reach out to us and also ask for assistance during their travel during those moments,” said USO Delaware Senior Center Operations and Program Manager Yolanda Bottorf.

Once at Dover, Gold Star Spouses, Families and Service Members Can Still Lean on the USO

In addition to ensuring that Gold Star Families’ travels to and from Dover, Delaware, are as painless as possible, the USO Delaware team supports families during their stay in Dover, as well as service members involved with the dignified transfer.

USO Delaware works in close collaboration with the Fisher House, a nonprofit that provides comfort homes for military families to stay in when a loved one is receiving medical treatment, or in this case, is arriving for a dignified transfer. While many Fisher House buildings welcome eligible veterans, service members and their families, the location near Dover is specifically designated only to support Families of the Fallen. Here, USO Delaware provides a majority of the food for Gold Star Spouses and Families so that they do not have to worry about going out for groceries or takeout.

USO Delaware also provides these families with “comfort items,” which can include anything from a book to help a child deal with the loss of a parent, to a jacket for those who forgot one while packing in a hurry and were not prepared for chilly weather upon arrival.

Photo credit U.S. Air Force/Mauricio Campino

Josie Donithan, USO Delaware volunteer, serves food to Honor Guard team members and mortuary staff prior to a dignified transfer on Jan. 24, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base, Del.

During the dignified transfer, the USO is also there, providing hot meals and support to the service members in attendance. As part of the process, an Honor Guard of the fallen service member’s branch is always in attendance, as well as senior ranking military officials, military mortuary staff and others. Undertaking such a solemn mission can obviously take its toll on service members as well, many of whom have also traveled to Dover. The USO offers support to them too, providing them with a quiet place to relax, meals or even a hot cup of coffee on a cold night – as dignified transfers can happen at any time of day, in any weather.

As the flag-draped metal case is transferred from the plane, across the tarmac and onto a transportation vehicle to be prepared for burial, the family members in attendance are still never alone, with USO staff and volunteers always present.

“We try to stay in the background [and] support where we can, but also when the need arises … we can step in and help in that way to bring some comfort to families,” Bottorf said.

By taking away the logistical stressors of making a flight in time, finding a place to eat, forgetting to pack a coat or not having a safe place to simply close their eyes after many restless nights, the USO ensures that these military families have one less thing to worry about – during a time when they are worrying about so much.

“Initially when they come here, it’s so quick, they’re not really thinking about [what we’re doing for them],” Bottorf said. “But I had different instances where families have said, ‘It’s been such a blur, just traveling in a moment like that, but we always remember that USO name.’ They might not remember the face or the person, but they remember the USO and that’s what’s important.”

Photo credit DVIDS/Pfc. Lane Hiser

Soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment conduct a Dignified Transfer for Army Sgt. 1st Class Stephen B. Cribben at Dover Air Force Base, Del., on Nov. 8, 2017.

The USO Delaware team ensures these families know that they are cared for and can always turn to the USO if they are in need of support.

One time, a family’s trip to Dover happened to coincide with Halloween. To make sure the children in the family had a little moment of normalcy and fun, USO staff went out, purchased the children Halloween costumes and then took them trick-or-treating around Dover Air Force Base. Another time, a dignified transfer coincided with Thanksgiving, and the USO team ensured the family had a special meal with specific dishes that they felt connected them to their loved one who had passed away.

Since 1991, USO Delaware has been present at every single dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base. No matter the time of day or year, the USO is ready to support Gold Star Spouses and Families of the Fallen through this incredibly difficult process, and continue in our promise to be by the side of our military community throughout every step of the military journey.

-This story originally appeared on USO.org in April 2021. It has been updated in September 2021.

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