Baby, It’s Good to Be Home
In late November 2004, First Lieutenant Rodney Copes and his wife, Cynthia, discovered they were expecting their long-awaited first child. A few weeks later, Copes learned he would be deployed to Iraq. The six-month assignment turned into an 11-month tour. Copes missed the birth of his daughter and most of her first six months.
“My one fear was that when I returned, Kaia would shy away from me,” Copes says.
For parents and expectant parents in the military, the separation from family can be one of the most agonizing aspects of their deployment to a war zone. Telephones and email allow them to remain in contact as never before, but downloading a digital snapshot of a child taking her first steps can never replace holding her hands while she toddles across the room.
Newark resident Copes works full time in communications (computer and telephone systems) as part of the 280th Signal Brigade of the Delaware Army National Guard. While in Iraq, the 280th was attached to the 54th Theater Signal Battalion, which ran communications throughout the theater of war.
Before leaving for Fort Dix, New Jersey, in April 2005, Copes accompanied Cynthia to as many obstetrician appointments as possible. Then her sister, Takara Higgs, took over. “She was my labor coach,” Cynthia says. “She did the child-birthing classes with me. She drove me to the hospital. She was him.”
Cynthia, who is employed by the Cecil County public school system, worked throughout her pregnancy and returned full time after a three-month maternity leave. Without the help of a spouse, however, she was forced to interrupt studies for her master’s degree. Caring for an infant on her own while worrying about her husband’s safety drained Cynthia physically and emotionally.
She would have worried more had Copes told her everything. He didn’t, and he says he never will.
Copes left for Iraq with 65 other members of the Delaware Army National Guard. He was based at Camp Victory in downtown Baghdad, just south of the so-called Green Zone. Temperatures during summer soared to 140 degrees, and when the rainy season came, the omnipresent dust turned cement-like. Copes’ work rarely required him to leave base, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t in danger.
“There was a lot of incoming mortar,” Copes says. “We were close enough to feel the car bombs at a nearby checkpoint, and there were car bombs every day.” Cynthia sometimes heard the explosions while talking to her husband on the phone. On at least two occasions, mortar fire hit trailers where soldiers lived. One was two doors down from Copes’.
Despite the hardships, Copes says his experience in Iraq was a good one.
“The regular military get to see that the National Guard and Reserves are not just weekend warriors,” he says. “We worked successfully with many Iraqi people who were contracted to build up the infrastructure, and we turned a number of buildings over to them. People here don’t hear enough of the good stuff.”
Copes’ worst fear never materialized—Kaia took readily to him when he returned to Delaware. Still, he’s not eager to leave again any time soon.
“It was a year away from my family, a year of my life gone,” he says as he scoops up a giggling Kaia in his arms. “She’s still her mama’s best friend, but I’m going to make her a daddy’s girl.”
Dover Air Force Base:
Supplying the Forces
The 436th Aerial Port Squadron at Dover Air Force Base is the largest and busiest airfreight operation in the Department of Defense, comprising 25 percent of the U.S. Air Force’s global airlift capability. Working 24-seven year-round, members of the 436th ship 250 tons of cargo—from ordnance to office supplies to Humvees—a day, much of it to support the war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Really, we fight the war here at Dover Air Force Base every day,” says Major Kirk Peterson, an operations officer in the Aerial Port Squadron. Peterson has seen the war from both the shipping and receiving ends; he served in Qatar for four months in 2002 and in Kuwait for six months in 2005.
Stateside, trucks from all over the country arrive at DAFB day and night, bearing cargo to two giant metal-framed white tents that have served as cargo holds at DAFB since heavy snow caused the roof of its warehouse to collapse nearly three years ago. That cargo is loaded onto giant C-5 Galaxies or government-contracted commercial 747s. The planes are flown to large ports in the Middle East, then to sites in the war zones.
“Anything the soldiers, airmen, sailors, marines need, we try to get it there as fast as possible,” Peterson says.
Chief Master Sergeant Michael Branum of DAFB served in Balad, Iraq, 48 miles north of Baghdad, from May to September 2006. (He was deployed to the Middle East twice in the in the early 1990s for the first Gulf War.) Branum was glad to serve in the war zone. “I’d been sending young men and women to that environment since 9-11,” he says. “The opportunity came for me to go, and I jumped all over it.
“The danger level was high, but there were security measures taken that limited any of the real harm. I mean, we still were rocketed, mortared, but the warning systems made it possible to take shelter when things like that were happening and, actually, there were no fatalities on the base while I was there.”
Cargo planes return to the United States with equipment and vehicles for repair, with the duffle bags of returning units and, occasionally, with service members on their way home.
As the Department of Defense’s only stateside port mortuary, DAFB receives the bodies of all America’s war dead. They arrive in metal transfer cases draped in American flags. It is the 436th’s duty to transfer those remains to the mortuary.
“It is a humbling experience,” Peterson says. “It puts everything back into perspective.”
The Final Trip Home
No matter what time of day or night planes arrive with America’s war dead, they are met by a chaplain, an honor guard, and brass from Dover Air Force Base and from the fallen service member’s branch of the military.
They board the plane, then stand at attention while the chaplain says a prayer. After deplaning, they stand at attention once more.
All remains silent, except for the orders given and the clicking of heels as the honor guard carries the transfer cases one by one from the plane to hearses, which are then taken across the base to the mortuary.
Families of the deceased can witness the transfers, but most do not. Chaplain David Sparks, an Air Force reservist, estimates that 20 to 25 families have been present in the past 12 months. When family members do come, the chaplain meets them and escorts them to a car that takes them to the tarmac for the ceremony. Afterward, he accompanies the families to the base chapel where, if they desire it, he spends time with them.
Sparks is one of three Air Force chaplains who work full time at Dover’s Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs. He served there for a short time after 9-11, when those killed at the Pentagon were brought to the mortuary. He returned three years ago and has been there since.
His job is not only to be present for the transfers, but also “to provide health and spiritual care for those who work in the mortuary.” For the airmen on mortuary duty, all of whom have volunteered for the assignment, the emotional difficulty of their job is compounded by the hardship of being away from their homes and families for four months.
In peacetime, the mortuary has a permanent staff of seven. Now 40 to 50—including airmen, reservists, and civilian funeral directors and embalmers—work there.
Col. Karen Giles, an Air Force reservist, has been director of the mortuary since August 2003. She had served in Dover for four months during the first Gulf War and as division chief for personal effects at the mortuary in 2003 before being named director. “This is truly a terrible and a wonderful mission for me,” Giles says. The loss of life is awful, but she is honored to be a part of bringing the fallen home with dignity and honor.
Sparks hears a similar sentiment from many of the airmen when they finish their mortuary assignments. They tell him it was one of the most meaningful jobs they have ever had.
Cory Palmer breezed through survival school, paratrooper school, Special Forces underwater operations school, multiple sniper specialty schools and various classified programs.
He put those skills to use in his first tour of duty in Iraq, from September 2004 to April 2005. So when Palmer returned to Iraq in March, he was well trained and battle hardened.
In the end, none of that mattered. No one can defend himself against a bomb.
Palmer had barely begun his first semester at West Virginia University four years ago when he began to have misgivings about studying computer engineering. He couldn’t tolerate sitting still all day. He had grown up outdoors, swimming, hiking, hunting and getting dirty on the Nanticoke River’s edge, where he helped with the family business, Soil Service Inc. of Seaford.
Computer courses may have bored Palmer, but his rock-climbing class thrilled him. So when the instructor, a former Marine, regaled Palmer with exciting stories about reconnaissance missions, he was hooked. Palmer enlisted in the Marines in December 2002.
His parents never tried to talk their son out of his decision. It wouldn’t have worked anyway, says his mother. “It was Cory’s decision. You couldn’t talk Cory into anything,” Danna Palmer says. “He was the kind of kid who never walked. He went straight from crawling to running.”
That’s the kind of son parents worry about most. When Cory was in Iraq, Danna fretted so much, she became ill. Cory always tried to put her at ease.
On May 1 Palmer and his unit had just finished a 12-hour day in the field. They were heading in a convoy to a so-called firm site for the night when Palmer’s Humvee hit an explosive. All five Marines were thrown from the vehicle. One sustained only minor injuries. The Marine closest to the blast died immediately. The three others suffered grievous injuries. En route to Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas five days later, Palmer died. He would have turned 22 four days later.
“Cory had second- and third-degree burns to 40 percent of his body, but breathing in the fire was really what killed him,” Danna says.
Difficult as it was, Danna viewed his body. “I needed to know that there was no mistake, that it really was Cory,” she says. “We hadn’t gotten to see him because he died on the plane. He died all by himself.”
Six months after her son died, Danna traveled to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for the return of her son’s battalion. Her husband, Charles, didn’t accompany her; he didn’t feel up to attending what should have been his son’s homecoming. Nor did Cory’s brothers, Thad and Kyle. Danna went to Camp Lejeune to see Cory’s friends, many of whom she knew, to comfort and be comforted.
By mid-autumn, Danna was dreading the holidays, when Cory would have been home for good. He had planned to leave the Marines when his four years were up in December, and he already had started making plans to buy a house in Seaford.
Come spring, the pain of Cory’s death will become fresh once more, Danna says. Cory and Kyle had planned to hike the Appalachian Trail together then.
“It’s [Cory’s] favorite place in the world,” Danna says. “And the dogwoods. I’ll never forget when Cory came home from his first tour, April 8, 2005. When he got back to Seaford, he went to my mother and said, ‘Grandma, have the dogwoods bloomed yet?’ He didn’t want to miss that. And he wanted to make sure that when they hiked the trail this time, that they could see all the dogwoods coming into bloom.”
Carol James, also of Seaford, recalls her last phone call with her son, Lance Corporal Rick James, who was stationed in Iraq. They were talking about Cory’s death when Carol broke down sobbing in the freezer aisle of Wal-Mart. The news struck too close to home.
Two days later, Carol was in her garden, planting the flowers she’d been given for Mother’s Day, when an unfamiliar car drove up. Two Marines got out.
“Can we come in?” they asked.
“No,” she replied. “Just tell me what you have to tell me.”
Rick, a machine gunner, was shot in the head in an exchange of gunfire with insurgents near Ramadi. He died soon afterward at a nearby medical facility.
Carol hadn’t wanted her son to join the Marines. “He had his mind made up from probably the 10th grade or 11th grade,” she says. “I tried and tried to talk him out of it or at least to give it a year at college.” Instead, Rick enlisted the day after he turned 18, in November of his senior year of high school. Less than two weeks after graduation, he was off to boot camp.