New military mortuary being built – Dover Air Force Base facility will be state-of-the-art and larger

Construction should be completed by June at Dover Air Force Base's new $20 million mortuary, and Army Corps of Engineers officials led a tour through the facility Friday to reveal some of the enhancements it will provide for the military's largest such operation.

As they steered guests through what will be hospital-quality radiology units, autopsy and embalming facilities, workers at the old Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs nearby were preparing to receive more remains from the war in Iraq.

Within the past five days, Dover's working mortuary has received the remains of 24 troops – 18 Marines and Army soldiers killed in the war in Iraq and six Air Force troops killed in a helicopter crash during a mission to bring medical aid to children in Afghanistan. More remains were expected around midnight Friday, according to base spokeswoman Lt. Olivia Nelson.

Dover is designated to receive all casualties from the war.

Officials said the new building – and the $10 million of new equipment it will contain – will streamline the mortuary staff's ability to prepare remains for return to families and loved ones. It is expected to be fully operational by October.

“If you have any idea of how discombobulated the current building is, you know the process is very inefficient,” said Tom Lavender of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the project.

Lavender said the present mortuary has been pieced together since the Vietnam War.

“We've taken lessons learned from that building … and we will have a very, very efficient flow through this building,” he said.

The mortuary project was to begin in 2004. But the 9/11 terrorist attacks moved the project to the “double fast-track,” said Lt. Josh Kuper of the 436th Civil Engineering Squadron, who has worked on the project with Army Corps engineers and Wilmington-based Nason Construction Co.

When complete, the facility will cover 70,000 square feet and will be about twice the size of the current mortuary, said Joe Zurzolo, project engineer for the Army Corps.

Among the design features are a new screening area for remains that are just arriving. Because many are coming straight from combat, the remains are scanned before processing begins to determine whether any unexploded ordnance was undetected. In the new facility, that scanning will take place in a 12-inch-thick, steel-reinforced concrete bunker with blast-proof doors and windows, giving workers maximum protection.

“Because this is the only stateside mortuary for the military, an accident in this facility disrupts a lot of things,” Zurzolo said.

The new mortuary will include state-of-the-art digital imaging equipment, enhanced ventilation to protect workers from vapors, an entry area equipped with briefing rooms, counseling rooms and places for escorts and military officials to relax as they wait for remains to arrive or depart.

Storage capacity also is enhanced at the new facility, Zurzolo said. Refrigerated facilities will be available for storage of more than 100 remains. After the embalming process, 200 to 500 remains can be stored while awaiting transport to their hometowns or Arlington National Cemetery.

Zurzolo said he hopes the need for that kind of capacity will never arise.

“My hope is when I get done with this building, it remains empty forever,” he said.

But when casualties occur, Kuper said, families can rest assured the remains of their loved one will be treated with dignity and honor.

“These are our brothers and sisters at arms,” Kuper said. “They have given the ultimate sacrifice. … And you want them treated exactly the best. You want to do it better, quicker, faster and you want to get them home with the utmost respect.”

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