DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- When a Marine is killed and the fallen member is bound for Dover Air Force Base, Del., a specialized three-person team is standing by to provide the same care and assistance as a civilian funeral home.
The Marine Corps Service Liaison Team, located inside the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs, is comprised of two enlisted members and one civilian. They are charged with coordinating the logistics associated with the return of fallen Marines.
The new guy
Staff Sgt. John Clements was an engineer platoon commander in Folsom, Pa., before his assignment here four months ago. He had just finished his master's degree in homeland security when the 11-year Marine reservist branched out for a different mission.
"I have a huge sense of purpose here," said Clements. "I was in a routine at home, but now I have a renewed sense of pride and purpose. It reinvigorated me from a Marine Corps perspective."
Clements has assisted with the return of nine fallen Marines, including those recently killed in a training accident in Nevada.
He said he had an especially heavy heart for one Marine's family, who brought the fallen's preschool-aged child to Dover.
"It hit me two-fold," said the 30-year-old, who has a child the same age. "I could relate as a father and as a child."
Clements also lost his father at an early age, when he was six.
"I wanted to reach out and hug the kid, whom I could tell hadn't fully comprehended what had happened," he said. "But, all I could do was stand back, observe and try my best to separate my own emotions when assisting the family."
Service liaisons fulfill an array of duties, ranging from reviewing administrative forms with the families to coordinating transportation and lodging accommodations for military escorts.
"The job itself is not difficult, but there are a lot of long hours spent ensuring every step in the process is carried out with precision and with the utmost dignity, honor and respect," said Clements, who has deployed three times to Iraq and has personally known four Marines who were killed in action.
While their deaths occurred years ago, Clements said working here has given him a sense of comfort, having observed the amount of effort and level of care given to the fallen and their families.
The seasoned liaison
One family in particular stands out for Cpl. Landon Beaty, who has served as a liaison for 14 months.
The 26-year-old Florida native said he will remember to his death bed fallen Marine Cpl. Keaton Coffey and his family.
About a month after the dignified transfer, Coffey's father invited Beaty to California to attend the military memorial service. During that weekend, Beaty spent time with Coffey's family and fiancé.
"Over dinner, his dad said, 'The reason why we wanted you to come here is because you remind us a lot of our son,'"said Beaty as a wave of emotion resounded through his speech. "I remember those words as if he just said them to me. To know that someone thinks so highly of me to compare me to the son they've just lost is an incredible honor. I am very grateful."
Coffey is one of 55 fallen Marines Beaty has made arrangements for, including preparing the uniforms and dressing the fallen.
"We take care of our own,"said Beaty, who used to drive a tank in an amphibious assault unit. "It's part of the Marine Corps ethos: Marines taking care of Marines."
Even if the family chooses to have their loved one dressed in a suit or their favorite football jersey, the Marine Corps service liaisons still prepare a uniform and provide it to the family.
Working in this capacity is a dream come true, said Beaty.
"When I found out I was selected for this position out of a pool of over 700, I was blown away," he said. "I've known about Dover's port mortuary mission since I was a teenager."
Beaty, the son of a Baptist preacher, began working in a funeral home when he was 14 years old. He said he can trace his calling to serve in this field as far back as he can remember.
"I am doing exactly what I was born to do," he said. "I want to be the Marine liaison who serves here the longest. I love my job and what I do for the Marine Corps."
The Department of Defense civilian who leads the liaison team for the Marine Corps has a U.S. Navy background, but his 24-year active-duty career encompassed several assignments supporting Marine Corps missions.
The retired chief petty officer worked in meteorology; but before he closed in on retirement in 2006, he steered toward the funeral industry, which his family has had ties to in Pennsylvania for 25 years.
He is a licensed funeral director who worked as an Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations embalmer here before becoming the liaison team's boss two months ago.
"I missed the camaraderie of being in the service," said Smith regarding his reasons for wanting to work here. "And Dover is considered the pinnacle for every funeral director."
When possible, Smith meets with the fallen member's family to explain the mortuary disposition options and choices of caskets and urns.
If the family does not travel to Dover AFB, the liaisons still provide support and assistance through an appointed Casualty Affairs Call Officer.
"The hardest thing to discuss with the family is the subject of the trauma associated with the fallen member's cause of death," said Smith. "It's a very sensitive subject, and it takes an emotional toll on the family."
During those conversations, Smith said there is nothing the family asks for that is considered a burden.
"This is someone's loved one, and they have just received the worst of news," he added.
"We do everything we can to honor that family's request."
Whether it's trying to arrange the fallen member's return home at a specific time or delivering a requested personal effect, the three members of the Marine Corps liaison team agreed, their job is a labor of love and they feel privileged to be part of such an important mission.