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Dover AFB Mortuary Readies to Handle Mass Casualties

January 15, 1991

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. (AP) _ Members of every branch of the military volunteered for mortuary duty at Dover Air Force Base, and psychologists are ready to counsel the volunteers to handle their grim duties.

The base’s mortuary, the military’s largest, has three fulltime morticians. But volunteers would be needed for a variety of jobs, such as pushing gurneys, sweeping floors, running errands and assembling dress uniforms.

The mortuary has handled mass military casualties since the Vietnam War, including the bodies 237 Marines killed in the terrorist bombing of Marine headquarters in Beirut in October 1983. It also handled the remains of 913 suicide victims from the People’s Temple cult in Guyana in November 1978.

From 1966 to 1973, the mortuary handled the remains of 21,693 troops from the Vietnam War.

″We never really ask for volunteers. Volunteers normally step forward, although in this case we’ve gone to the other services should the need arise,″ Capt. Christian Geisel, base spokesman, said Tuesday.

″The mortuary will provide the proper briefing and training to prepare them for dealing with the mortuary work - what’s expected of them and what they can expect so they’re not shocked″ by the condition of any remains, Geisel said.

Volunteers brought to the base also would receive counseling from military psychologists.

Counselors would attempt to prevent post-traumatic stress syndrome, which afflicted many Vietnam War veterans, said Air Force Lt. Col. George I. Paskewitz, a psychiatrist at the counseling center.

″The potential is for both acute and chronic post traumatic stress syndrome. That means an acute anxiety reaction to an overwhelming event ... and if not dealt with (can) progress on to a chronic form,″ he said.

He said volunteers must cope with the carnage they see ″before it has a chance to damage them psychologically.″

The base began a counseling program after volunteers experienced emotional stress while handling the remains of 248 soldiers and eight crewmen who died in a plane crash in Gander, Newfoundland, in December 1985.

Geisel would not comment on the treatment of bodies that might have been involved in chemical warfare.

″It is premature to discuss the disposition of contaminated remains at this time. (The Pentagon’s) intent is to return all remains to the United States,″ he said.

The mortuary has a capacity of 1,000 bodies; if casualties exceed that, refrigerated trucks would be used to store bodies.

It has a clothing store stocked with uniforms from every branch of the service, underwear for men and women, medals, ribbons and anything else needed to fully dress a body for burial. Any body brought to the mortuary leaves in a coffin draped with a flag.

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