Former Marine now honors fallen service members as Air Force Chaplain

  • Published
  • By Mr. Ed Drohan
  • AFMAO Public Affairs
When Carl Groh was a young Marine infantryman serving outside Da Nang, South Vietnam, he saw many of his brother Marines killed in action but never had the chance to escort the fallen warriors home. Today, more than 40 years later, Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Carl Groh has come full circle. As a chaplain for the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center (AFMAO) here, he assists with the dignified transfer of fallen Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines as they return to the United States.

The chaplain, a member of the Air National Guard's 185th Air Refueling Wing in Sioux City, Iowa, who lives in Fremont, Neb., deployed to the AFMAO Dec. 31. In little more than a week, he has already participated in several dignified transfer events, praying for the fallen before a carry team moves the transfer case holding their remains from the aircraft to an awaiting vehicle. It is a deployment he volunteered for. "I'm retired from my ministry now so I have the time to volunteer for some of these extended deployments," Chaplain Groh said. "When I learned about the opportunity, I literally begged them to let me come."

The chaplain said he knew little about AFMAO before hearing about the deployment opportunity from the National Guard Bureau. After his application to deploy here was approved, he starting learning more from the chaplains he was to replace. In fact, AFMAO has the mission of providing dignity, honor and respect for America's fallen, while providing care, service and support for their families. The center is the Department of Defense's sole port mortuary and has a total force staff consisting of active duty Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines as well as Guardsmen, Reservists and civilians.

The staff works closely with the FBI who performs fingerprint analysis and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner Service who utilizes state-of-the-art equipment to establish positive identification through DNA, dental, and examines the fallen to determine cause of death. The staff also prepares fallen members for transport to their final destination as determined by the family. But it is the dignified transfer that is the most visible part of the AFMAO mission, and the part that Chaplain Groh works with frequently. A solemn dignified transfer of remains is conducted upon arrival here from the aircraft to a transfer vehicle to honor those who have given their lives in the service of the country. The vehicle then moves the fallen to the center.

As a member of the official party, Chaplain Groh enters the aircraft behind the carry team. Before the transfer cases are moved, he says a prayer for the fallen and then renders military honors as the carry teams move the cases to the transfer vehicle. Oftentimes this is done in front of the fallen member's family and members of the media. "It tugs at your heart," the chaplain said. "The Marines have a saying that you never leave a guy behind. When I see these (service) teams carrying that case off the plane, I know these young service members are working to bring their comrade back."

One thing that's impressed the chaplain, though, is the young Airmen working at the center to support the fallen and their families, especially those whose work would make most people squeamish. "They're like any other Airman, but when the time comes for them to do their job, they're competent, respectful and professional," Chaplain Groh said. "These are the best America has. Even though I know the one in the transfer case doesn't know it, I say a prayer in my head for them. I say, 'You don't know it, but you'll be well taken care of and honored."

Chaplain Groh also has three sons serving in the military. One son is a member of the chaplain's Air National Guard unit and another is an active duty Marine stationed at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md., who has already served a tour in Iraq. Another son reported to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego a few days after the chaplain reported to Dover.

While he's seen the respect paid to the fallen at AFMAO, his concern is just like that of every parent of a military member. "I'm scared stiff, and even more so than before," he said. "Josh (his Marine son) was in Iraq for seven months and returned home safely, but I'm still very frightened for my children." But he continues to serve, he said, because of the people he serves with, and especially those who recently deployed here from units around the country. "I just want to brag about these folks," he explained cheerfully. "You see all these people gathered - officers and enlisted - and within two days they're a team doing their best for our fallen warriors. It fills you up emotionally. There are so many good people in America. It's like discovering treasure wherever you look."

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