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Silent Warriors

Chief Master Sgt. Shae Gee, official photo

Chief Master Sgt. Shae Gee, official photo

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Memorial Day is upon us and we observe this holiday in honor of the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military.  Both my grandfathers, who have since passed, served in the Korean War and World War II.  It is an honor to know that I am able to serve in the capacity I can because of their contributions. 

Memorial Day is a special time for us to reflect on our fallen heroes.  I want to share my respect, admiration and thanks for those who are the silent warriors that have made me so proud and honored to be their chief while paying tribute to those fallen warriors who more recently made the ultimate sacrifice.

In the services career field, there are few Airmen who take on the role as a readiness and mortuary technician.  I was not one of these Airmen.  I worked in food, protocol and lodging, never even thinking I would take on this role.  I arrived at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, for a yearlong tour assigned as the force support squadron superintendent.  Within 48 hours of boots on the ground, I learned about one of the most important missions that I will have in leading a team of personnel.

The members of this team included the mortuary officer, myself, my readiness and mortuary technicians and selected individuals within the unit who were also services professionals by trade.  For the selected individuals, they received training on their key roles once appointed and continuously practiced should the need arise for their assistance.  During my tenure at Al Udeid, this happened all too frequently as the base was the alternate theater mortuary evacuation point for Kuwait.  Our job was to receive our fallen heroes from various locations and then prepare them for transport to Dover Air Force Base, Port Mortuary in Delaware. 

Our job usually took place on short notice and under the cover of darkness.  No one with the exception of the aircrews, senior leaders, our first sergeant and chaplain knew what we had to do.  The hours were long and the majority of my team had already pulled 12 hour shifts prior to working upwards of another 21 hours straight.  We would meet the plane and aircrew to transport our heroes to holding areas for further processing. My team has to be very meticulous in the documentation and care of our fallen.  They are the most resilient individuals and have to live their lives without anyone knowing what they have seen, gone through or how exceptionally well they did their job.  Their ranks were from the most junior of Airmen to seasoned officers and senior noncommissioned officers.  With the help of the first sergeant and chaplain corps, we ensured that they were continuously checked on and doing well.  

The work they do can affect individuals in different ways at any given time.

My life was forever changed after my arrival at Al Udeid.  There are 47 Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and civilians lives that touched mine in a way that the majority of Air Force Airmen will not know and I pray they will not have to.  These individuals, nor their families will never know of mine nor my team’s role in taking care them.  There will never be a thank you note from us to them for all that they did, accomplished or sacrificed in the greater objective of our military missions spanning numerous countries.  We silently thanked them by doing our job to the best of our abilities in the most respectful, dignified and professional manner we could in order to honor them and their service. Their names are forever etched in my heart and they have become a part of me.

Resiliency can be hard to achieve. As a leader, we in sometimes have to be resilient on our own.  Each time we had a fallen hero did not make it any easier to process emotionally the next time.  I had to be the strong one for my team and could not let others see any of my emotions.  This is hard to keep inside.  If I was not strong, they would not turn to me if they needed me and it could affect how strong they were--their resiliency was my top priority. 

At times, when we had new team members that never had to do our job, my resiliency always took a backseat. My team making it day-by-day and continuing to excel helped me to be more resilient.  I relied heavily on my husband and son. They only knew that if I called they needed to answer; I just needed to hear their voices and know that they were alright. I made upwards of 20 of these calls because sometimes we had more than one fallen hero at a time to take care of.

Every day, I think of our fallen heroes and how precious life is.  Every day that I hear about another fallen hero, I am thankful for the men and women working tirelessly in taking care of them.  I pray for our fallen and their families knowing this is one of the hardest things that they have to go through in life.  I understand this having lost both parents, my grandfathers and one of my grandmothers.  I just want them to know that they are a part of a huge military family no matter what branch of service, whether civilian or military.  They are always in our thoughts and prayers. 

On Memorial Day weekend, enjoy your time off with loved ones. Do not take them for granted as the next day is never promised.  Also, take some time to think about those who came before us who forged the path forward and those who made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the freedoms of everyone around in the U.S.