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Embracing Grief

A U.S. Army carry team transfers the remains of Army Brig. Gen. Terence J. Hildner, of Fairfax, Va., at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Feb. 6, 2012. Hildner was assigned to the 13th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, Fort Hood, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo/Roland Balik)

A U.S. Army carry team transfers the remains of Army Brig. Gen. Terence J. Hildner, of Fairfax, Va., at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Feb. 6, 2012. Hildner was assigned to the 13th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, Fort Hood, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo/Roland Balik)

PORTLAND, Ore. -- "In World War II, the beauty was, it took a long time to get home -- it took time, several weeks. The same crew is together, it's not 'got your orders, pack your bags, you're out of here in two hours.' This has been going on since Vietnam. This instant travel we have now, in less than a day you can be out of there, in strip mall madness, back into this American society."

Chaplain Brian Knutson oversaw 110 dignified transfers during his 2012 tour in mortuary affairs at Dover Air Force Base, Del. Most were casualties from the war in Afghanistan, mainly Soldiers and Marines. His job was to meet the families of the fallen, to stand side-by-side with them, to hand out tissues and offer a shoulder to cry on as the remains of their loved ones were carried from the planes.

Knutson has grey hair and a welcoming smile, and his spirit remains high, with a sense of wonder that won't quit. He enjoys what he does; you can hear it in his conversations with the brand new Airmen in their barely-faded uniforms.

People react differently to grief. "I literally had a wife fall on the ground on the flight line, she just collapsed when she saw the coffin, flag draped, coming off the aircraft," he said.

Families are often at Dover Air Force Base for fewer than 12 hours, flying in from across the country, sometimes moments after receiving the news of their loved one's passing. Military members serve as the receiving party, standing at attention and rendering a salute on the command "Present arms." Chaplain Knutson was there for the families, constantly. With every new experience, it was always the same overpowering emotion, he said.

"It was grief. You're watching families, loved ones, and you're there, you have to deal with them in their grief. It's often the worst moment for any parent," he said.

For pilots, the families found comfort in knowing their heroes were doing what they loved: flying. They often understood the risks involved with the profession, Knutson said.

"Grief presents itself in profound ways, lots of withdrawal, isolation, which can slide into more than just grief and sorrow, but can move into depression. For some people it can really be life changing, others are more pragmatic," Knutson said.

Chaplain Knutson said he remembers a father who yelled for 30 minutes at a Marine Corps officer about his son's death. Venting was his way of dealing with his insurmountable grief.

But grief can also bring people together. Divorced parents who wouldn't even sit together on the bus heading to the tarmac clasped in a full embrace as they met their child, their fallen hero at the plane, Knutson said.

Day after day Chaplain Knutson met the planes coming in at all hours, and it was all-hands-on-deck. Everyone knew the mission; it was a coordinated effort to meet the families in their times of need. The families dealt with the heavy burden of grief, but the duty of consoling the families was an honorable and difficult task.

"We had an Army captain and this was the first time she had seen a dignified transfer...when the body is being carried off you are at attention and it was just tears, just tears, so we were all done and I just gave her tissues and I said 'now what are you going to do?' She said 'I don't know, go back to work I guess.' I said 'no, now you go and celebrate life, whatever that is for you, go celebrate being alive.'" Chaplain Knutson said.

With more than 28 years in the service, retirement is on the horizon for Knutson, now a chaplain for the 142nd Fighter Wing, Oregon Air National Guard. After supporting the national Air Force mission in Dover, his role is now to counsel Airmen in times of need, answer questions about faith, and walk the Portland Air National Guard Base to check on troop morale.

"Until I become a civilian again, we're still wearing the same outfit. I can be in your world; I can be in a place with other Airmen and other military people and still have some sense of relationship, communication and understanding. I can do that now. In a couple years I won't be able to do that anymore," said Knutson.

He has seen grief and he has a word of advice that has helped him through difficult times: "You call the people up, wherever they are in the world and say 'I love you, I've not told you that.' You gotta celebrate life in the midst of grieving, that's what you do."