DOVER, Delaware — The flag-draped transfer case carrying the remains back from Afghanistan was still inside the C-17 when friends and colleagues of the fallen gathered around Chaplain John C. Wheatley. It fell to the Army lieutenant colonel to explain to them just how their loved one would be taken off the plane, marking his official return home.
As the silver-haired Wheatley described with his soft voice how eight troops would march up the ramp, offer a prayer, lift the case, and somberly walk to the plane, those around Wheatley started to cry at the reality of what was about to happen. Wheatley, who by his own estimation, has presided over hundreds of such arrivals during his 26-year career quietly bowed his head, shielding his face and the emotion that had overcome him.
As he explained: “The Army pays me to cry every day.”
The Pentagon has repeatedly sought to downplay the U.S. military’s return to war in the Middle East. Officials once refused to call the death of U.S. troop shot in Iraq a combat death and last month, Pentagon officials said they would no longer provide details on the wounded, citing privacy concerns and not wanting to give the enemy information, even as such data was provided during the 2003-2011 Iraq war. But even as the Pentagon seeks to minimize the effects of war through a dearth of data and a surge of semantics, throughout the U.S. military there are soldiers like Wheatley whose jobs are to confront the U.S.’s return to war.
Wheatley serves as a chaplain at Dover Air Force base where the fallen first arrive. He does not wear combat patch. He does not have the luxury of traveling to distant lands to serve. Instead, the consequences of war come to Wheatley, one transfer case at a time.
Or as his predecessor explained the job to him: “It’s like burying your little brother every day.”
As Wheatley cried with the friends of a man killed last month in Afghanistan, one had the sense he was crying for him and all who had been lost to war—service member and family alike—before him.
Wheatley’s voice is so conditioned to comfort others that, he even says “hello,” as though he is greeting a mourner. When he meets a service member’s family, he bows his head slightly in an unconscious show of deference for their sacrifice, an acknowledgement that they too have paid a great price to the nation.
His career has been to spend his days comforting the bereaved. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, he provided pastoral services to the Pentagon. Before arriving at Dover he has had to, periodically, knock at the doors of scores of other families to deliver the dreadful news that their loved one had died in war. He remembered knocking at the door of one family whose troop was due home in a week; the welcome poster was already up. Perhaps because of such memories, Dover, for him, is easier.
When he knocks at the door, “you know you are about to deliver this news that will change them forever,” Wheatley said. At Dover, “they already know.”
But he doesn’t see his job as a burden but an extension of faith.
“Part of the Christian faith, to me, is hospitality and carrying for people in these awful places in life, to mourn with those who mourn and weep with those weep,” he explained.
Wheatley said that the overwhelming amount of death that has defined his career has created a kind of living faith for him.
“To be invited into a very sacred place, I feel it every time,” he explained. To mourn with others “gives me a grounding of hope. It gives me grounding in what love can do when we treat people with dignity and respect. That is a part of faith—how we treat people, how we show compassion,” he explained.
He stops there. The Pennsylvania native is notably uncomfortable talking about himself. He prefers his role as the invisible warfighter.
Wheatley and his comrades greet the families as they arrive on base and sit with them as they wait for the C-17 to be emptied of all the cargo that traveled on the flight so that all that remains onboard is their loved one. Sometimes families lash out at Wheatley and his colleagues. Most are grateful for the small words and gestures that break up a tension-filled wait.
Wheatley demurred when asked how he deals with the perpetual grief. He said he never talks about his work at home with his college sweetheart and two adult daughters because “we are very conscious of protecting the privacy and the sacredness of the conversations.” There is counseling dedicated to the chaplain corps. The staff, Wheatley said, check on one another. They go on trips together for the day, to places like Washington, to escape. And of course: “We are a people of prayer.”
Wheatley, who would only give his age as between 50 and 60, has done two two-year tours, with a one year gap in between, at Dover. When he first arrived at Dover in 2011, the war in Iraq was winding down and there were plans to do the same in Afghanistan. When he returned in 2013, President Obama had just won a presidential campaign in which he touted the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the eventually drawdown from Afghanistan. No one had heard the term ISIS.
But by the following year, combat troop deaths began returning to Dover. In January, six airmen who were killed by a Taliban attack near Kabul returned together, the deadliest attack on U.S. troops this year. The non-combat deaths, including suicide, come through Dover as well, from places like Kuwait, Qatar, and Djibouti. The longest Dover has not had a dignified transfer this year is six weeks, officials said.
The transfer procedure marks the official return of the remains of a fallen service member or contractor back in the United States. It is no longer than 10 minutes in all, but it is charged with emotion, as families watch the flag-draped transfer case slowly come off the military plane. The military uses the term transfer cases, and not caskets, as sometimes multiple remains are in one case and must be identified. Dover officials said it usually takes about two days to prepare for a dignified transfer.
Wheatley has been a part of both the active duty and reserve force. When he was not called up, as he is now, he leads a church congregation. Besides serving in Dover and as a reservist for units in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Wheatley has served at Walter Reed Medical Center and in Kuwait in 1994 as part of Operation Vigilant Warrior.
Wheatley’s father served in World War II, and he says perhaps it was the brown and white photo of him in uniform that led him to serve. A Methodist, he joined the military to be a chaplain, in the run up to the first Gulf War. During that time, the U.S. was largely engaged in missions, not wars that run for years. That is, there was no warning then that the life of a chaplain would be to honor the fallen for years at a time.
Wheatley plans to retire in the fall. He wants to take a baking and pastry class because he is a self-described “foodie.” He wants to be a “full-time grandfather.” He has retired from the church, which means he will no longer lead a congregation. He said he has seen much of the United States but wants to keep traveling. He has no particular favorite part of the land.
“It’s just breathtaking to me, this country,” Wheatley said.
After he retires his visits to Dover will be of a different sort. In between trips, he said, he will bring his comrades some of his baked goods.