Cover Story

Dover's Duty

When the shooting stops, solemn work will start at Dover Air Force Base, where the U.S. military is preparing both to begin a war and to deal with its terrible toll

Issue: "The cost of war," Feb. 15, 2003

IF SADDAM HUSSEIN COULD SPEND a day at the sprawling Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, he might well decide to cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors, after all.

For months now, the U.S. military has been quietly moving the materials of war into place, using Dover as its primary launching pad. Day after day, lines of tractor-trailers can stretch two miles from the giant aerial port, waiting to disgorge their contents into a cavernous warehouse next to the airstrip. From computer manuals to weapons components, cargo is loaded onto the 36 C-5 transport planes based at Dover and flown to bases throughout Europe and the Middle East. Almost nothing sits more than 24 hours: With the clock ticking down, the pace at Dover has picked up, reaching some 600,000 pounds of cargo shipped every day.

By mid-February, America is expected to have 150,000 troops in the Gulf-a logistical nightmare akin to moving the entire population of Fort Lauderdale to a hostile new home halfway around the globe. The personnel at Dover are proud of their role in supplying those troops, but they dread the day the soldiers start coming home.

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That's because Dover, in addition to being the largest aerial port in the Department of Defense, is also home to the military's largest port mortuary. Soldiers who survive the impending conflict will ship home to places like Fort Hood or Norfolk. Those who don't will come back to Dover.

Since 1955, the Dover mortuary has been the next-to-last stop for some 60,000 Americans, most killed in service to their country. Week in and week out, the mortuary handles two or three accidental deaths from America's far-flung military machine. But it's a framed plaque inside the front door that bears the most moving testimony to the cost of being a superpower.

Little black plates on a field of blue record dozens of tragic "events" along with the number of remains processed at Dover. Some, like Vietnam (21,693 remains) or the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland (25 remains), are the stuff of history books. Others, like the Christmas Eve crash of a military jet in Gander, Newfoundland (256 remains), have been largely forgotten except by grieving family members.

Until Feb. 1, it was widely assumed that the next black plate would be engraved with the casualties from the effort to oust Saddam Hussein. Instead, plate number 32 will bear the name of the space shuttle Columbia, joining the 1986 Challenger explosion as one of only two NASA-related events.

Still, another war in the Gulf, if and when it happens, will build on a long history of American casualties connected to the region. Indeed, of the 31 events already memorialized at Dover, fully one-third involved the Middle East, from the terrorist bombing of Marine headquarters in Beirut (237 remains) to the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen (17 remains). An 11th event, the terrorist attack on the Pentagon (188 remains), took place on U.S. soil but was carried out by Middle Eastern extremists. All told, nearly 850 bodies prepared at the Dover mortuary can be traced back to the volatile region.

Around the mortuary, there's a palpable sense that the number could go much higher. In one room roughly the size of a gymnasium, white plastic gurneys stretch the width of the floor, lined up three deep and stacked two high, their spindly legs jutting into the air like metallic branches. Nearby are scores of air trays, the shallow wooden platforms used to hold caskets being shipped on commercial airliners. Each tray is only 4 inches or so deep, yet they're stacked more than 6 feet high, row upon row.

The mortuary has prepared for mass casualties before, of course. During Operation Desert Storm, a new wing was built to house 25 additional autopsy stations. Although it was never used at the time (the 310 fatalities of Desert Storm could be handled at the six existing stations), it stands ready to accommodate whatever horror Saddam might unleash this time around.

Horror is something the mortuary staff is accustomed to. Robert Bauer, one of two full-time morticians on staff, has seen plenty of it during his 40-plus years in the business. He wears a Mickey Mouse tie to lighten the mood and uses detached, clinical terms to describe the mangled, mutilated bodies he works with. Even overwhelming numbers, like the 188 victims that came in after the Pentagon attack, don't faze him. "You just take them as they come," he explains. "You can only do so many in a day." (When fully augmented with reservists, the mortuary can process 100 bodies a day and provide storage for up to 1,000.)

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