The massive, gray C-17 transport plane landed at Dover Air Force Base on a Tuesday afternoon.
A group of dignitaries, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of defense and President Barack Obama, walked onto the tarmac.
Joining the families of fallen soldiers, the group watched in silence as U.S. servicemen transferred flag-draped aluminum cases, one by one, from the plane to a truck that would take them to the Delaware base’s mortuary.
About 20 minutes later, a second C-17 moved into position — and the process began again.
“Each one got its salute,” said Lt. Col. Dennis Saucier, referring to the remains of 30 American troops killed in the Aug. 6 crash of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan. It was the U.S. military’s single-largest loss since Operation Enduring Freedom began 10 years ago in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Saucier, a member of the Dover Church of Christ, is senior staff chaplain of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operation. He and his staff of eight chaplains provide spiritual support for the mortuary’s military and civilian personnel, tasked with identifying the remains of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the globe.
The Dignified Transfer is a key focus of Saucier’s work. Chaplains offer prayers during the ceremony, thanking God for the soldiers’ hearts of service, asking the Almighty to help Americans live lives worthy of each one’s sacrifice.
The chaplains also minister to the families who watch as their sons and daughters are returned to American soil.
“We are seeing families facing the darkest periods of their lives,” Saucier said. Military families understand that their loved one agreed to step knowingly into harm’s way, “and this is where their worst fears are realized.”
Some are angry. They want answers about why their child, husband or sibling died. In the Chinook crash, some asked why so many servicemen were loaded onto a single helicopter.
The chaplains can’t answer those questions, Saucier said. They can only listen to the families, pray with them and try to offer the kind of peace described in Psalm 23:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
“We are the rod and staff that God uses to help these families through this very brief — but very intense — time,” Saucier said. “We hope that, by being there with them, they are made aware of God’s presence, that God is very real and cares about them.”
Taught in Turkey, baptized in Greece
Saucier, 57, had just gone on leave when the Chinook crashed. He returned to Dover for about a week before resuming his vacation with his wife, Diane, in Connecticut, their home state.
The chaplain grew up Catholic but said neither he nor his wife was a churchgoer when they married in 1973, just before he enlisted in the Air Force as a radio operator.
The Sauciers soon found themselves in Turkey at the Karamursel Air Station. Life on the base was lonely, Diane Saucier said, but their neighbors were friendly and invited them to a picnic hosted by the Church of Christ.
Two church members came from the U.S. to the base to study Scripture with anyone interested. They were part of an infant ministry called American Military Evangelizing Nations, or AMEN. Diane Saucier was impressed with their “common-sense approach” to the Bible.
Her husband, however, asked them to leave his house.
Don Yelton, the director of AMEN and a 26-year Air Force veteran, said that more than 20 people were baptized during the Turkey campaign.
Diane Saucier was one of them.
When she told her husband, “he said, ‘That’s nice, but you better leave me alone,’” she recalled. “I knew if God wanted him to be a Christian, then that was God’s job to take care of. It’s just my job to be an example.”
Six months later, while stationed in Greece, Dennis Saucier was baptized in the Aegean Sea.
“He said the thing that convinced him the most was the change in my life,” his wife said.
A uniform with a cross
As his tour ended, church members recruited Dennis Saucier to leave the Air Force and train for ministry at the White’s Ferry Road School of Biblical Studies in West Monroe, La. Many of the school’s graduates were former servicemen who taught Bible classes at military posts.
He graduated from the program in 1980 and became interested in military chaplaincy — a chance to combine his love of the Bible and the military. He earned a master of divinity degree at Abilene Christian University in Texas and spent about six years in the Air Force Reserve.
In 1994, he once again donned the uniform of an airman — this one bearing a cross. He now serves as one of 40 active-duty military chaplains, designated by Churches of Christ to minister to soldiers on and off the battlefield — overseeing worship, offering baptismal services and counseling. The Fairfax Church of Christ in Virginia serves as the endorsing agency for all military chaplains from the fellowship.
In 17 years, Dennis Saucier has served on bases in New York, Georgia, Massachusetts and South Korea. Before his two-year assignment at Dover, he was senior chaplain at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho.
He and his wife raised two sons. One is a former rescue swimmer for the Navy. The other served two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army.
“Both of us were at the same base in Kuwait … in the desert for two weeks,” Dennis Saucier said. “It was kind of surreal.”
Finding strength to cope
In Dover, Dennis Saucier occasionally preaches for the 60-member Church of Christ.
“So much of our congregation is either in the Air Force or affiliated with it,” minister Jonathan White said.
Recently, Dennis Saucier spoke about the Kingdom of God — how Christians are called to care for their world and fellow humans.
White said it’s a sermon he sees the chaplain living out in his career.
“I really respect what he does, serving the families of all these fallen soldiers,” White said. “I just can’t imagine dealing with that on a daily basis.”
Since the chaplain began his job at Dover Air Force Base 14 months ago, the remains of more than 600 men and women have come through the mortuary. Some are military stationed overseas who die of natural causes or in accidents. A few are civilians who are afforded special honors by the U.S. government. Most are casualties of the 10-year-old war on terror.
Chaplains must be ready to perform the Dignified Transfer at any hour — day or night. Dennis Saucier and his staff also do their best to support the mortuary staffers who prepare fallen soldiers for burial.
“When you look at human remains and see the effects of combat, it’s unlike anything you’ve seen,” he said. He went through a period when he could barely look at a teenager, thinking of the thousands of young men and women who have lost their lives in the past decade.
To cope, he tells himself that what he’s seeing is an empty shell. The spirit is gone. He focuses on the eighth chapter of Romans, which teaches that worldly suffering is only temporary and pales in comparison to the glory to come.
“My wife is critical,” he added. “I could never do what I do without her support.”
Diane Saucier said that their church family also plays a vital role in their lives.
“I know if I had anything I needed, they would be there right away, warm and loving,” she said.
Reflecting on the decade that has passed since 9/11, Dennis Saucier said that the sacrifice made by his fellow soldiers, and his own meditations on Scripture, have convinced him that Christians have a duty to make a difference — for good — in lives around the globe. He laments that the church sometimes “refuses to see its role.”
He also prays for peace.
“I don’t want to do another 10 years of this,” he said. “Every one of us at the mortuary would be happy to go out of business tomorrow.”