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Washington airman brings fallen comrades home

Stephen Harris needed a moment the first time he and a crew of airmen at Dover Air Force Base met the remains of service members killed in an overseas attack.

“I can’t go in there,” he said.

His team paused and wondered whether he was up to the emotionally demanding job following the 1998 terrorist attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

“I’ve got to say a prayer first.”

They clasped hands, bowed their heads and prayed.

That brief ceremony became a tradition for

Harris,who has since cared for hundreds of bodies in repeated assignments to the Delaware air base.

“We have to put a cover over us because we don’t understand why things happen,” said Harris, now a senior master sergeant from Bremerton in Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 446th Reserve Airlift Wing. “Lord, look over us while we look over our fallen heroes.”

Harris was at Dover to handle remains from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He saluted fallen soldiers as they returned from the bloodiest days of the Iraq War in 2007. And he was there to begin a new phase of the detail in 2009 when the Obama administration started allowing family members to watch their loved ones return.

Lewis-McChord’s reserve air wing has been sending airmen to Dover in small groups throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, usually for four-month assignments.

As the last American ground troops leave Iraq this month, the local reservists have shared a solemn duty on behalf of the ones who didn’t make it home from the war alive: 4,487 U.S. service members, including 293 from Lewis-McChord or Washington state.

These days, Harris has been praying for the airmen working the mortuary detail as the Air Force investigates charges that cremated, partial remains of 274 service members were taken to a Virginia landfill after families signed forms asking the military to dispose of them properly.

The Washington Post reported this month that the Air Force Inspector General and Office of Special Counsel documented cases of missing body parts and “gross mismanagement” at Dover. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has since ordered a further review but has said he was satisfied with the Air Force’s investigation, which resulted in discipline against three mortuary supervisors.

Harris said the allegations “hurt my heart,” because the people who made the decisions were dedicated to honoring fallen service members. The reports also threaten to tarnish the public perception of the care airmen put into their work at Dover.

“I hate to see great men fall,” Harris said.

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