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The Invisible Hand Helping Communities Heal: The Sailors Behind Navy Mortuary Services

23 February 2024

From Courtney Pollock, NAVSTA Rota Public Affairs

Being the one left behind after a death is not easy. One moment, everything seems normal; and the next, you realize life will never be the same. During that emotional and stressful time, the Sailors of Navy Mortuary Services step in to lighten the burden.“Someone’s got to,” said Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman Milton “Whit” Sloane. “Someone’s got to
Being the one left behind after a death is not easy. One moment, everything seems normal; and the next, you realize life will never be the same. During that emotional and stressful time, the Sailors of Navy Mortuary Services step in to lighten the burden.

“Someone’s got to,” said Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman Milton “Whit” Sloane. “Someone’s got to be able to drive when everyone else is falling apart.”

Here, at Naval Station (NAVSTA) Rota, Sloane and Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Julianne Thompson, work behind-the-scenes to ensure that the deceased community member receives the attention required, their final wishes performed, and the community given a space to grieve. They do this by filling the gap, providing expertise, and managing the details to ensure “prompt and uniform death benefits are provided to all Navy beneficiaries worldwide.”

“I see my role as a community funeral director,” said Sloane. “My role is helping the community heal.”

Typically, this is by creating a space to memorialize the loved one, coordinating a funeral, or letting the command pay their final respects. While this may be the outward symbol that most think of when there is a death, this is just one of many being coordinated during that period.  Thompson describes their role as the “invisible hand” in the whole process – their involvement is continuously present but not seen.

“We are the subject matter experts in what we do and there are a lot of questions we can answer for families that others can’t,” she said. “We help guide them through their worst time, help process their emotions, ship their loved one home, or assist in cremating their remains out in town.”

Sloane and Thompson are part of an incredibly small community – comprised of only 14 Sailors throughout the fleet – that serve as Navy morticians. These enlisted Sailors serve within the hospital corpsman rate, but assigned to the Navy Casualty division of Navy Personnel Command. Prior to enlisting, the Sailor must have completed mortuary science degree, be licensed in a state, and have a minimum of two years’ experience.

“You have to be knowledgeable about the law, and then on top of that military law and all the guidelines that go with that,” explained Thompson.

Sloane said he had always hoped to become a funeral director. He enlisted in the Navy working supply on a destroyer before getting out to attend school for funeral science. He later re-enlisted as a Navy Mortician and later became the first Senior Chief within the community.

For Thompson, her decision to enter the field was more nuanced. While some refer to this career as a calling, she did not. During high school, she visited a human cadaver lab and was one of only two students who expressed interest in it. After graduation, she tried a few other career paths before returning to funeral science/services.

“I felt like I was interested in it before, so I’d try it out,” she said. “I’m good at compartmentalizing, and can handle the emotional part as well as the biology/science of the job really well. I felt that I should go into it because I could deal with those items that others cannot.”

Ultimately, she found a career that worked for her and after completing her degree and two years in the field, she enlisted in the Navy in 2019. After “A” School in Millington, Tennessee and a tour at Quantico, Virginia, Thompson reported to Naval Station (NAVSTA) Rota in late 2022.

Most days, she is found at patient admin department within the naval hospital. She said the reasons are two-fold; her role as a mortician ebbs-and-flows and working at the hospital allows her to better learn her rate.

“We fall under the corpsman rating and for advancement, we have to compete against all other corpsmen,” she explained. “We have to take the test on medical information when we’re not medical professionals.”

They both acknowledge the irony that their rate demands knowledge of maintaining quality of life and healing of their patients when their primary duty is care of the deceased. Thompson said since Rota was uniquely positioned with two Navy Morticians as this time, it was a good opportunity for her to expand her corpsmen knowledge and network while staying busy.

Later this year, Sloane will retire from the Navy after 24 years of service. Thompson will then become the only mortician assigned to this area which stretches the Iberian Peninsula as well as transiting ships within this area of responsibility. In the overseas environment, this not only includes active duty service members but family members, civilians and retirees. Due to the large geographical area, they routinely travel to support the needs of the impacted communities.

They also assist in programs and trainings related to their field such as facilitating casualty assistant calls officer (CACO) training, assisting in POW/MIA briefs to families, supporting burials at sea, and providing military honors at funerals.

From preparing the body to be shipped stateside or cremation, Sloane and Thompson manage the contracts, follow host nation regulations, and uphold family wishes. Most communities only see them during the memorial or funeral when they are in the “funeral directing” aspect of their job. While the event may be a small part of everything that is happen, Sloane feels that this is a very important aspect of the job particularly given the demographics of the U.S. military.

“A lot of our population is young people,” he said. “This is sometimes their first death, or sometimes it’s the first time that it has affected them personally. That’s another part of the community – to help them process it especially when it’s their peer.”

By providing the entire community an opportunity to gather, process and grieve, the community can begin to heal. Sometimes this can include a send-off for the deceased member by their command. While the agreement with Spain does not allow personnel on the flightline for the send-off, Sloane and Thompson have found ways to let the command pay their respects.

“We coordinate with the command to have everyone arrive to come in to view the draped coffin,” said Thompson. “We allow them inside the morgue where they can spend some time and say goodbye. At a specific time, everyone lines up outside the location and the pallbearers walk beside it and put the remains in the hearse.”

They describe the process as a nice, dignified way for the command to say goodbye to their coworker while staying within the local regulations. From there, the body is transported back to the United States – typically Dover Air Force Base in Delaware – where there will be a dignified transfer.

By being the invisible hand behind the grieving family, Sloane and Thompson work tirelessly to take care of details, ensure that everything is in place, and allow the family – and greater community – the opportunity to grieve together.

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