By ELISABETH BUMILLER
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — So many families of the nation’s war dead came here in the last year to witness what the military calls the “dignified transfer” of the remains of their loved ones that sometimes, as on a night this past June, the small waiting area grew crowded and tense.
Suzie Schwartz, the wife of Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, was here that evening and recalled Wednesday how three families — one stoic, one sobbing, one angry — collided in the only space available to them. Soon the emotions of the mother in the angry family, she said, began to spill over.
“The mom was just spinning,” Mrs. Schwartz said. “She got madder and madder. So mad family was getting kind of mad at the other family, you could just see it. They had no place to go.”
Afterward Mrs. Schwartz told her husband that the lack of privacy and cramped quarters were “unacceptable” and that something had to be done.
On Wednesday morning, something was — the official opening at Dover of the Center for the Families of the Fallen, an expansive space of soothing lighting, soft carpeting and overstuffed sofas. The center has one large room of separate seating areas for families who want some privacy but also may want to talk to the others. There are also private rooms for families who need to be alone, a nondenominational meditation room, a kitchen and a children’s room with cribs and toys.
General Schwartz, in remarks dedicating the center, called it a “bittersweet” event. “In an ideal world, one that is universally committed to resolving disputes in a peaceful manner, a center for the families of the fallen perhaps would not be necessary,” he said. “But alas, it is, as all here know very well.” Jill Biden, the wife of vice president Joseph R. Biden Jr., a former senator from Delaware, also attended the ceremony.
Since April 2009, the first month of a Pentagon policy that allowed news coverage of the transfers, the remains of 366 service members from Iraq and Afghanistan have passed through Dover, the main point of entry for the nation’s war dead to return home. They have been met by more than 1,000 family members, whose travel and lodging expenses to Dover are paid for by the military.
Under the old policy, photographs of the flag-draped cases were banned, family travel expenses were not paid to Dover and loved ones were not encouraged to come. The new policy allows families to say no to the news coverage; the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operation Center at Dover said that 56 percent have said yes.
The single busiest night at Dover since last April has been Oct. 29, 2009, when President Obama made an unannounced trip there in the middle of the night to witness the return of 18 Americans killed in Afghanistan. Three other transfers occurred that night as well.
Mrs. Schwartz said she was pleased with the change from the old room. “The military thought it was working fine,” she said. “But as a woman, you see that it was cold and sterile at the worst time in their lives.”