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Public Affairs NCO Deploys to Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations

Staff Sgt. Nikoletta Kanakis, a Massachusetts Air National Guard broadcaster deployed to Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at Dover Air Force Base, Del., captures video footage during a wreath laying event at Arlington National Cemetery, Dec. 13, 2014. Kanakis' primary duty is to document the dignified transfer of human remains to be provided to families of the fallen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Captain Raymond Geoffroy/Released)

Staff Sgt. Nikoletta Kanakis, a Massachusetts Air National Guard broadcaster deployed to Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at Dover Air Force Base, Del., captures video footage during a wreath laying event at Arlington National Cemetery, Dec. 13, 2014. Kanakis' primary duty is to document the dignified transfer of human remains to be provided to families of the fallen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Captain Raymond Geoffroy/Released)

OTIS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mass. -- Deployments are never ordinary, but when Staff Sgt. Nikoletta Kanakis, 102nd Intelligence Wing Public Affairs Broadcaster, placed her name on the Air National Guard volunteer deployment list, she had no idea she would not even leave the continental United States. In 2013, the Air National Guard Public Affairs career field manager notified Kanakis that she would deploy for 180 days to Dover Air Force Base, as part of the Public Affairs team at Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, Dover, Del. At first she thought it was a mistake--she did not know stateside deployments existed. 

Kanakis learned that her primary duty at AFMAO would be to document the dignified transfer of human remains, by producing videos of the fallen, when requested by the families. Kanakis' father had recently passed away that year, so at first she found this duty particularly tough to bear.

In July 2014, she packed up her car, placed her three cats into temporary foster care (PACT for Animals Military Foster Program, see link below), and travelled from Boston to Dover. The last time she deployed was in 2007 to Iraq.

During her deployment to Dover, Kanakis had the honor to document 39 dignified transfers of fallen service members. Each movement of the remains is documented on video, from the time the aircraft doors open revealing the transfer case draped in an American flag, to the transfer vehicle doors closing. A commemorative DVD is produced and presented to the family members of the fallen.

According to the AFMAO website, "The dignified transfer is a solemn and respectful process that returns America's fallen to U.S. soil with dignity and honor." The process of the dignified transfer at Dover is rich in heritage and tradition, going back to the Vietnam era. Over the years, Dover has developed and redefined the transfer process of our fallen warriors.

Upon the return from their respective area of operations to the United States, the remains of fallen military members are transferred from the aircraft to a waiting vehicle. They are then transported to the port mortuary in a solemn movement performed by a carry team of military personnel from the fallen member's respective service. A dignified transfer is conducted for every U.S. military member who dies in the theater of operation while in the service of his or her country. A general officer of the fallen member's service presides over each dignified transfer.

"It's an honor to be an anonymous cog in the wheel; to be able to provide the families with a video of their loved ones returning home," said Kanakis. "They may not watch that video for years, but at least it's something their children can watch when they're older. I remember a dignified transfer where the wife of the service member was almost due with their first child. Now that child will be able to watch the video someday."

Kanakis also documented retirement at sea in Cape May, N.J., aboard a U.S. Coast Guard vessel. The retirement at sea movement is the process in which identified and/or unidentified portions of human remains are cremated and retired at sea in an urn made from sea salt. (Note: In the case of identified portions, the families of the fallen authorize the portions to be retired at sea).

In Kanakis' spare time, she sought out activities that helped ease the weight of the emotional nature of her work. For example, she volunteered at Quilts of Valor, went on Chaplain-sponsored trips to Gettysburg and Arlington, increased her physical fitness and took a lot of yoga classes--and lost 20 pounds. "It was essential for me to take care of my mind and body during this deployment," said Kanakis. "It's very easy to get caught up in all the emotions; so I compartmentalized a lot and kept myself very busy after duty hours."

Kanakis was promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant during her deployment, awarded NCO of the Month in October, and received an Achievement Medal for her accomplishments at AFMAO.

"Kanakis always brings her game face," said Capt. Raymond Geoffroy, AFMAO Public Affairs Officer. "Her sense of humor lightens the mood and brings smiles to everyone's faces. She will be missed when she leaves."

To learn more about the special mission at AFMAO, visit their website at: http://www.mortuary.af.mil

To learn more about PACT for Animals military foster program visit their website at: http://www.pactforanimals.org