|From Watertown Daily Times watertowndailytimes.com
Captain Aaron R. Blanchard
FRIDAY, MAY 3, 2013
Captain Aaron Roy Blanchard was killed in a rocket attack in Pul-E-Alam, Afghanistan, on April 23, 2013.
He was born in Yakima in on April 2, 1981 and grew up in Selah. He attended Lince Elementary and played Little League Baseball. He and his brothers were part of a happy flock of neighborhood children that played in the streets near Crusher Canyon under the close supervision of many loving parents. Aaron learned a love of speed on his Big Wheel, plunging down Fifth Avenue with his feet off the pedals, in order to gain maximum velocity. He decided then that when he grew up he wanted to be an elk, and, were that not possible, a pilot in the US Armed Forces.
Aaron attended Selah Middle School and Selah High School, where he was a varsity wrestler and pole vaulter. He served as a page in the Washington State Senate. He played the trumpet in the Yakima Community Band that was directed by his grandfather. The band even took a great trip to play in Europe.
Aaron was an avid hunter and loved roaming the hills and canyons and mountains of Central Washington with his brothers and beloved Labrador retrievers. He was an accomplished bow hunter and exceptionally knowledgeable about elk. His expertise and frank posts as “Colockumelk” on the “Hunting Washington Forum” earned the respect of a far-reaching network of friends. Aaron and his brothers looked forward to the annual elk hunts that brought together the Blanchard Men for a week in the woods of camping, laughing, and hunting.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps shortly after graduation from high school in 1999. He completed basic training at Camp Pendleton in San Diego and earned certification as an Aviation Mechanic at Pensacola, FL. He made three major deployments including two combat tours in Iraq as a platoon Sergeant. Aaron’s Marine career took him all over the world, across the oceans and through the skies, from Southeast Asia to Iraq.
In 2002 he met the love of his life, Becky. After discharge from the Marine Corps, Aaron and Becky were married. Together they shared a “once in a lifetime” love, filled with laughter and adventure. In 2008 they celebrated the birth of a son, Hunter, and in 2011, the birth of daughter Amalia. He was a doting father and committed husband. The love he gave to his family was his greatest achievement.
In 2005, Aaron and Becky enrolled at Central Washington University, where Aaron was a bull rider for the university Rodeo Club. He joined the Army ROTC program, seeking the bachelor’s degree and leadership training required to be a helicopter pilot. Aaron led the CWU “Wildcat” Battalion to national recognition as the nation’s “Most Outstanding Senior Army ROTC Battalion,” and earned his commission as second lieutenant upon graduation.
Aaron completed pilot training at Ft. Rucker, Alabama; he was reassigned to Ft. Drum, New York, in 2011. In January 2013, his unit spent three weeks in Colorado, where he trained in high-altitude flying in preparation for deployment to Afghanistan. He loved flying his Apache helicopter and showed off his expertise at an air show at Ft. Drum, New York. In early April 2013, he joined the 2nd Aviation Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade in Afghanistan, flying an AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter.
Aaron’s passion for service and leadership, and his determination to know and understand his work and the world around him earned him the respect of his peers. His warmth, wonderful sense of humor, and generosity will always be remembered by his friends and family.
Military colleagues describe him as having a huge heart: “If you told him he couldn’t do something, he’d do it, no matter what.” He took care of others. He is described as having a wonderful spirit, easygoing, able to get along with everyone, and adventurous. Aaron’s friends and colleagues nicknamed him “Rudy,” a reference to Rudy Ruettiger, who, against tremendous odds, pursued and achieved his dream of earning a place on the Notre Dame football team.
While Aaron was passionate about service to his country, the center of his universe was his family. He reveled in his role as loving husband to Becky and adoring father of Hunter and Amalia. On leave from the Army or Marines, Aaron sought out time with his brothers, mother and father, and grandparents. He looked forward to family events that brought together scores of cousins, and aunts and uncles.
Aaron’s awards and decorations include the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, the NATO Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, the Combat Action Badge, the Army Achievement Medal, the Army Service Ribbon , the National Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, the Army Aviator Badge, the Navy-Marine Corps Presidential Unit Citation, the Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation, four Navy Sea Service Deployment Ribbons, the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, and two Rifle Expert Badges. He also completed Marine Combat Training, Aviation Machinist Mate Courses, the Apache Aviator Qualification Course, the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape Course, and the Aviation Office Basic Course.
Aaron was preceded in death by his grandfather, Roy D. Blanchard. He is survived by his wife, Rebecca; son Hunter and daughter Amalia; mother Laura
--; father Don --; brothers Michael and Karl --; grandfather John --; grandmothers Carolyn
-- and Nadine --; and an extended family and universe of friends who mourn his passing with broken hearts.
The Hunting Washington Forum is sponsoring “Joshua Cup IV Tribute,” a big-game hunting tournament to generate funds for Aaron’s family as well as the Blanchard Family Memorial Fund has been created at Wells Fargo Bank.
Funeral services will be conducted Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 11:00 AM in the Stone Church located at 3303 Englewood Ave, Yakima, WA 98902. He will be laid to rest on Sunday, May 5, 2013 at noon in the Washington State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake, WA. To share a memory of Aaron, please visit www.keithandkeith.com.
|From The Seattle Times seattletimes.com
Originally published May 25, 2013 at 6:48 PM | Page modified May 25, 2013 at 7:17 PM
Last inspection: The precise ritual of dressing the nation’s war dead
At the Dover Port Mortuary, where the bodies of service members are brought to be prepared for funeral, no detail is too small for the workers sending the bodies on their final journey.
By JAMES DAO
The New York Times
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — The soldier bent to his work, careful as a diamond cutter. He carried no weapon or rucksack, just a small plastic ruler, which he used to align a name plate, just so, atop the breast pocket of an Army dress blue jacket, size 39R.
“Blanchard,” the plate read.
Capt. Aaron Blanchard, 32, an Army pilot who grew up in Selah, Yakima County, Wash., had been in Afghanistan for only a few days when an enemy rocket killed him and another soldier last month as they dashed toward their helicopter. Now he was heading home.
Before he left the mortuary at Dover, however, he would need to be properly dressed. And so Staff Sgt. Miguel Deynes labored meticulously over every crease and fold, every ribbon and badge, of the dress uniform that would clothe Blanchard in his final resting place.
“It’s more than an honor,” Deynes said. “It’s a blessing to dress that soldier for the last time.”
About 6,700 U.S. service members have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the remains of almost every one have come through the Dover Port Mortuary. Yet only since 2009 have journalists been allowed to photograph coffins returning from the war zones, the most solemn of rites at this air base. The intimate details of the process have been kept from public view.
Recently the Air Force, which oversees the mortuary, allowed a reporter and a photographer to observe the assembling of dress uniforms for those who have died. A small slice of the process, to be sure, but enough to appreciate the careful ritual that attends the war dead of the U.S. military.
Housed in a partly unheated building before the wars began, the mortuary moved into a new 72,000-square-foot building in 2003 after the invasion of Iraq. As the wars expanded, so did the mortuary staff: from seven workers in 2001 to more than 60 today.
War also brought, for a time, unrelenting work. During the peak of fighting in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, 10 to 20 bodies arrived each day, and embalmers often worked all night to get remains home on time.
“I have deployed to Afghanistan,” said Col. John Devillier, the commander of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, “but I’ve seen more war here.”
For each of the war dead, the journey through Dover begins with the arrival of a cargo jet that is met by military officials and, usually, relatives. A team of service members wearing white gloves carries the coffins, covered with flags, to a white van that takes them to the Armed Forces Medical Examiner. Once an autopsy is completed, the work of the mortuary staff begins.
Remains are embalmed and then washed. Hands are scrubbed clean, hair is shampooed. Where appropriate, bones are wired together and damaged tissue is reconstructed with flesh-toned wax. Using photographs, or just intuition, the embalmers try to re-create the wrinkles in faces, the lines around mouths, the corners and lids of eyes.
“It has to look normal, like someone who is sleeping,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Howell, a Navy liaison at the mortuary who has a mortician’s license.
Once the body is ready, mortuary workers prepare dress uniforms for each, even if the coffin is closed at the funeral with the uniform laid on top of the remains, and even if the body is to be cremated.
Work on Blanchard’s uniform began the morning after his body arrived at Dover, in a room lined with wood closets and walls hung thick with military accouterments. Deynes, guided by the captain’s official military record, began assembling the dozens of badges, medals, unit patches and ribbons that would go on the dress jacket.
Although Blanchard had been in Afghanistan only a few days, he had a long service record.
He began military service with the Marine Corps, joining in January 2000, and deploying to Iraq in January 2003.
After separating from the Marines, he completed Reserve Officer Training Corps school and was commissioned in the Army in June 2009.
So Deynes collected purple, orange and gold captains’ bars, denoting an aviator. Purple Heart. Overseas Service Badge. Deynes searched along the walls and in tiny plastic drawers for each. Then he assembled the ribbons denoting the captain’s awards in the proper order according to precedence: a Bronze Star, his highest medal, went on the top, and the others followed like the words on a page.
When finished, he slipped them onto a metal “ribbon rack” and pinned it above the jacket’s left breast pocket. Then he took a photograph to be sent to Army personnel headquarters at Fort Knox for double checking.
The process has to be “100 percent perfect,” said William Zwicharowski, the Dover Port Mortuary branch chief, because “a lot of times, families are in denial and they want to find something that gives them hope that it wasn’t their son or daughter.”
Cpl. Landon Beaty, the Marine Corps liaison, recalled receiving a hard lesson in uniform assemblage when he first came to the mortuary last year. After inspecting a Marine’s uniform for loose threads, he thought he had found every one — until his boss found 73 more. Beaty voluntarily did three push-ups for each missed thread.
Working intimately with the dead can take a toll, so the mortuary has a gym and a recreation room where workers are encouraged to blow off steam. Chaplains and mental-health advisers also are available for counseling.
Zwicharowski, a former Marine, said many workers were haunted by the youthfulness of the dead and by the fact that so many leave behind children. He counsels his staff to avoid researching their backgrounds.
“If I knew the story of every individual who went through here, I would probably be in a padded cell,” he said.
Blanchard, who was based out of Fort Drum, N.Y., left behind his wife, two children, Hunter, 4, and Amalia, 2, his parents and two brothers.
Zwicharowski was one of several employees who reported problems at the mortuary several years ago that included workers losing body parts and sawing off the arm of a dead Marine without consulting his family.
According to a report issued in late 2011 by the Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that handles complaints from whistle-blowers, senior mortuary officials tried to cover up the problems and then punished the employees who reported them, including Zwicharowski. Since then, the Air Force has removed those officials, installing Devillier as the commander and promoting Zwicharowski to mortuary chief.
“We’re in a posture better than we ever have been,” said Zwicharowski, who was the director of a private funeral home in Pennsylvania before joining the Dover mortuary in 1999.
Deynes began putting the final touches on Blanchard’s uniform immediately after it returned from the base tailor, who had sewn captain’s bars onto the jacket shoulders and purple-and-gold aviator braids onto the sleeves, 3 inches above the bottom, to be exact. The sergeant starched and pressed a white shirt, ironed a crease into the pants, steamed wrinkles out of the jacket and then rolled a lint remover over all of it, twice.
Gently, he laid the pieces onto a padded table. Black socks protruded from the pants and white gloves from the sleeves. The funeral would be a closed coffin, but it all still had to look right.
“They are not going to see it,” he said. “I do it for myself.”
A week later, Blanchard’s remains were flown home, and he was buried in a military cemetery near Spokane.
His mother, Laura Schactler, said Blanchard had enlisted in the Marines after high school and served two tours in Iraq before marrying and returning home to attend college on an Army ROTC scholarship. After graduating, he learned to fly Apache attack helicopters, fulfilling a boyhood dream.
Before his funeral, Schactler spent time alone with her son but did not open his coffin. Later that night, she said, her husband and two other sons did, wanting to say one last farewell.
Inside, they saw a uniform, white gloves crossed, buttons gleaming, perfect in every detail.
Material from The Seattle Times archive
is included in this report.