Albert Macfarland may not be the person you want to see knocking on your door, if you have a son or daughter serving in the US Army.
As director for Mortuary Affairs of the US Forces based in Korea, Macfarland’s job is to inform the next of kin about the death of a loved one in 13 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including the Philippines.
“We want to inform the next of kin personally–not through the phone or email,” the fatherly and usually amiable ex-soldier told the Dumaguete MetroPost.
He or his trained Casualty Assistance officers go wherever the next-of-kin can be found. “In this day where there’s Facebook, Twitter, email or SMS, it’s a big challenge to be the first to inform the relatives of the deceased. Sometimes, they already know of the news by the time we get to them,” he said.
He says they go far to reach out because these soldiers are not only considered family but they also gave the ultimate sacrifice.
“The service we provide is to walk with families through the grief process to provide closure,” he says.
Although his job is civilian in nature, he thinks of it as a continuation of his 19 years of military service where he retired as Command sergeant major in 1992. “I was a special forces medic whose job was to keep people alive. Now I take care of them in death.”
Of the 15 Filipino-American deaths in the US Army since 2002, Macfarland has either personally supervised the funeral arrangements of 10 remains in the Philippines, or had to deal with the deceased’s family here.
In all cases, Macfarland says, no interpreter is necessary because they send someone who speaks the local language.
Macfarland was in Dumaguete and Siquijor Province last week to bring back the remains of Filipino-American Sgt. Zainah Caye Creamer, 28, a military dog handler who was killed in an attack by insurgents on Jan. 12 in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
MacFarland says that his usual experience in the Philippines is that the family and the government are proud of what the soldiers are doing. “It’s touching for me,” he says.
Becoming a mortician had always been at the back of his mind even during his younger days. “I feel I’m doing God’s work by doing this, and my wife of 35 years is very supportive to my calling.”
Aside from attending to funeral arrangements, Macfarland takes care of travel arrangements for family members in the Philippines who attend a soldier’s burial in the US.
Macfarland says he sometimes gets emotionally- affected, especially when the departed soldier was just starting a family. “I have to take a few steps back, and take a deep breath,” he adds.
Another part of his job is to conduct search and retrieval operations for American servicemen in
the Asia-Pacific, such as the 2002 crash of a Chinook CH 47 helicopter, seven miles southeast of Apo Island in Negros Oriental.
MacFarland had chartered a salvage vessel to the Philippines, and spent two weeks here, recovering the wreckage and eight remains of the 10 servicemen who were killed in that crash.
“We take care of our own,” he says, “Our motto is ‘Never leave a fallen hero behind’ and no expense is ever too big.”
MacFarland also investigates deaths involving US soldiers as a forensic investigator and deputy medical examiner, like in the case of Lt. Cmdr. Scintar Buenviaje Mejia, who allegedly jumped to his death while in handcuffs last December from the second floor of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport after he was arrested for possession of cocaine. “It was no suicide,” he says, “the evidence doesn’t back the story.”
MacFarland’s report into the Mejia incident will be released soon.
Now 65, MacFarland looks forward to more years in his job. “As long as I enjoy what I’m doing, I will continue doing what I can. As they say, when you quit having fun, that’s when you need to quit.”