Air Force Master Sgt. Jason Reininger builds a child-size coffin to be turned over to the hospital at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. Reininger is an aerospace medical technician assigned to the 451st Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. Photo by Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz
CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan (June 14, 2011) – Some of the heat has burned off as the summer moon rises overhead. An airman labors over scrap wood in a makeshift workshop under a canopy of camouflage. Fitting pieces of wood together, the shape of a tiny coffin emerges.
When the contract providing coffins for deceased Afghans expired, members at the hospital here immediately began making alternative plans. Americans stepped in to continue the role after their British counterparts brought the deficiency to their attention.
“[British army Maj. Martin Smith] came asking to see if our airmen would help out,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Barbara Persons, commander of the 451st Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron Detatchment 1 Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility. “I didn’t even hesitate. I knew my airmen would feel the same way as I did – anything to preserve the dignity of an innocent child.”
The British and other nations’ service members had long-since noticed the carpentry skills of the airmen here. Shortly after their arrival at the squadron compound in January, the airmen decided to make the place more habitable.
Before long, the airmen had built wooden overhangs draped with canopy covers. They nailed together shelves to hold books and other donated items, and fashioned picnic tables out of discarded wood from around the camp.
“I am always looking for ways to improve the conditions here, so whenever I can do a little project that will help with making the quality of life better for the people here or the patients, then it’s usually something I jump right into,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Jason Reininger, a reservist deployed from the 419th Medical Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.
Not a carpenter by trade, the sergeant said he has always been around construction and picked up little tricks of the trade along the way.
“I learned a lot of my skills from working with my father who worked a lot with contract builders and my stepfather who did a lot of work around the house,” Reininger said. “A lot of what I know I either picked up from them or has been self-taught.”
So when the question was posed to the sergeant about fashioning coffins for children, he immediately set to work.
“It seemed pretty simple to me and it just seemed something easy that I could do,” Reininger said. “It raised the level of intensity because I have two children of my own. It wasn’t just a shelf to put books on, but the final resting place for a child.”
Having never built a coffin before, or anything similar to one, the craftsman began researching the project online. Before long, he had a blueprint and a rough estimate of size.
Building a coffin is a somber task, but the sergeant takes solace in the knowledge that children won’t be released to their family in a sterile, military-issued body bag.
“I wouldn’t want to do that when I can provide something a little more to show that the child’s life was worth something,” he said, “and that the parent’s grief matters.”
Reininger’s first coffin is a model that will give the British an idea of what he can build. Once he receives the green light to proceed and reviews the cultural requirements, he’ll set to work on more.
In the meantime, the sergeant and other aeromedical evacuation personnel continue to forage wood scraps from different construction sites on the camp.
“If I’m busy with something, I can sleep better at night knowing that I am accomplishing something good and worthwhile,” Reininger said.
“I think being able to do little things like this improves the standing of us among the Afghans here,” he added.