Long: A soldier he never knew inspired a NASCAR track executive to do more

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (R) stands at attention while a U.S. Army carry team moves the transfer case of U.S. Army Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base on Oct. 24, 2015 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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No mournful horns or soulful strings play. Silence pervades. Brief commands, boots pounding pavement, and, in some cases, sobbing are all that break the stillness.

The dignified transfer of a military member’s remains at Dover Air Force Base is a solemn event few will ever see in person. Nine years after Mike Tatoian witnessed one, the memory has not faded.

“It was a life-changing event,’’ he said.

The president of Dover International Speedway since has observed the dignified transfer annually. He returns to feel the pain, pay respects and continue a quest that started when a soldier he did not know moved Tatoian in ways he could not imagine.

The military’s ties to NASCAR are deeply ingrained from sponsorships and flyovers to pre-race pageantry and tributes. At Dover, it’s more personal. The track and base are close neighbors in Delaware’s capitol city of 37,000.

Dover Air Force Base personnel aid in security at the track during race weekends and the Firefly Music Festival. Groups from the base volunteer race weekends to cook and sell food or assist in the hospitality village. The track makes a donation to each group.

Dover International Speedway’s food and beverage department has assisted in organizing a Christmas Eve dinner for troops on the base the past 10 years. The track donates tickets to the USO with many given to active military at the base.

Tatoian, chairman of the Advisory Council for USO Delaware, also has sought to integrate his staff at the track with base personnel through programs or visits. It helps track employees better understand what takes place on the base, which is home to more than 6,000 military personnel and about 5,000 family members.

Tatoian was learning about the base when he witnessed a dignified transfer nine years ago. Dover Air Force Base is home to the only U.S.-based mortuary dedicated to fallen military. Every military member killed in a theatre of operation is sent to Dover before being shipped to a final destination.

After the plane arrives at the base, white-gloved personnel typically from the same service as the fallen carry the transfer case to a waiting vehicle. The remains are transported to the port mortuary to prepare the fallen to be returned to their family.

The transfer is brief but provides time to contemplate, life, death, dedication, service and many other issues often ignored or overlooked in one’s daily regimen where the biggest issues can be work, traffic or paying bills.

“Everybody knows that it’s their brother or sister that they’ve just lost,’’ Tatoian said. “I think that’s where I was kind of overcome with, the amount of respect. It’s really moving and impactful thing to see.’’

The most recent dignified transfer took place Jan. 8 for Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Q. McClintock, who died from wounds suffered in an attack on his unit in Afghanistan. There were 54 dignified transfers at the base in 2015. In 2010, there were 551.

Seeing one can be overpowering.

“You’re so emotionally exhausted,’’ said Tatoian, whose father served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it (driving home). I talked to my wife about it. It felt as though I knew who was brought home. That really was the day where I said, ‘All right, I never served, I’m not going to be able to, what are the things that I can do now to help serve those that are serving us, knowing that they’re putting it on the line for us.’

“The other thing I remember standing there, during the silence was probably nobody in the United States had any idea what was happening  … yet this young man was somewhere doing something to help everyone in the United States and now he’s coming home in a transfer case.

“Then you start to go through the different emotions of not getting frustrated, but darn it, these men and women and their families, they’re sacrificing for us. Everybody needs to know that and appreciate it. Honestly, I probably didn’t as much that day and after that day it just changed. That’s why I’m knee deep into things I’m doing because I want people to appreciate what these men and women are doing for us.’’

Tatoian increased his involvement in USO Delaware, which provides, among many programs, ways for troops to stay connected with families while on deployment, support groups for families and troops and food for the Fisher House for Families of the Fallen.

The 8,426-square foot home at the Dover Air Force Base provides temporary housing for families there to attend a dignified transfer. The home has a private suite and common areas such as a kitchen, living room, dining room and others.

As Tatoian went through the home one time with track employees, they walked into a room filled with toys for children.

For as much as witnessing a dignified transfer impacted him, Tatoian knows it does not compare to what the families experience. Entering the room with the toys made what happens with a dignified transfer more personal to Tatoian and his staff.

Gary Camp, senior director of communications at the track and a father of two young girls, was stopped by what he saw in that room.

On the chalkboard, a message in a child’s writing remained.

“You’ll always be my dad.’’