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Experience and Empathy Ensures Superior Service to Families of the Fallen
One small moment is all it takes to make an impact on the lives of families who have experienced a loss. In those moments, the simplest gestures, often the ones that are most overlooked, mean more to them than anything. These families need someone to provide them with care, service and support. It’s these moments that James Gorham, the U.S. Marine Corps liaison assigned to Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, strives to provide to each family member under his care. 
Gorham, a retired U.S. Navy Chief and career mortician, has dedicated the bulk of his career to helping fallen service members and their families serving first as a civilian mortician before finding his calling as a Navy mortician. 
“I turned 18 in 1972, which was the first year they stopped the draft,” Gorham said. “I went to mortuary college, got my embalmer license, my funeral director license, worked in a couple of funeral homes in Oregon, and then one day I saw an article in our trade journals that the Navy was looking for embalmers, so I called the number and signed up.” 
Gorham would go on to serve in the Navy for 22 years as a mortician — traveling around the world taking care of fallen service members. 
Upon retiring, Gorham took a job as the program manager for the Midwest region with Navy Casualty where he oversaw casualty assistance and funeral honors for fallen service members. 
After eight years at Navy Casualty, Gorham was looking for something new when he noticed a job opening at Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations (AFMAO) — a place he became very familiar with during his time in the Navy. 
“I was familiar with the Dover Port Mortuary because I worked with the unit for quite a few years, so I knew the people that worked here over the years,” Gorham said. “When I saw that a position came open, I happily applied for it and have been here ever since.” 
Now, Gorham’s role is to provide specialized branch of service support for fallen Marines and their families. 
“It's the worst time of their life, so we try to make it as easy as possible for them to get here and have all their questions answered,” Gorham said. “It's a big unknown to them, so we try to guide them through the process and get them back home as soon as possible. Once we get the family home, I work with our team here to ensure our fallen service members get to their final resting place as soon as we can.” 
After Gorham had worked at Dover for some time, a familiar Navy mortician arrived at AFMAO to become the new Navy liaison — it was a Hospital Corpsman he oversaw at her first duty station. 
“When I met him, he was one of only a couple Chief Navy Morticians at the time,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Jessica Zugzda, the Navy liaison assigned to support AFMAO. “Being a senior leader myself and working alongside Jim as my peer now has allowed me to learn from his knowledge of the Navy and his experiences as a Navy mortician.” 
As the pair tackles providing dignity, honor, and respect for our fallen and care, service, and support to their families for the Department of the Navy, Gorham said that their work is one that may go unnoticed in the moment, but to him, it’s all about the impact they make on families. 
“We do it for the satisfaction of knowing that we did everything we possibly could to take care of that family and ease them through the process,” Gorham said. “Our work is not glamorous, and it rarely comes with a thank you or accolades, but when the families look back on these moments, they will remember how well they were cared for, and to me, that means everything.” 
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