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Only on AP: 20 years later, chaplain’s litany of prayers for US troops killed in Afghanistan finally comes to an end

Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Senior Chaplain David Sparks looks at a C-5M Super Galaxy transport plane on the flightline at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Monday, June 21, 2021. The aircraft is one of those used for the dignified transfer of remains, conducted upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base to honor those who have died while serving in a military theater of operations. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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With the end of the war in Afghanistan looming, national writer Matt Sedensky was searching for a compelling way to humanize America’s longest war — and he found it.

Nearly all the American troops killed in the war had their remains returned to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the military runs a mortuary. Sedensky went about interviewing workers there, searching for the right subject to convey the somber work of identifying, autopsying and preparing the dead for burial. The intensity of the work means many are deployed to do it for just months, and few stay longer than a couple of years. Eventually, though, Sedensky learned of a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves, David Sparks, who had been called to active duty on 9/11, assigned to the mortuary, and had been there ever since.

Sparks was a reluctant subject,uneasy about being the focus of any story and reserved in talking about his life in the mortuary. But in a series of multihour phone interviews and over the course of three days shadowing him on base,Sedensky slowly pieced together Sparks’ experience: writing hundreds of prayers for the dead,standing beside their disfigured remains and ministering to their broken families.

Joined by New York video journalist Jessie Wardarski and Washington photographer Carolyn Kaster,the team had access to parts of the base hidden far from public view — the medical examiner’s autopsy suite,the complex where soldiers’ personal possessions are processed,the room where the deceased are dressed in uniform one final time,facilities for the family members of fallen troops and the flight line itself, where Sparks stood aboard or beside aircraft praying for the dead.

The resulting package,with Sedensky’s expressive prose and affecting visuals by Wardarski and Kaster,generated a strong response. “I’m an Afghan veteran. I’m going to cry tonight thinking about this piece. Thank you for finding David Sparks,for telling his story,and for telling our story,” one reader wrote. An officer in the U.S. Navy tweeted: “This may be the most powerful article that I’ve read this year.”

Others with no ties to the military were likewise hit by the story’s emotional weight. One woman tweeted: “8 a.m. and I’m crying on my LA Times. Thank you for this moving piece.”

For intimate,revealing work that eloquently writes one of the closing chapters of America’s 20-year war,the team of Sedensky, Kaster and Wardarski earns this week’s Best of the States award.

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