Fort Lee's Mortuary Affairs students train for 'a very honorable job'
By KATHERINE JOHNSON | The Progress-Index, Petersburg, Va. | Published: July 29, 2014
[Editor's note: One of Fort Lee's primary missions is to train soldiers for a variety of military occupations. The Army base offers scores of advanced training for a Military Occupational Speciality or MOS. This is the first in an occasional series that looks at the Military Occupational Speciality training at Fort Lee.]
FORT LEE, Va. — Over 70,000 troops pass through the classrooms of Fort Lee each year to receive training for their Military Occupational Speciality (MOS). Students come from all branches of the military to study at Fort Lee, which makes it the third largest training site in the Army.
Of these 70,000 or more students each year, less than 1 percent choose to train to be mortuary affairs (MA) specialists, making it one of the smallest jobs in the Army and Department of Defense. The 54th and 111th Quartermaster companies of Fort Lee are the only two active mortuary affairs units in the Army.
Sgt. Maj. Danang McKay, who's been with Fort Lee's Joint Mortuary Affairs Center (JMAC) for one year, said between 185 to 200 students train each year to become mortuary affairs specialists. Training for an entry soldier lasts seven weeks and three days and they're in class every day except for the weekends from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., McKay said.
He has worked as a MA specialist for 19 years and changed jobs early on in his career from satellite communications. "I can't imagine doing anything else," he said.
Mortuary affairs specialists focus on fallen soldiers from their time of death to the time they're returned home, McKay said, and although the task is difficult, "We have a very honorable job."
MA specialists are responsible for the preservation of remains, recovery and shipment of remains and logging and transporting personal effects, which include anything found on the fallen soldier; McKay said this process must be done in "a small window of time."
"When you say it, it seems like it's a simple task, but when you do it, it's a task that's bigger than one's self. It's an honorable task that you do not and you cannot mess up," he said.
He said initially, most students have "a different idea of what our job really is" as some come from families of morticians or funeral home owners.
"... But as they go through training ... then it stops becoming something that I wanted to do as a goal to achieve. It starts becoming what an honor it is to do this and it's the same for me," McKay said.
He said soldiers training to be MA specialists don't need to have a medical background. However, they must have a certain score on an aptitude test to proceed into training for the MOS. He said the Army is working on a credentialing program so soldiers can work in the civilian sector if they choose to do so. Because the MOS is focused on combat and the battlefield, "it's been very challenging to transfer those tasks to a civilian sector."
As of now, soldiers couldn't leave the Army and work as a mortician or forensic scientist with the training they have, McKay said.
"They have the basic knowledge where if they decide to pursue a career in mortuary science, it'll be an easier transition, but it's not a complete transition" from their military job, he said.
However, as part of their training students are taken to the Richmond morgue and Dover Air Force Base to train. McKay said they have trainees from all types of backgrounds, some of which "may have never even seen a dead animal up close," so asking them to suddenly handle human remains is unfair.
"It's unfair to the person and so what we do is we baby step them bit by bit to handling remains prior to them graduating. We'll take them into the Richmond morgue ... all the images, the smells, the sounds that are associated with that, they actually assist the medical examiner in performing the autopsy of those remains," McKay said.
Later on in their training, the students are taken to Dover for a week to assist the medical examiner with remains from the current battlefield. He said this experience is critical to their training, because "that is exactly what they'll be required to do once they graduate and they're deployed to the battlefield."
"Our remains come back from the battlefield in the gear that they were wearing when they passed. To see that for the first time is very difficult if you're on the battlefield, but if you've seen that process from the beginning to the end in training, when you get to your unit and you actually have to do it, it won't come as such a shock," McKay said.
He added that seeing a fallen soldier with their bloody equipment and blunt trauma for the first time is hard, so "You almost need to slowly immerse yourself into that position where you can deal with that and you can handle the remains when required."
McKay said the trainees are talked to about how the job could impact them mentally prior to training, during training and at the morgue and Dover. He said if students are having problems at any point, they can go to their instructor.
"We'll either get them help to help them through the course ... or, in our MOS, we are one of the few jobs that if they say, 'I just don't want to do it anymore,' without any retribution then we can put them into another job," he said.
However, it's very rare that this happens, McKay said. Since he started at JMAC, he said there's only been one student who left the MOS. He said there were five or six trainees who were having problems, but worked through them with counseling.
"They've gone on and they've done great things," he said.
He added that a soldier may not openly admit to their instructor that they're struggling, but McKay can tell. "We can see, whether they say it or not, we can see in training the ones that are a little nervous and having some problems processing what we're doing and we just basically stand with them and assist them ... they usually work through that process," he said.
In order to graduate, students must pass a final cumulative exercise that covers everything they've learned during training, from fingerprinting to IDing bone fragments.
Because of the nature of the job, MA specialists are also deployed for a shorter amount of time. Typically they're deployed for six months at a time, McKay said. "It's the right thing to do. I've deployed for 12 months around remains and I personally think, now that I look back on it, at about that ninth month mark, I wasn't at my top level of performance," he said.
However, like in training, some specialists don't realize when they have peaked out, McKay said. "It's normally another person standing there that has to say 'You've had enough ...'"
While deployed, soldiers can be exposed to remains up to three times a week or every day. At times, they can deal with remains for an 18- or 19-hour process. When they arrive back to the states, they're given a year's rest, or six months at the shortest. However, McKay said the best case scenario is one year.
"You're able to come to the states, decompress, receive counseling and move forward," he said.
In late June, students in training were one week from graduation. Pfc. Jeff Smith said he had experience in the funeral home industry before joining the military, which is why he wanted to pursue mortuary affairs.
"It's different than the civilian side definitely and I wasn't sure what to expect when I got here, but the training that we've received ... has really given us a well-rounded training approach to what we're going to be doing," Smith said.
He added that he feels mentally prepared to handle remains as well, and can "just go out there and do my job."
Pfc. Raymond Guerrero said unlike Smith, he had no prior experience handling human remains, but wanted to get involved in a job that correlated with science.
"I've never worked at a funeral home, I've never been exposed to these kinds of conditions," he said.
"I kind of jumped in here, you could say blind, but when I got here everything was a crawl-walk phase. They built us up little by little so that once you get to actually having to work with it, you're able to develop a switch so that you don't let your emotions get the best of you while you're working with the remains ..." Guerrero said of his experience in training.
He added that he thought he had mentally prepared himself to visit the morgue, but "it's different the moment you get there."
"It was a bit of a shock kind of, adjusting to the smells. It's a brand new smell ... It's also something I've never seen before, so you take a second to adjust to it ..." he said.
Guerrero said that the instructors worked with the students through the whole process and always checked on them to make sure they were OK. "It was a pretty good transition," he said of the training.
McKay stressed that caring for fallen soldiers is one of the most honorable jobs a soldier can have.
"Our nation wants, when our sons and daughters and wives and fathers go off to battle to serve their country and they pay the ultimate sacrifice, our nation and people in uniform, we demand that they come back home with the fullest honors and respect. And there's no other way to do it. The nation that stops caring for its fallen is a nation that's doomed to cease to exist."