Handling with care
AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq — In their civilian lives, they are a driver for United Parcel Service seeking a promotion to supervisor, a restaurant manager, a welder, a kid who works in a lumber yard and college students working toward degrees in psychology and English.
In their military lives as Marine Corps reservists, they are mortarmen and riflemen, infantry Marines and communications specialists. But none is here in Iraq serving in their military occupational specialties.
The Marines of Retrieval and Processing Company (Forward), the new name for Mortuary Affairs, are all volunteers who not only wanted to serve in Iraq, but to do so in the oft-ostracizing realm of mortuary affairs.
The Corps has no active-duty force of Mortuary Affairs specialists, so the service pulls from the Reserve ranks to perform the job of processing the remains of dead servicemembers from the combat zone.
“If someone has given the ultimate sacrifice, it is our honor to ensure that we get back to the families their loved one, every part, every bit,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brad Harris, the company’s officer-in-charge. “We won’t let it get like World War II, when families did not get remains. … There are still people from Vietnam who never received anything back. We won’t let that happen here.
“We’ve all done the funeral side of this, and we’ve seen how important it is for families to have closure,” he said.
Harris, who works for UPS in Lake Charles, La., also left his Reserve job as the infantry commander of Company F, 4th Antiterrorism Battalion, to lead the mortuary operations in western Iraq. He oversees procedures in three locations in Anbar province — Al Asad, Camp Fallujah and Camp Taqaddum.
The hardest part of the job for Cpl. Sergio Rosas, 23, is going through the personal effects found on bodies brought into the converted vehicle maintenance bays at Al Asad.
“You know more about that person in a few minutes than what you’d learn from anyone close to us in an hour,” said Rosas, a welder.
Details drive their vocation.
They record every nuance, every fine distinction of the remains. From grisly details — which many said doesn’t bother them — to an inventory of personal belongings: the wedding bands, the photo collections of wife and kids, the letters.
Rosas has had to read some of those letters. He recalls one from a Marine who wrote his girlfriend that he planned to propose marriage upon his return. Another was from a wife announcing the couple’s new baby was a boy and that she couldn’t wait for the new father to see him for the first time.
“Those can be hard to deal with,” he said. “But you have to tell yourself this is just a job.”
They work to ensure the dead troops are properly prepared for transport to Dover, Del., where the military conducts autopsies and definitive identifications.
The biggest misconception of Mortuary Affairs, Harris said, is that people tend to think the Marines perform autopsies and embalm the bodies. “Everything we do is geared toward evidence gathering and preservation,” he said.
It’s a tedious job that requires keen precision — from the collection of remains and personal effects from the field to the exact folding of the American flags that drape the transfer cases for the final flight back home.
The Marines in western Iraq each have gone through the seven-week preparatory training to do their jobs, training which Lance Cpl. Jeremy Holder, 21, likened to techniques used on the television show “CSI.”
“We learned how to do fingerprinting, match dental records and learned medical terms for body parts and wounds,” said Holder, a data systems communicator in the Reserves and front-of-house manager for Flat Rock restaurant in Asheville, N.C.
But Mortuary Affairs doesn’t deal solely with troops. They process anyone who dies on a U.S. base or is brought onto the camp — to include Iraqi soldiers, policemen and civilians.
And with the opening of a Level III trauma hospital in Al Asad, they mentally are preparing themselves for the possibility of having to deal with dead children, said Staff Sgt. Marcelino Marquez, 33.
“We’ll try to leave that for the Marines who don’t have children,” he said. “If they have children, that tends to hit closer to home with them.
“We have programs in place to help them deal with the stress, ways to help them cope. … I encourage them to be more like a family. I’m very proud of the guys I got.”
For the most part, all they have is each other in this combat zone.
“We try not to associate or get too close to some of the other Marines,” Holder said.
It makes it harder to deal with if you are friends with the victim on your processing table.
“Not to mention, they tend to stay away from us anyway,” he added, with a rueful laugh. “They know you’re Mortuary Affairs, and they, well, back away.”