He respects the dead, leaves grief to others
Stars and Stripes June 7, 2007
Mideast edition, Thursday, June 7, 2007
BAGHDAD — Most soldiers carry something with them, Sgt. 1st Class Ernesto Gonzalez said. Often it is a wedding band or a photo, a letter or even just a trinket. Whatever it may be, it is his job to find it.
Though the objects he searches for will be wept over and cherished, Gonzalez does his job dispassionately. To do it otherwise is to risk failure, he said. Anyway, the emotion, the grief, rightfully belong to others: families he will never see or meet.
Gonzalez is a member of the 2nd Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, out of Fort Carson, Colo. His job is mortuary affairs collections, a specialty that has little to do during peace time, he said.
“Nobody knew we were around until we got over here,” he said from Camp Rustamiyah, where his unit is based.
Now, there are whole months when he is busy, he said.
His mission is deceptively simple, the 29-year-old from Philadelphia said. He prepares fallen soldiers for transport home and gathers any belongings found on the remains for delivery to loved ones.
The job is anything but easy, he said.
“You don’t want to get too close to the job,” he said. “You don’t want to go back to your room and think about it all night.”
Gonzalez picked his specialty on a whim. Like other soldiers entering the service, he took a test and was presented a list of options. Mortuary affairs appeared alongside infantry and scouts. He made what he felt was the wisest choice, he said.
“I don’t know,” he said when asked to explain the reasoning behind his decision. “I thought I could deal with the dead. But I didn’t know what was involved in it. I had never been to a morgue or anything like that.”
Nine years into his Army career and after preparing roughly 45 fallen comrades for their final journey home, he still is not sure whether the job is a right fit. He doesn’t stop to mull it over. It could get in the way of performing his duties.
“I just have to keep trucking,” he said. “Sometimes that means being tough. Something inside of you tells you that you just have to deal with this.”
When a vehicle is brought back to base carrying the aftermath of a roadside explosion, Gonzalez and his crew must clean it out. Typically, as he works, members of the fallen soldier’s unit linger nearby, their emotions raw, mourning the lost.
“We see guys crying, throwing their Kevlar on the ground,” he said. “We see the emotion, but we got to do what we got to do. We have to do it right for the units and the family back home.”
The soldiers are removed and Gonzalez sweeps through the vehicle, most often a Humvee. He’s thorough. There’s usually something.
He once dug a bent ring out of a Humvee back seat. The shattered ring could have easily been mistaken for a piece of scrap metal, but Gonzalez wiped it clean and looked at it closely, he said. This may mean something to someone, he thought.
Then the search continues with the remains. Gonzalez will go through the soldiers’ pockets and equipment.
That is when his professional distance is most often tested, he said. But he must maintain his focus, not only for himself, but for the soldiers around him who look to him for guidance.
“I keep an eye on my guys,” he said. “And they see everything I do.”
The most poignant items often are found during those searches, he said. Once one of his soldiers was confused by a picture he had found.
“One of my soldiers picked it up and showed it to me,” he said. “I asked him if had ever seen a sonogram before. The soldier was carrying a sonogram of a baby.”
On another occasion, one of Gonzalez’s assistants found a letter on the remains of a soldier addressed to the fallen man’s father. The assistant began reading it.
“The letter said, ‘If you are reading this I have passed away,’” Gonzalez recalled. He stopped his assistant before he could go any further.
“I didn’t want him to get to the sentimental parts,” he said. “That wasn’t meant for us. That’s one place I don’t want to go.”
As in all cases, Gonzalez noted the letter and prepared it for shipping. He has done the same, he said, for photos, rings, pendants, Bibles; all the items left behind.
“If it has blood on it, I clean it as best as I can,” he said. “Everything means something to somebody. You keep that in mind. It helps.”
Though Gonzalez was not there, he said one soldier whose remains were searched had wrapped an American flag around the plates of his body armor.
“I have kids,” Gonzalez said. “And when I see some of these guys, 19-year-olds, that’s one of the aspects of this job you can’t run from: These guys are sometimes just kids.”
Gonzalez can foresee a time when he switches jobs, he said.
“I don’t see myself doing this all my life,” he said. “I feel like I’m part of the mission, but I don’t see myself doing this all my life.”