News: Soldier uses mortuary skills from old MOS
An explosion rocked Sgt. Donald Lonski's cot at an Iraqi camp just outside Tal Afar one morning in October.
A resident of Felton, Del., Lonski had been living at the camp for nearly three months as part of a shower, laundry and textiles team that the Army Reserve's 254th Quartermaster Company had sent to support about 700 Iraqis and less than 100 Americans living there.
The camp served as a launching pad for anti-terrorist operations and on Oct. 12, a group of civilians came to the gate seeking to enlist in the new Iraqi military. Armed with a vest full of explosives, an insurgent found his way to the middle of the crowd and blew up himself, killing nearly 30 prospective recruits and injuring at least 35 others.
A sergeant in Lonski's team awoke him, and told him that the attack resulted in a mass casualty situation. The only doctor on site, a U.S. Navy corpsman, had run through a mass casualty exercise with Lonski's team the day before, and as practiced, he asked the team to secure the area of impact and asked Lonski to take charge of the deceased.
Lonski, who joined the Army Reserve 12 years ago as a mortuary affairs specialist, was the only Soldier on post with any knowledge of how to treat corpses. He grabbed five other Soldiers and blasted an air conditioner through a small room, setting up a makeshift morgue.
"One thing that I stressed with my guys was respect for the deceased," Lonski said. "There are proper ways to take care of their bodies, and you have to be careful with their [belongings], you have to take care of them just as if they were one of yours."
The Soldiers did what they could with what they had. Normally, a team of 15 Soldiers would have staffed a morgue for the number of casualties that resulted from the attack, but Lonski only had five helpers, none of whom where trained in mortuary affairs.
And normally, the morgue would have an advanced storage facility cooled by a gigantic freezer, but Lonski made it work with a standard air conditioner. Nothing seemed normal about the process. But for Lonski, the situation was becoming familiar.
Though he never expected to do mortuary affairs during the deployment, the Oct. 12 incident was the third time that he used his specialty since arriving in Tal Afar.
In August, a suicide bomber killed several civilians at a checkpoint near the camp and Lonski volunteered to set up a temporary morgue for them.
In July, another terrorist detonated himself less than 100 meters from the camp, killing nine people for whom Lonski also provided immediate mortuary care.
"Throughout the whole deployment, he did exceptionally well," said the 254th's 1st Sgt. David Ritter. "His mortuary affairs background really helped the Soldiers at Tal Afar."
Lonski helped so much that the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, the unit with the most American troops at Tal Afar, conferred upon Lonski and his team the Order of the Spur, a military honor only attainable through completion of a rigorous military course or through commendable service during times of war. The 3rd ACR cited the latter reason in welcoming Lonski into its order.
While noting that induction into the Order of the Spur was 'the greatest honor" he's ever received in the military, Lonski said volunteering to set up the morgue was nothing exceptional.
"I was just doing what I've trained to do and they needed help," he said.
In 2001, he volunteered to help care for the corpses of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks at the Pentagon. And as the end of his deployment neared, he re-enlisted in the Reserves for six years, practically volunteering for a second deployment. For him, it is all part of the same war: he sees the anti-Iraqi insurgency as having the same goals as the terrorists who attacked the U.S. in 2001.
"The 9/11 terrorists were targeting innocent civilians just to cause havoc. It's the same philosophy that they [the insurgents] are using here," Lonski said.
The son of a Fort Knox NCO who became a truck driver, Lonski is used to adventure and service, both of which he said he found in Iraq.
As a young teen, instead of doing research papers for school, he would write reports on truck driving trips that he took with his parents " his mom is also a truck driver as is one of his brothers. After a short career as an actor in New York City, he became an officer with the Harrington City Police Department in Delaware, where he has been serving for six years.
After a year-long deployment, though, he said he is ready to return home to his wife and two children. Lonski said he will end his unpredictable tour with a surprise homecoming.
"I'm going to surprise them," he said. "They don't know exactly when I'm coming home."