News: Providing dignity for those who have fallen
by Spc. Alexandra Hemmerly-Brown
"That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain." – Gettysburg Address
LSA ANACONDA, Iraq - There is one group of Soldiers who deal with loss each time they do their jobs.
The eight Soldiers here of the 111th Quartermaster Company from Fort Lee, Va. are responsible for processing remains and seeking identification for fallen personnel.
"Dignity, honor, and respect are the keystones of our job," said Spc. Robert B. McIntyre of Texarkana, Texas, a mortuary affairs specialist with the unit.
The occupation of mortuary affairs has come a long way since its conception in the Army. During the Civil War, 42 percent of war causalities were unidentified, compared to a virtual positive identification of 100 percent today. This is thanks to developments made in the field in the past 100 years, according to the U.S. Army Mortuary Affairs Center.
"The goal is no more unknown Soldiers," states the MA Center's Web site.
Soldiers who work in mortuary affairs receive and process the remains of deceased U.S. personnel in all branches of the military, civilians, third country nationals, and local nationals.
They are trained to do this job stateside, but do not normally put their skills into practice except in times of war or natural disasters, McIntyre said.
"It's good to know we are making a difference in families' lives," Clegg said.
Clegg said his aim is to become a medic.
"I plan on being on the side of trying to keep people alive when I get home," he said. "This is not a hard job, but not everyone can do it. It takes a certain mindset."
McIntyre agreed, saying that going through individuals' belongings is the hardest part.
"It's hard on the guys who go through the personal effects," McIntyre said noting that when a mortuary affairs specialist sorts through someone's belongings, such as a wallet or family photos, it makes the process harder because there is a personal connection with the subject.
"Everyone deals with it differently," he said.
McIntyre was called to assist at the Pentagon for three months after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
He said mortuary affairs Soldiers are sometimes asked to lend a hand during national mass casualty events such as the bombing in Oklahoma City, and Hurricane Katrina.
At the Pentagon he was working on a search and recovery team to help assess and process the casualties.
McIntyre said his unit's main priority for U.S. citizens, is to get them back to the States as quickly as possible.
"Very rarely it takes more than 12 hours after they arrive here to get sent to Kuwait," McIntyre said.
The Soldiers' other responsibilities include searching the remains for explosive devices, doing a physical examination, an inventory of personal effects, and trying to positively identify them.
There are three ways to make a legal identification, said Pfc. Douglas L. Clegg, Jr. from Las Vegas, Nev., also a mortuary affairs specialist.
He said a fingerprint, a DNA test, or a blood test are the official means doctors use to identify the deceased, and since mortuary affairs specialists in the Army are not qualified to do this kind of identification, they simply document all the I.D. material they can find.
The Soldiers collect I.D. information from tattoos, scars, and other defining features, Clegg said.
A case file is generated before the remains are sent to the Theatre Mortuary Evacuation Point in Kuwait.
Once they are received in Kuwait, the remains are processed for final shipment to the Dover Port Mortuary facility in Delaware. The whole process usually lasts about 72 hours, McIntyre said.
When the Soldiers process the remains of Iraqis, such as Iraqi Army and Iraqi police who are brought onto the base, the process is the same, McIntyre said.
"With Iraqi civilians, most of the time the I.D. is unknown," he said.
The mortuary affairs team will call Iraqi authorities to notify them of the loss, and they will retrieve their countrymen.
Overall, the Soldiers seem proud to do their job, even though their labors usually go unseen.
"At advanced individual training, my instructor said, 'the day it stops affecting me is the day I'll quit,'" Clegg said. "That will always stick with me."
Date Posted:11.27.2006 13:03
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