News: 'Dirty Dozen' brings heroes home
Story by Sgt. Ben Eberle
By Cpl. Ben Eberle
By 1st Marine Logistics Group
AT-TAQADDUM, Iraq – Green sandbags spell the unit's abbreviation on the outer wall of its large bunker. On a clear day, the sprawling letters can be seen from a mile away.
Despite its visual prominence, many stationed at Camp Taqaddum don't know what "PRP" stands for and have no idea what goes on here. Those who do would rather not think about it.
"When I see the tail end of a C-130 (transport aircraft) go up with transfer cases draped in American flags, I'm definitely proud of what we do," said Lance Cpl. Nick Divito, a mortuary affairs specialist with Personnel Retrieval and Processing Detachment, Headquarters and Service Company, 1st Marine Logistics Group.
The team is formed by volunteers from the Marine Corps Reserve. Mortuary affairs units are new to the Marine Corps and didn't become an occupational specialty until after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
No one left behind:
The unit is responsible for recovering the remains of those who make the ultimate sacrifice and returning these "angels" to their families.
"Our main goal is to get all deceased military, civilian and Iraqi personnel out of combat, (identify the remains), and get the personnel back to their families to begin the grieving process," said Sgt. Cade Carlton, a team leader with Camp Taqaddum's PRP Detachment.
Carlton deployed to Al Asad as a mortuary affairs specialist in January 2005. Three years later and 75 miles southeast, the Anbar province seems like another world.
"It was a bad time back then, really chaotic," said Carlton, a 22-year-old from Tucker, Ga.
He remembered a particular mission in 2005. His team was called into a kill zone to recover the bodies of 17 American service members. Enemy forces fired mortars as the Marines pulled victims from an amphibious assault vehicle that had been demolished by a large improvised explosive device. Carlton and the downed AAV were inside the impact area.
Carlton said one of his teammates took cover in a humvee when the mortars started detonating around them, absorbing fragmentation in his body armor. He remembered his friend being approximately 50 yards away.
The team returned from the mission unharmed, and Carlton vowed he would never hesitate risking his own life to bring his brothers and sisters home.
"If I ever die in combat, I want one of my brothers to get me out of there," Carlton said. "You can't show any signs of weakness – being hurt or being afraid."
'They deserve the absolute best':
Three Marine detachments with a total of 34 PRP personnel currently serve in al-Anbar province. The largest constituency (14 personnel) is deployed here at Camp Taqaddum, about 50 miles west of Baghdad.
Marines take on the responsibilities of search and recovery, as well as processing, unlike mortuary affairs units in other services that only process remains, said Chief Warrant Officer Bo Causey, officer-in-charge of PRP Detachment.
The province has become more stable since the start of the long war, but it's still a dangerous place. Search and recovery missions continue to take PRP Marines into the kill zone, a place where their background as riflemen comes into play.
"All the pre-deployment training is essential," said Causey, 37, from Marietta, Ga. "They need to know what to do as riflemen because (search-and-recovery missions) are a critical part of our mission ... we have to remain trained and proficient."
The Marines come from a variety of military occupations – infantrymen, cooks, wiremen. They've all received extensive training on convoy operations, squad movements and security tactics, and they don't rest until the mission is accomplished.
Cpl. Robert Rens, a 23-year-old from Kennesaw, Ga., spoke of a recent incident during which the team's search and recovery mission started in the evening and didn't end until dawn the next morning. They returned from the incident site and immediately started to help process the remains that had already flown into Camp Taqaddum.
"It's pretty common with all of us that no one sleeps until the job is done," said Rens, who's serving his first deployment.
The team acts quickly, realizing it's a race against the clock to return the "angel" to his or her family so as not to delay a memorial service or funeral.
The process of preparing for a dignified transfer is ceremonial in itself.
"It can take up to two hours to iron a flag, to get all the wrinkles out," said Lance Cpl. Bill L. Perkins, as he carefully applied starch to the national colors before securing it to a transfer case. "It's going home as a memorial, so it has to look its absolute best."
Perkins, a 23-year-old from Fayetteville, Ga., paused and looked up from his work. "They're 'angels,' so they deserve the absolute best anyways."
The 'Dirty Dozen' and dealing with loss:
The 14-man team has a core of 12 junior Marines and noncommissioned officers. The self-proclaimed "Dirty Dozen" spends a lot of their free time together, assigning each other nicknames like Bill Braski, Johnny Ringo, Bam-Bam and Tucker Max.
They keep close tabs on little things about each other, like who shaved his arms or lifted a personal best in the weight room. They know who's approaching by the sound of footsteps or an unmistakable swagger. The group of Marines more closely resembles a tight-knit family than military unit, and considering their line of work, this closeness can prove a valuable asset.
"You've got to detach yourself from emotions," said Lance Cpl. Brendan T. Koch, a 20-year-old from Kennesaw, Ga.
Emotional detachment is a short-term solution. Koch said being deployed with trusted peers keeps the necessary channels of communication open.
Like Perkins and Carlton, he's serving his second combat deployment as a mortuary affairs specialist. Koch said he's been involved in the recovery and processing of more than 300 deceased personnel throughout his two tours.
"It's important to have a good group of guys with you that do the same job," he said, "so everybody can vent with each other and loosen the mood."
Many attend church services regularly, seeking refuge and release in their spirituality, but a large portion of their support system comes from the Marines they work with.
"Being so tight, we don't have any barriers keeping us from talking to each other," said Divito, a 21-year-old from Aldie, Va.
The team members strive to accomplish the mission and maintain military discipline while remaining approachable to anyone who needs to talk.
"I've done this job in Fallujah," Perkins said, "and the group we have out here now is the best I've ever worked with."
A joyless, but honorable job:
"It's not really a job with a lot of glory in it, but you won't find a job with any more honor," said Cpl. Chris P. Donovan, a 22-year-old from Milledgeville, Ga.
Other mortuary affairs specialists at Camp Taqaddum will give a similar answer. Their modesty will probably keep them from mentioning there are few jobs more difficult.
Returning heroes to their families is the only thing that matters, since there's no hope for any of these "angels" to return home alive.
Neatly pressed American flags wait to be draped over empty transfer cases. Surgical tools very similar to those in stateside emergency rooms sit on a nearby table. A young American stands duty and waits for the phone to ring.
It's a sound that rarely precedes good news, but for now the phone is silent.
The Marines of PRP Detachment serving their second tour know it's a different Iraq than past deployments. Those on their first tour have heard enough to imagine how different it is.
Iraqi security forces have taken the lead of operations in much of al-Anbar province. Coalition forces have started to hand over battle space. The military transition is in full swing and the phone rings less often, but Marine PRP stays until everyone goes home.
"Someone signs the contract and gets killed for their country? I'm honored to go out there and send them home," Perkins said.
The unit, with personnel based out of Anacostia Naval Station, Va., and Smyrna, Ga., is expected to return to the states in September 2008.