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    Training for the hard days: Annual event helps prepare mortuary troops


    Photo By Master Sgt. Gary Witte | At right, U.S. Army Spc. Carlos F. Martinez of Soledad, Calif., with the 111st...... read more read more



    Story by Sgt. 1st Class Gary Witte 

    642nd Regional Support Group

    While their main mission is to care for fallen troops, several hundred mortuary affairs Soldiers spent much of August honing their other military skills in Virginia.

    The annual Mortuary Affairs Exercise, known as MAX, brought Army Reserve units from across the nation to Fort Pickett, where they practiced such tasks as land navigation, marksmanship and patrolling in addition to their standard work.

    For many, it was a chance to prepare. For others, it was a relief from the normal challenges they face.

    Soldiers of the 246th Quartermaster Company from Puerto Rico were still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In 2017, all the mortuary affairs specialists were activated to help with recovery, despite their personal losses and problems, according to Staff Sgt. Jose A. Otero of Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico, a platoon sergeant for the unit.

    “They dropped everything and reported for duty,” Otero said. “That was a big sacrifice for all the Soldiers.”

    Then just three days before the MAX, more than a dozen Soldiers from the unit – including the commander – were again placed on active duty to help with the continuing recovery in the territory. The remaining troops came to the exercise not expecting a good experience.

    Instead, Otero said when the Soldiers arrived they were allowed to provide training from within the unit and found leadership willing to listen to them – all of which helped improve morale.

    Maj. Josh Vandegriff, 642nd Regional Support Group acting officer in charge of the event, said the main goal was to get the mortuary affairs Soldiers ready for deployments and organizers sought input from the units to improve their training.

    “Realism, feedback from the Soldiers are important,” Vandegriff said. “So when they have a bad day during deployment, their training kicks in and they can handle that bad day.”

    Tough days are expected in their career field. Where other specialties might practice marching for drill and ceremonies, the mortuary affairs Soldiers rehearsed a dignified transfer ceremony to honor and respect fallen troops.

    And though a briefing on new equipment for most Soldiers might mean viewing weapons or vehicles, for those at the MAX, it involved touring a system designed to help them deal with fatalities contaminated by disease or dangerous chemicals.

    The Mortuary Affairs Contaminated Remains Mitigation Site involved, among other items, a series of tents deployed across a parking lot in Fort Lee, Va. There, active duty Soldiers with the 111th Quartermaster Company, briefed the MAX attendees on the process and equipment.

    1st Lt. Eric G. Yeboa of the 111th Quartermaster Company said the system is designed to prevent any contamination from spreading to the civilian population. This means mortuary affairs Soldiers should be prepared to operate it.

    “Anybody can be called for the mission,” Yeoba said. “If the balloon goes up, everyone should be ready to handle the system.”

    Multiple units took part in the MAX, including the 246th Quartermaster Company, the 1019th Quartermaster Company from New York City, the 387th Quartermaster Company from Costa Mesa, Calif., and the 673rd Quartermaster Company from Dover, Del. The 642nd Regional Support Group, based in Decatur, Ga., ran and led the event.

    During the culmination of the exercise, the Soldiers went through a variety of field training scenarios, including search and recovery operations in urban areas, accident locations and contaminated sites.

    Spc. Alvaravo Dario of Dover, N.J., a mortuary affairs specialist with the 1019th Quartermaster Company, said the hands-on aspect of the events provided better lessons than classroom learning and made for a realistic experience.

    “It gives everyone a little taste of what it’s like to patrol,” he said. “It gives that Soldier that little bit of pressure and how to perform with the pressure.”

    Some of the units also had the opportunity to run the Fort Pickett Air Assault obstacle course, racing against the clock as they scaled, jumped and crawled through the obstructions.

    Sgt. 1st Class John G. Noe of Santa Maria, Calif., first sergeant with the 387th Quartermaster Company, said the exercise gives the mortuary affairs Soldiers a chance to work with each other in person, which can be difficult because of the low number of people who work in the specialty.

    “Getting face-to-face with the units is a big deal,” he said.

    Those units who have recently returned from deployments can also share their experiences as well as discuss current practices and policies with those who haven’t.

    “They have the most up-to-date information,” Noe said of the returned Soldiers.

    Noe, who has participated in two previous MAX events, said in many cases leading the units at the 2018 exercise fell to junior leadership – thereby giving them a chance to experience the next level of management.

    “They’re thrown into this role where they’re doing stuff they would never do otherwise,” he said.

    Staff Sgt. Fernando Pagan of Prince George, Va., a platoon sergeant with the 673rd Quartermaster Company, paused after supervising the establishment of a Mobile Integrated Remains Collection Systems in an open field during the exercise.

    He said the MAX is a boon to those Soldiers who haven’t been on deployments yet – especially when it comes to the MIRCS, which is the size of a large cargo container and requires multiple people to set up. Troops don’t often get to work with the system.

    “You have to get involved,” Pagan said. “You have to know how to operate your equipment and set up stuff.”

    Brig. Gen Del Rosso, commander of the 311th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, visited the MAX to evaluate the training being done by her subordinate unit, the 387th Quartermaster Company. She came away impressed by the field scenarios and the understanding the Soldiers have about the gravity of their mission.

    “This is outstanding training for our mortuary affairs Soldiers that we must incorporate into one collective training exercise,” she said. “The Soldiers learned a tremendous amount from each other.”

    Sgt. 1st Class Wilson R. Ramones of Queens, N.Y., a platoon sergeant for the 1019th Quartermaster Company, has been a mortician in the civilian world and is employed with the Manhattan Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

    He said their work with the deceased is similar in both the civilian and military worlds – with the key being respect for the fallen and their families.

    “I think if you care for the dead in the Army, you care for the living too,” Ramones said. “We are obligated to bring the hero to the family.”




    Date Taken: 08.24.2018
    Date Posted: 12.31.2018 13:56
    Story ID: 305857
    Location: FORT PICKETT, VA, US
    Hometown: SANTA ISABEL, PR
    Hometown: COSTA MESA, CA, US
    Hometown: DECATUR, GA, US
    Hometown: DOVER, NJ, US
    Hometown: DOVER, DE, US
    Hometown: FORT GREGG-ADAMS, VA, US
    Hometown: FORT PICKETT, VA, US
    Hometown: PRINCE GEORGE, VA, US
    Hometown: QUEENS, NY, US
    Hometown: SANTA MARIA, CA, US

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