News: Mortuary affairs Soldiers prepare fallen for the trip home
Story by Spc. Jennifer Spradlin
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan - The arrival of a fallen service member is marked by the lowering of the national colors to half mast; it is a reminder to all who bear witness, of the sacrifice made by those who chose to serve the nation above all else. Somewhat behind the scenes, a dedicated group of soldiers have already begun the important process to send these heroes home.
For the soldiers of the 111th Quartermaster Company, who run the mortuary affairs collection point at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, ensuring that the nation’s fallen are returned to the United States in a timely and respectful manner is both their job and their highest honor.
It is their responsibility to create a detailed and accurate catalog of the personal effects and prepare the remains of the fallen for transfer to Dover Air Force Base, Del., where the autopsy and final preparations are performed prior to the servicemember being returned to their families for burial.
“The soldiers have a passion for their jobs. If you talk to any one of them, they’ll tell you how serious it is for them to make sure that everything is done right from the minute the remains are received,” said Capt. Linda Wynn, 111th Quartermaster Company. commander. “It’s very important that we make sure there is not one step that is missed.”
Wynn deployed previously to Camp Taji, Iraq, as a military police officer. Two soldiers from her unit were killed. She said being in command of a mortuary affairs unit has helped her to “close the loop” on her grief because she knows that those Soldiers were treated with compassion and respect.
This deployment represents a new mission and a new set of challenges as a leader. Sgt. Maj. Frank Rivero, the senior mortuary noncommissioned officer in the Army, has said that one in three mortuary affairs specialists will experience some form of post traumatic stress disorder. As their commander, Wynn understands her role in providing positive outlets and resources to keep her soldiers on track.
“I try to keep my soldiers occupied and make sure they understand their jobs,” said Wynn, a Dolphin, Va., native. “We also try to provide them with resilience training and combat stress training, to make sure they are able to release those things that they see -- those things that might be taking a mental toll on them.”
Leadership has been pivotal for the 111th QM Company during the first month of deployment to KAF. Many of its soldiers are both new to the Army and also to deployments.
“A day doesn’t go by that I don’t tell our Soldiers how proud I am of them,” said Sfc. Class Timothy Davis. “I have six brand new soldiers right out of AIT [advanced individual training], first deployment, first of anything and not one issue so far. That just says great things about them personally.”
Davis has been in the Army for 15 years. He previously served in the infantry until a knee injury forced him to change job fields. This is his third deployment with a mortuary affairs unit. He said he has enjoyed working with his young soldiers and seeing their enthusiasm.
“These soldiers want to do everything to perfection. That’s why I am really excited about the team that I have now, because that’s their mindset,” said Davis, a Wynnewood, Okla., native.
Pvt. Tene Brito, a Tampa, Fla., native, is one of the new 111th QM Company soldiers. She has been in the Army for approximately one year and is currently working toward a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. She is the first member of her family to join the military, and she said that many people were surprised by her decision.
“It was just something I knew that I wanted to do. To say I did something. It’s good,” said Brito.
Brito said that her biggest challenge has been in creating an emotional distance from her job. She was afraid that she would be too sad to do her job effectively. The first month taught her the importance of staying in touch with her family and also her fiancée, who is currently deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.
“I am going to be proud that I made it through this deployment. I didn’t think I was strong enough, but I’ve already proved something to myself,” Brito said.
At Fort Lee, Va., where the company is based, there is a hand-written letter from a family thanking the unit for the respectful service the unit provided to their loved one. This is a responsibility the unit takes to heart.
“What brings it home is going through the personal effects and seeing pictures of babies and young wives; that’s what tough,” Davis said. “That’s the reason why you pay the respect that you do because of the sacrifice that they made, but it’s also the people they leave behind at home. It’s about their sacrifices too. They deserve the respect that we give them.”