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Mortuary Soldiers perform mission with respect, reverence
ARNEWS ^ | Apr 24, 2006 | Master Sgt. Will Ackerman

Posted on 04/25/2006 4:33:59 PM PDT by SandRat

SATHER AIR BASE, Iraq (Army News Service, April 24, 2006) – Tucked away in an obscure building at Sather Air Base, a group of Soldiers hopes today is a slow one.

Although most people like to have lots of work, these Puerto Rico Army Reserve Soldiers are content not to have business. When they are busy, it means someone has died.

“When there is nothing, it’s a good thing,” said Sergeant Jose Vega, 311th Quartermaster Company Mortuary Affairs technician. “It’s better to stay that way than working.”

However, when they do process human remains for the flight back to the United States and to the family of the deceased, they perform their mission with “respect and reverence,” added Spc. Juan Mendezvega.

“We treat (each person) as an individual.”

The mortuary affairs team processes the remains of American and Coalition forces, contractors and Iraqis who have died in Iraq. They document the condition of the remains at the time of death on an anatomical chart, listing wounds, tattoos, scars or identification marks.

“We write down anything identifiable,” said Mendezvega.

Although the Dover Air Force Base, Del., mortuary is responsible for positively identifying the individual, the mortuary affairs team’s meticulous work often provides “tentative” identification.

“We look for a person’s ID tags so we can provide a tentative ID to Dover,” said Vega. “This can help them in notifying the family (of the deceased) as soon as possible.”

Getting personal

One way they tentatively identify the remains is taking any “personal effects,” documenting them on a form and placing them in a container or bag that travels in a transfer case with the remains.

Although the team processes hundreds of remains, the hardest emotional challenge is when they find a family photo.

“One of the worst parts is seeing pictures of the family,” Vega said. “It reminds us they had people waiting back home.”

The remains are placed in an aluminum transfer case in the condition they were received from the field along with a “case file” that includes the anatomical chart, personal effects list and a death certificate from a medical authority. The remains are sent on a military aircraft to a regional mortuary in Kuwait. There, remains are then packed on ice for the journey to Dover AFB, where they are embalmed.

The team has processed more than 135 U.S. remains since September 2005. They’ve also processed 27 insurgent and detainee remains and 63 third-country nationals.

Respect for all

Although there is no requirement to do so, the team leads a brief ceremony as they load the remains onto the aircraft to pay respect for the individual’s service. They and volunteers carry the flag-draped transfer case onto the aircraft while a small military formation presents a final salute.

“The (person) made the greatest sacrifice for the cause,” said Mendezvega. “I try to go every time and pay my respects.”

Although handling human remains from the battlefield is challenging, the Soldiers’ morale is high. Vega said they all volunteered for the career field. Additionally, many have been together for years in the Army Reserves. If one person has a problem, they all work together to deal with it.

“We can talk about anything,” added Mendezvega. “We are like a small family.”

Because they can receive remains at any time of the day or night – never knowing when they will have “downtime,” they take advantage of the quiet periods by playing basketball, watching movies or just talking.

The mortuary affairs career field is one that takes a special kind of person, Sergeant Vega said. But every member of the team volunteered.

“To me, I wouldn’t be doing any other job in the Army,” Mendezvega said.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Foreign Affairs; War on Terror
KEYWORDS: iraq; mission; mortuary; perform; respect; reverence; soldiers

1 posted on 04/25/2006 4:34:02 PM PDT by SandRat
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2 posted on 04/25/2006 4:34:30 PM PDT by SandRat (Duty, Honor, Country. What else needs to be said?)
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