Mortuary unit in Iraq trying on Marines
By NICK WADHAMS
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
Mohammed Abeed who was injured in a blast waits for help in Baghdad's Yarmouk hospital Monday Dec. 27 2004. A suicide bomber detonated his car Monday at the gate of the home of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country's most powerful Shiite political group killing nine people and injuring 39, police said. The cleric was unharmed. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq -- When U.S. servicemen and insurgents die in Fallujah, the bodies are brought back to camp and laid on a concrete floor under a tent hidden behind blast walls topped with concertina wire. The sign outside says: "Do Not Enter."
Five men check the corpses and put them in refrigerators. Within 72 hours, the slain American will arrive at Delaware's Dover Air Force Base in a flag-draped coffin, while the Iraqi will be buried in a plot outside Fallujah facing Mecca.
This is the work of Mortuary Affairs, the Marine unit that catalogues the remains of American servicemen who die in combat, referred to as angels, as well as the Iraqi guerrillas they fight and civilian victims. These Marines must cope with one of the most psychologically punishing but unavoidable tasks of war.
They are shunned by their peers because of a superstition that contact with them brings bad luck. Yet some don't want to go home and leave their fellow Marines who are among the few who have witnessed the same horrors. They must try to stay sane even as they are confronted with the effects of gruesome killings by the shrapnel-filled roadside bombs set by insurgents and terrible U.S. firepower.
"Some of the guys, when it gets dark, don't want to go out by themselves. Sometimes they feel like somebody's watching them when they know there isn't," said Lance Cpl. Boyce Kerns, a 24-year-old from Greenville, S.C. "Some of the stuff we've seen you wouldn't see in the worst horror movies and it leaves a little imprint."
It may be unsettling for soldiers and Marines to pass the Mortuary Affairs compound as they prepare to go out into Fallujah's dangerous streets. But the unit's presence here reflects a change in thinking meant to cut down on missing in action and get the dead sent home as quickly as possible.
Instead of working hundreds of miles from the battlefield, Mortuary Affairs units operate just minutes from it, sometimes processing a Marine's corpse just hours after he dies. In this area west of Baghdad, the unit has 15-20 servicemen at three camps: Taqaddum, Al Asad and Fallujah.
"What was happening was a lot of bodies didn't have positive IDs," said Gunnery Sgt. Byron Bess, 37, from Washington. "By the time they got to the area, they were unidentified and you couldn't get in touch with the units because they'd pushed forward."
Bess said the change is one reason there is only one American serviceman currently listed as missing in action in Iraq, Army Spc. Keith M. Maupin, of Batavia, Ohio.
Since Oct. 7, Mortuary Affairs has processed 84 Americans along with 26 Iraqi soldiers and 525 insurgents. During the worst of the Fallujah fighting, which began Nov. 8 and lasted a week, the unit handled up to about 10 Marines a day and many more insurgents.
The unit is still pulling Iraqi bodies from the city. On a recent day, four sets of Iraqi remains arrived - one, just a pile of bones and rags, another a man clad in black and wearing running shoes, had been on the street for days.
Many in the Mortuary Affairs unit at Camp Fallujah are reservists, former cooks and supply clerks from a unit in Washington. On a recent day, their routine was perfectly normal. Several sat around a television watching "Saving Private Ryan," others laughed and teased each other, while some were about to leave to play video games.
Some, like Kerns, volunteered for the work because they just wanted to join the Iraq fight no matter what. Others decided to do it so their colleagues wouldn't have to, and some were assigned.
They were sent to a two-week training course that included a stop at the Baltimore morgue to get accustomed to the sight and smell of death. Many among them had never seen a human corpse before.
"As for seeing the insurgents dead, I know that these guys were out there killing Marines, they were given a choice whether to surrender or not, so seeing their corpses mangled up doesn't bother you," said Cpl. Jeffrey Keating, a 26-year-old from Queens, N.Y. "But seeing the Marines dead, that hurts a little bit more. But you just got to see it as a job."
The 16 Marines who process the dead, working eight at a time in 24-hour shifts, follow the same routine.
When a body arrives, it is brought inside the tent and placed on a concrete floor. Two men are the "dirty hands" who inspect the body, catalogue wounds and check for unexploded weapons. One sorts through the slain person's belongings. Two more are the "clean hands," writing down what the others find.
The dead American's name, social security numbers and place of death are written into a hardcover lime-green log book. The body is given an evacuation number and then placed in a body bag - a stack of unused bags labeled "pouch, human remains w/6 handles" sits to the side of the tent.
Iraqi dead go to a white refrigerator while American dead go to one of two camouflage refrigerators on the other side of the tent. The entire process usually takes about 15 minutes.
American bodies are then sent to a U.S. base in Doha, Qatar and on to Dover, while Iraqi bodies are buried in a plot outside Fallujah marked with coordinates from a global positioning system so relatives can identify the remains later.
"We take a picture, make sure there's no unexploded ordnance or personal effects, and look for identification," said Marine Cpl. John Belizario, 23, of Washington. "We bury them in a plot - four rows of 10, all facing Mecca as a sign of respect, basically."
When the work is finished, the Marines clean up and go to chow hall. Anyone who knows who they are stays away or barely acknowledges them because talking to them is considered bad luck.
"When the day is done, we're by ourselves," Kerns said. "We've tried to have interaction with the other units, but when they find out what we do, that's about the end of that."