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Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq
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In 2004, Jess Goodell, who enlisted in the Marines following her high school graduation, volunteered to serve in the Marine Corps' first officially declared Mortuary Affairs (MA) unit in Iraq. The MA unit's mission is to recover and process the remains of dead soldiers and Iraqi civlilians. It was only at the very end of the platoon's two weeks of training that the instructors mentioned PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder. "It's a real thing," they assured them. "Like the flu."
Upon completing her tour of duty on the MA platoon, Goodell returned to the States and received minimal support from the military in her efforts to assimilate back into civilian life. She, along with other members from her unit, suffered mental, physical, and emotional breakdowns as they tried to deny or repress much of what they experienced. Some couldn't assimilate at all and just reenlisted. For Goodell and others, it took years before they could confront their own fears and the horrors of what they'd been through day in and day out in Iraq.
The following is an excerpt from Jess Goodell's book, Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq.
Chapter 4: Processing
In Operation Enduring/Iraqi freedom, USMCMortuary Affairs (MA) personnel were tasked with the “processing” of dead bodies. The processing involved the collection of remains, collecting and cataloguing personal effects, making the bodies as presentable as possible, and in the case of U.S. personnel, getting them ready for transport to Dover Air Force Base where further processing takes place. The dead included U.S. military personnel, civilians (including an embedded American journalist), and enemy military personnel.
OIF MORTUARY AFFAIRS DE-BRIEFINGS: “HELPING THOSE WHO HANDLE THE DEAD,” Captain Joseph Pecorelli, MSC, USNR, Captain Mark Long, MSC, USNR, Captain James Young, MC, USNR, Commander (SEL) Victor Sheldon, CHC, USNR, and Captain Richard Frederick, MSC, USNR
From a Department of Navy online document, 2004
They brought in the first body. The grunts brought him in. There weren’t lights in the middle of the bunker yet, only along the side of the wall, so we put the body there and then we . . . did nothing. Although we had been trained, we didn’t know what to do next. We were taught, but we didn’t know. They took the time to tell us what to expect, but when the first body came in, several of us froze. We became inept and couldn’t do anything, really. We just didn’t know . . . we just couldn’t. . . . We knew how to complete the paper work and what had to be done, but when it’s real, when it’s no longer an abstract thought and when it’s in your face, in front of you, you stand there, motionless, wondering, What do I do?
The Sir had called in every person in our platoon and designated people to particular tasks. He said, “You two are going to carry, you two are going to turn the body over, and you two are going to do the paper work.” He wanted all of us there, I’m certain, so that we could help each other out, help each other deal with it, because I’m sure that the Sir thought that we might panic and maybe we weren’t going to be able to do this. After all, most of us were eighteen and twenty year old kids still. If we didn’t know it, The Sir did.
He gave us step-by-step instructions. “Roll him over to document his wounds.” We may have known that a Marine was hit by bullets or a grenade, but we may not have known where. But when we tried to turn him over, we couldn’t. Rigor mortis was setting in and he was already beginning to stiffen, except for his waist, which was like a pivot point. Even when we strained to turn him over, we could not. It was awkward and we were silent except for The Sir’s slow, calm, firm instructions. “C’mon guys, you were trained on this and you know what to do,” he reassured us. And so, eventually, we did it. “Okay,” The Sir said, “now write down any distinguishing marks, any tattoos.” So we did. “Now, write down which body parts are missing and shade the missing parts black on the outline of the body.” So we did. We followed The Sir’s directions, marking the wounds, drawing the tattoos, shading the missing parts black. We had to be told throughout what to do next and how to do it.
After the first body, the processing went smoother. The Sir organized us into teams of four, which were usually then divided into two members who would be the “hands on” for the body and two who would complete the paper work. In time, a process of sorts evolved. A body would come in and we’d remove every item from the pockets and inventory all of the gear that was on him. We couldn’t assume that all of his gear was on him. They don’t always have two boots. They don’t always have Kevlar helmets or a flak jacket or the things that might be expected to be there. They are gone. Missing. The body parts they covered may be missing too. We then conducted an inventory of all the items that were in the pockets. Exactly what they had on them when they died can then be verified. When down the road the family asks, “Where is this picture? We know he always carried this picture with him,” we could report that he did or he did not have it on him when he died. Or if money wasn’t there that someone thought was, we could check our inventory. If there had been a pen in their pocket, or a note, if there were two twenties and two ones, we documented it. We would precisely document what he did and did not have on him at the time of his death.
We would inventory everything. Everybody had a copy of The Rules of Engagement in their left breast pocket. Some would have knives or earplugs, food, a spoon. Pens. Rolled up pieces of paper,a scribbled reminder to ask their mother to send Skin So Soft or Blue Star Ointment to keep the sand fleas away, a scrunched up wrapper, trash that wasn’t thrown away — trash that would now become part of a family’s lasting memories of a son, husband, brother, father, hero.
There were pictures. A man and his wife and daughter. A farmhouse and barn in Iowa. Many were the pictures teenagers would carry back home. A high school student with his football teammates. A young man in a sleeveless t-shirt leaning against a 1983 Camaro. A letter in which a Marine tells his widow that he is now dead, but that he loves her still, and he wants her to give their daughter a kiss from him.
Excerpted from Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq by Jess Goodell with John Hearn, with permission for Casemate Publishers. © 2011 Jess Goodell with John Hearn. www.casematepublishing.com.