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Orlando Sentinel

Unit Ensures Dignity In Death On Battlefield

By Matthew Hay Brown

March 10, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 


Called back to duty.



CAMP SANTIAGO, Puerto Rico -- It isn't the gore -- the human bodies blown apart, cut to bloody pieces or charred beyond recognition. The most difficult part of collecting battlefield remains, Staff Sgt. Freddie Acevedo says, is going through the wallets.

"You're looking for identification, and you see the family pictures, the picture of the kids," he says. "That's when it hits you: They're never going to see their father again."

Acevedo's unit, the 311th Quartermaster Company, is one of three in the U.S. Army charged with gathering and processing the dead for shipment back home. The Puerto Rico-based reservists fanned out across the battlefields of Iraq and Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. They sifted through the rubble of the Pentagon after the attacks of Sept. 11.

Just months after returning from Washington, they have been activated again, part of the massive call-up in preparation for a possible war with Iraq. Training has included guidelines for handling bodies that may be booby-trapped with live grenades or contaminated with biological or chemical agents.

But immersed as they are in death, the soldiers of the 311th seem to talk mostly about the service their work provides to the living.

"The families want something back," Acevedo says. "If they don't get something, it's going to hurt for the rest of their lives."

Working in the shadows

Mindful of the negative impact the sight of body bags returning home had on public opinion during the Vietnam War, the military sometimes has kept quiet about the work of its mortuary-affairs units. Other soldiers sometimes shun the troops -- sometimes in jest, sometimes not. The need for recruits has made the specialty among the highest-paid in the service.

"We are a special breed," says Capt. Victor Cartagena, the company commander. "Not everyone is mentally prepared to handle human remains. But it's a job that needs to be done."

The 200 men and women of the 311th include police officers, accountants, schoolteachers, factory workers -- and not a single mortuary professional.

Like their counterparts in the other units -- the Puerto Rico-based 246th Quartermaster Company and the Virginia-based 54th -- recruits go to quartermaster school to learn how to identify remains and catalog personal effects.

"Everything we do, we do with honor, dignity and respect," Sgt. Angel Rivera says. "I think of how I would want my remains to be treated. As if my family were waiting for them."

During the 1991 Gulf War, Acevedo worked at a forward collection point, first in Kuwait and then in Iraq. Working on battlefields still littered with mines, he and his comrades would tie ropes around the feet of the dead and drag them from a distance in case they were booby-trapped.

Acevedo says three-quarters of the bodies they found had been rigged with a live grenade or some other explosive charge.

Depending on instructions, the unit may be called on to handle civilian and enemy remains. In 1991, soldiers were instructed to catalog and then bury the bodies of Iraqi soldiers in clearly marked graves for eventual retrieval by Iraq.

"We have to treat them with the same respect," Cartagena says.

No shelter from carnage

At King Khalid Military City in Saudi Arabia, Sgt. Jose Cruz processed arms and legs without bodies, and bodies without arms or legs. He remembers the soldier who came to claim his wife, a helicopter pilot killed in an accident. And the young lieutenant, 21 or 22, who shot herself in the head -- one of several suicides he processed. And the time he opened a body bag and a head rolled out.

"It's difficult when it's parts," he says.

At the Pentagon, the 311th worked around the clock for weeks raking through the dirt and rubble. One hundred twenty-five workers and 64 air passengers and crew were killed in the attack. Members found a woman's hand with a wedding ring, a baby's charred ear, a wallet with more than $10,000 in cash.

"It's a very strange feeling," Spc. Yasmin Boneta says. "You have a sort of excitement of doing your job while you're going through it, but it's sad, too, like when you found a little teddy bear, and you think about the child it belonged to."

It took months to sort out and catalog personal effects.

A 'bridge' for the families

The Pentagon deployment gave the soldiers a rare opportunity to interact with the families of the dead. Survivors were invited to identify and take items recovered from the wreckage.

"When you do it, it doesn't seem like such a big thing," Boneta says. "But when you're able to recover a personal item and give it to a family member, you see them cry, see them grateful. Nothing is going to bring back their loved one, but maybe we can offer them a sort of bridge."

Now the 311th has been called to duty again. Members have trained the past three weeks in the use of firearms, first aid and nuclear-biological-chemical protection.

They have been instructed to wear gas masks and other protection at all times and learned how to handle bodies that may be contaminated with biological and chemical agents.

Ready for their mission

They do not know whether, when or where they are going. But most assume they will headed back to the Persian Gulf -- and soon.

"I think the guys are ready," Cruz says. "No one wants to go to war. But if we're going to go, let's go."

As commander, Cartagena says, he has to be sensitive to the stressful nature of the unit's mission.

"When the action starts, all of our leaders have to monitor the mental health of our soldiers," he says.

"There are going to be days when you're depressed, there are problems back home, you don't want to look at another dead body," Cruz says. "We can put you to the side for a day."

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