It’s actually an article about the stress that Mortuary Affairs soldiers in Afghanistan face, but also contains an excellent description of the grim duty they perform, a duty faced with Dignity, Reverence, Respect.
The process starts when the phone rings. An officer tracking flights into the base calls the mortuary affairs unit with an alert that in 30 minutes to an hour an aircraft will touch down carrying a servicemember’s remains.
The team in the hangar responds with practiced urgency. One member of the “clean hands” crew contacts the unit of the deceased to gather details for a case file that will travel with the body to the United States. Two members iron an American flag to drape over the top half of an aluminum transfer case that will hold the remains.
If their team receives the call, Siverand and Valdivia climb into a box truck parked in the mortuary compound and drive to the flight line. In their downtime, while playing “Call of Duty” or poker, a relaxed repartee flows between them. In the vehicle, silence prevails.
The two pull up close to the plane or helicopter. They enter the aircraft and salute the dead servicemember and the military escorts accompanying the remains. The escorts help load the black body bag into the back of the truck. The body rides feet first. Siverand and Valdivia salute again, close the door and return to the compound.
In the hangar, under the cold glow of fluorescent lights, they wheel the remains on a gurney and stop beside a steel table. They move to opposite sides of the bag’s bottom end. Each pauses to steady his thoughts, to brace for a moment that never feels ordinary.
Valdivia unzips the bag. “I don’t like doing it, so he does it,” Siverand says. “But once it’s open, you scan what’s there and get to work.”
Mortuary Affairs is, thankfully, a terribly small community in the Army.
Finally, an update on yesterday’s post on the Honor Guard social media incident. The soldier at the the heart of the incident has been suspended from participation in funerals, and the incident is under investigation.
*The title of this post is pretty blatantly ripped off from the opening sentence of a chapter in Geoffrey Perret’s excellent There’s a War to be Won. I prefer the term “homage” to “plagiarism.”