By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
A gorgeous blonde, without a stitch of clothing visible, is shaving her face and staring out from the cover of the May issue of Esquire with bedroom eyes. Behind her, in large type, are these words:
"We Shot This Image To Catch Your Eye So You Will Pick Up This Issue And Immerse Yourself in the Most Gripping Story You Will Read This Year. It's on pg. 102."
When the teaser is that blatant, a reader with healthy curiosity and an equally healthy skepticism about magazine hype turns to Page 102, muttering, This better be good.
Fortunately, it is.
"The Things That Carried Him," by Chris Jones, is the true story of Sgt. Joe Montgomery's death in Iraq and his nine-day journey home to Scottsburg, Ind., to be buried. It's a very strange article -- essentially the story of the transportation of a corpse -- and Jones makes it even stranger by telling it in reverse chronology, beginning with the funeral and moving slowly backward to the moment when Montgomery was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.
But somehow it works, and in its painstaking accumulation of detail, it becomes a deeply moving story about how ordinary Americans live and die and attempt to help one another salvage a measure of meaning and dignity in terrible circumstances.
Growing up, Joe Montgomery was a skateboarder and a Nine Inch Nails fan with a goofy haircut and an anarchist symbol tattooed on his arm. He married his high school sweetheart and got a job in a steel forge. But no matter how hard he worked, he couldn't support his wife and three kids, so in 2005, he joined the Army.
On May 22, 2007, Montgomery and his platoon were marching down a dirt road, heading toward a farm where insurgents were rumored to hide weapons, when a buried bomb exploded. Montgomery became the 3,431st American serviceman killed in Iraq.
His body was placed in an aluminum "transfer case," packed in ice, and flown to Kuwait, then to Germany, then to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the U.S. military maintains the world's largest mortuary. Montgomery arrived in a shipment of 14 corpses -- 10 soldiers, two Marines and a body too mangled to be identified.
"He was then unpacked from the case, which would be cleaned and shipped back to Baghdad to be used again," Jones writes. "He was still zipped inside the black body bag, cold and wet to the touch. . . . There was massive blast and burn damage to his legs and he was missing most of his right hand. His torso was intact, and his face was unmarked, except for a single blemish on his forehead."
Jones details the work of the military morticians, who treat the bodies of their fallen comrades with a deep sense of brotherly love. "The mortician assigned to Sergeant Montgomery put him back together as best he could. He built a right hand out of gauze and cotton and similarly stuffed the legs of his uniform pants. He paid particular attention to Sergeant Montgomery's face, which, with the help of the airmen stationed alongside him, he washed and shaved and layered in makeup."
"It's very intimate," says David Sparks, a chaplain at the Dover mortuary. "Preparing remains is a very intimate thing."
It's also an emotionally devastating job, and Sparks tries to comfort the men and women who do it. But sometimes he, too, is overwhelmed by the sheer number of "transfer cases" arriving at Dover.
"I'm born and raised religious, that's my job, that's what I do," the chaplain told Jones. "But a lot of what religion has to offer doesn't speak very well to fourteen transfer cases. Is that an awful thing to say?"
His body embalmed and reconstructed, Joe Montgomery was flown to Freeman Field in Seymour, Ind., where he was met by his mother, his wife, his young children, and scores of family, friends and neighbors.
"It seems the smaller the town, the bigger the turnout," said the pilot who flew the body to Indiana.
Escorted by Indiana state troopers and 60 members of a biker group called the Patriot Guard Riders, Montgomery's casket rode home to Scottsburg in a motorcade that stretched for three miles.
"Volunteer fire departments, dressed in full uniform, stood at attention in front of their shining trucks," Jones writes. "Farmers drove across their fields of baby corn to reach the shoulder and stood in the beds of their old pickup trucks."
Along the way, a mechanic, his overalls and his face blackened with oil, climbed out from under the car he was working on and stood "perfectly straight, perfectly still, saluting the hearse."
In Scottsburg, Montgomery's funeral was attended by scores of friends and neighbors, including 15 high school pals who wore black Nine Inch Nails T-shirts. Also attending was Army Brig. Gen. Belinda Pinckney, who looked at Montgomery's young, pretty wife, Missie, and decided that she needed some help.
"She had this look on her face and in my mind she was not dealing with the death of her husband, so I decided to approach her," Pinckney later told Jones. "I went up to her and said, 'How are you doing?' And with a straight face, she said, 'Fine.' I said, 'Missie, look at me. You're not fine. It's okay not to be fine.' That's when she started crying, when I told her it was okay to cry. . . . I just hugged her, it's okay, it's okay, it's okay. That was her letting go. And I wanted that. I wanted to connect with her."
Written in a somber, understated style, Jones's story is quietly heartbreaking. Moving at a slow, stately pace, he shows how members of the U.S. Army -- from fellow grunts right up to Pinckney -- treated Sgt. Joe Montgomery with love, honor and dignity after he died in Iraq. Whether the men who conceived, planned and executed the war acted with as much honor, wisdom and compassion is, of course, another question entirely.