An April 12 article about military mortuary training misidentified the war in which 78,000 U.S. troops were missing in action. It was World War II. (Published 4/13/03)
On their third day of class, the 17 students from the U.S. Army Mortuary Affairs Center went to the Richmond morgue and gazed upon the thing that awaits us all: death.
There would be no shame, their instructors had told them, in turning away from the corpses, in announcing that perhaps they could not become 92Ms, the Army's classification for those whose job it is to handle the remains and personal effects of dead soldiers, such as the scores of military men and women killed in Iraq.
"We will make arrangements for them to join another career field in the Army, where they can be successful [if] they can't tolerate what we do here," said Douglas L. Howard, deputy director of the Mortuary Affairs Center at Fort Lee, just south of Richmond. "There's no prejudice associated with that. We understand that there are people who can't work in this area."
If they stick with the program, and fewer than 1 percent wash out, they will join the more than 175 students who graduate every year, equipped with skills they hope to never use. Some graduates are deployed to Iraq with the Army's only active-duty mortuary affairs unit, the 240-member 54th Quartermaster Company, headquartered at Fort Lee. Others are serving with two reserve units based in Puerto Rico. There also are 92Ms detailed to other divisions and to Army mortuaries in Germany and South Korea.
During the nearly seven-week 92M course, students will learn the basic science of death, the ways that cells and flesh decay. They will learn the special considerations that death in combat brings, such as the need to search for unexploded ordnance buried deep in the body. And, Howard said, they will learn that although nothing can eliminate the sting of death that families feel, they can salve the pain of loss by performing their jobs well.
Soldiers killed in action are usually removed from the battlefield by members of their own combat unit and taken to the nearest forward supply base. There, mortuary affairs personnel -- known as "92 Mikes" in Army slang -- collect the remains and ship them back home.
Members of mortuary affairs units tend not to mingle much with other soldiers. A lot of those other soldiers, said Capt. Kelly Honl, 28, a mortuary affairs instructor at Fort Lee, "don't like to think about the fact that we have the need for 92 Mikes, and so if they don't think about it, they don't need it."
About a dozen instructors teach at the Mortuary Affairs Center. In addition to attending lectures on such topics as anatomy, dental identification and how to operate a mortuary in a war zone, students visit the Richmond morgue three times, once to observe an autopsy. They acquaint themselves with the blizzard of paperwork that attends Army life even in death, including DD Form 1380 (Certificate of Death Overseas) and DD Form 1076 (Military Operations-Records of Personal Effects of Deceased Personnel).
And they spend time at Training Area 14, a heavily forested patch of land the size of two football fields and dotted with the wreckage of two crashed helicopters and a downed airplane. Mannequins, portions of mannequins and personal effects are scattered to re-create what students would encounter during search and recovery efforts after an aircraft accident.
The rise of the mortuary affairs specialist mirrors the change in attitudes toward fallen soldiers. During the Civil War, soldiers would find the bleached bones of nameless comrades littering the ground months after a battle, scant consolation for families hoping to know where their loved ones were buried.
Things improved during World War I, when the precursor to Mortuary Affairs, the Graves Registration Service, was established. Still, in World War II, 78,000 U.S. soldiers were missing in action. Improvements in technology and technique also helped. The MIA figure was less than 2,000 for the Vietnam War, but still too many for the U.S. military, which invests considerable resources in trying to bring home every fallen soldier.
Howard is a civilian, a retired Army mortuary affairs specialist who did a tour of duty in Vietnam. He entered the profession at 17 in Wilson, N.C. A few days after he was hired to drive an ambulance for a funeral home, he watched as a young woman who died after a long illness was prepared for burial. "I saw her come into the funeral home. I saw the embalming operation. I saw the cosmetics applied. I saw the dressing done, the casketing," he said. "And I knew when I saw that that it was what I wanted to do."
She had been made to look so beautiful -- restored to an appearance of vitality she was lacking at the end of her life -- that it gave the family comfort.
The 92M training stresses the importance of recovering personal effects -- rings, watches, photographs, letters from home -- often the only tangible reminders for the family.
Not everything is returned. "We make sure nothing goes back to the family that would be derogatory in nature, that would cause them to grieve more," Howard said. That includes pornography, for example, and items so damaged by fire or explosion that they conjure up terrifying final moments.
Sometimes small mercies are performed. "Every letter is opened," Howard said. "Every line of every letter is read by a screener. . . . The wife of a soldier may say something in a letter that she regretted she said, knowing now that he's dead. She may have said, 'I wish you wouldn't come home,' or, 'I'm angry with you because of this. . . . ' She'd like to take those words back. If the letter doesn't go back to her then she can rest assured that maybe he didn't read it. She doesn't need to carry that burden with her."
Mortuary Affairs commanders are taught to look for signs of job stress, and all 92Ms receive group counseling after each mission. Howard said they never become completely immune to the realization that the remains they are processing are someone's son or daughter, wife or husband, father or mother.
And, he said, they shouldn't. "I think that once you become that cold and hardened and that desensitized, you probably need to find yourself a new job. Dignity, reverence and respect is what we preach here, and it's very, very important to us."