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Soldier has memories he sometimes likes to forget

November 30, 1999|By Joshua Bowman

HAGERSTOWN

Cpl. John Myers remembers with photographic clarity the first soldier he ever prepared for burial.

The body of the U.S. Marine killed by a bomb in Iraq in the fall of 2004 was almost unrecognizable, Myers said.

"It was like a jigsaw puzzle. We literally had to untangle his arms and legs."

Myers remembers in detail only a few of the roughly 240 bodies he has seen in his job with the Marines' mortuary affairs division, which works to identify, recover and prepare the bodies of U.S. service members who have died in Iraq.

The soldiers who serve in the division remove the bodies from the battlefield and prepare them for the flight home, where they will be buried.

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"It's a unique job. A lot of people don't even know it exists," said Myers, who returned home from Iraq last Thursday.

Attention to detail

The 29-year-old from Hagerstown has served two seven-month tours in Iraq since 2004, both with mortuary affairs.

He said the work, "is either fascinating or disgusting, depending on your perspective."

When the company is called to the battlefield, its first job is to identify the dead soldier.

Wallets are searched and comrades are questioned until a name is found.

Equipment and other personal effects also are collected.

"You don't want to leave anything out there," Myers said.

Bodies are then brought to Al Asad in industrial-size refrigerators (reefers, as they are called).

The deceased must be kept between 34 and 40 degrees ? a difficult task in the Iraqi desert, where temperatures can reach 120 degrees.

Forty pounds of ice are placed on the body, near ? but not too close to ? the face.

"If you freeze the body, and especially the face, it makes an autopsy much more difficult," Myers said.

When the bodies arrive in Al Asad, they are taken to a large room with stretchers and metal tables where the remains and personal effects are cataloged.

There is paperwork for every step of the process.

Fingerprint records, death certificates and forms itemizing personal belongings must be kept in perfect detail, Myers said, primarily because they can be requested by the families of dead soldiers.

The deceased are then placed in temporary caskets draped with American flags. Those caskets are walked to a plane, and the bodies are flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where they are autopsied and embalmed.

While the military cannot hold ceremonies in Iraq for the deceased, everything is done with "military movement" and an incredible attention to detail, Myers said.

The casket handles are sprayed with WD-40 to prevent creaking and the smallest creases are ironed out of the flags.

Caskets are taken to the plane with two lines of soldiers on either side. Engines are turned off, and all other movement ceases.

"These soldiers gave the ultimate sacrifice you can give. It's our job to treat their bodies with the utmost respect," Myers said.

Setting an example

Myers, like all mortuary affairs personnel, is a reservist.

He said full-time soldiers cannot work in the division because, "in peacetime, there wouldn't be much to do."

He joined the Marines 4 1/2 years ago, primarily because of the events of 9/11.

As a father of two, he said he wanted to set a good example for his family.

"I wanted them to see me serving the country," said Myers, who also works as a correctional officer at MCTC.

For Myers' first deployment to Iraq in 2004, the Marines asked him to join a newly created company with the euphemistic title of Personnel Retrieval and Processing.

The company would be responsible for gathering bodies from the battlefield and preparing them for the flight home, he was told.

After some preliminary training, Myers flew to Al Taqaddum, Iraq, where he learned how to prepare corpses in the field, on the fly.

"It was hectic and new. I had never done anything like it," he said.

Myers estimated that his company prepared about 200 bodies during his first seven-month tour, which overlapped with the battle of Fallujah.

"There was a lot of heavy fighting during that period," he said.

Before his second tour in February 2007, Myers and the rest of his colleagues were given formal training in Fort Lee, Va.

They learned navigation and fingerprinting skills, visited a Richmond, Va., morgue and did autopsies.

They learned how to treat a battlefield like a crime scene by collecting evidence and any items that might help them identify bodies.

"We went back much more formally prepared than we were the first time," he said.

Myers said his company handled about 40 corpses during his second seven-month tour.

Of those, only half were U.S. military.

The rest were Iraqi police, Army and civilians, which the Marine company prepares for the Iraqi Foreign Affairs office.

Myers said at first it was difficult to treat the bodies of Iraqis with the same respect as those of U.S. military.

"I felt a lot of anger toward the Iraqis during my first tour because I didn't see them picking up their share of the fight," Myers said.

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