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Somebody has got to do it: 1st FSSG Marines leave no one behind

16 Aug 2004 | Lance Cpl. Samuel Bard Valliere

Amidst the chaos of combat, one small unit here quietly does a job no one else wants to do and ensures fallen troops are brought back to their families.Service members who die in the eastern part of the Al Anbar province, including the cities of Ramadi, Fallujah and Najaf, are brought to the 1st Force Service Support Group's Mortuary Affairs detachment here before making the trip back to the states.The 20-person unit is full of Marines who seem to have aged a great deal since they flew to the Middle East in February. They are the young men and women who care for their brothers' bodies right after their deaths.The Corps thrives because of its warrior culture; like the Spartans of ancient Greece, its history is not just speckled, but rooted in its almost unwavering ability to win battles. Many Marines believe that anyone who falls in combat dies a hero.Sgt. Don Johnson, 24, one of the detachment's specialists, sees the job not as an emotional burden, but as a privilege. To him, he is not simply processing and identifying the bodies of the dead, but helping a new generation of Marine Corps heroes get back to their families.Angels, as the fallen have come to be known, reach the Marines two ways. They are either brought to the detachment after military doctors exhausted all means to save them and finally declared them deceased, or the mortuary affairs specialists convoy to the angels and gather the remains where they fell. The Marines' job is to document the condition of the remains and any evidence of the service members' identities before angels and their possessions are shipped to Dover Air Force Base, Md., for DNA testing, and returned to their families.The group laid sandbags on the sloping roof of the old bunker they work in to read "No One Left Behind," and "Honor, Respect, Reverence," testaments of the Marine Corps' tradition of taking care of its own.The job is not easy, said Sgt. Daniel Cotnoir, 32, but the Marines have adjusted tremendously since they were thrust into the role eight months ago, and began training at Camp Pendleton, Calif., the 1st FSSG's home.Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jim Patterson, 37, who runs the detachment, is also the 1st FSSG's nuclear, biological and chemical defense officer. Due to some similarities between his job and the mortuary affairs mission as well as the expected low demand for an NBC unit during the deployment, he volunteered his platoon for the job when he heard the I Marine Expeditionary Force needed Marines to fill the slot during this deployment.In addition to his group, Patterson, a resident of Temecula, Calif., requested several augments from other units to boost the number of people working in the detachment.When the team arrived in Iraq, Patterson told the Marines that if any felt it would be hard staying with the unit anytime after they sent the first angel home he would be able to find them another job within the 1st FSSG.That first angel, said Cotnoir, is the one everyone remembers."That was when they made the mistake of calling him by his name," he said.To prove it, Cotnoir yelled to a Marine working in the sprawling, dimly-lit bunker."Do you know who ... is?" he asked with an accent that immediately draws attention to his Massachusetts roots, shouting the name that is burned into all of their brains."Yeah," shouted the Marine. "He was the first."Satisfied, the Lawrence, Mass., native continued."It was a slap in the face," said Cotnoir, who said the experience woke the Marines up to the grim realization they were really in a combat zone.The detachment had been in Kuwait and Iraq for several weeks without having anything to do before the first angel flew in. After that, they never have gone more than a week without sending someone home. To date, 123 angels have been cared for by the Marines here.Since the initial shock, though, the Marines' skin has thickened as they have adjusted to the mission."The atmosphere is much more relaxed, but I don't think they'll ever get totally comfortable," Cotnoir said.The key, Johnson said, is to understand the significance of the duty while trying also to think of it as just a regular job. That means not dwelling on the negative while finding relaxing things to do after work."For the 20 minutes you're processing him, your purpose in life is to get him home," he said. "When he's gone though, you're done."Johnson admits that it's not always that simple. What irks him the most about the angels is what they represent: people just like him who die in situations that fate seems to play a more prominent role in than anything else. It's easy to put yourself in their brown combat boots, he said. He and many of the detachment's other Marines make a point to not look at the photos and letters usually found in the angels' pockets for too long. They document the personal effects and move on, he said."You'll see their family photos, but if you sit there and think about it too much, it'll mess you up," said Johnson, a native of Ventura, Calif.The hardest part of the mission isn't taking in the angels, said Johnson, but talking with the people who knew them.Conversations with friends of the angels tend to break down the emotional walls the Marines have built up in order to deal with the job, said Cotnoir.When friends and commanders want to tell stories of the good times to gain closure, it is usually the detachment's Marines they initially find solace in, said Cotnoir, who is a reserve armorer for the Marines but was chosen for the job because he runs his own funeral home as a civilian.One of the reasons the detachment exists is to provide relief to the troops who lose their friends and the commanders who lose their troops, said Patterson.He told the story of a seasoned major who stood crying over his newly promoted first lieutenant's body while he clutched an ultrasound of the young Marines' unborn child in his hand."Putting my hand on that Marine's shoulder and telling him 'it's okay, we've got it now' was one of the most rewarding experiences in the world," said Patterson.The mortuary affairs Marines are on call 24 hours a day to hop in their trucks and speed to the location of a catastrophic event so they can collect the angels while allowing commanders and friends from the unit to grieve.In addition to making sure the angels reach their families, the detachment has also processed Iraqis who died while military surgeons and corpsman tried to save them, or on the trip to those doctors.Whether the Iraqi was an enemy or a friend is not known by the Marines when the body lies before them in the bunker, said Johnson. All they know is that he or she was a human that deserves the same respect afforded to American troops."You never know who that Iraqi is," said Johnson. "I've personally taken three Iraqi contractors that worked for us to their families in Baghdad."The crying parents, who otherwise may never have seen their children again, were thankful the Marines took the time to fly their angels home to them."They are good people," said Johnson. "They thanked me and told me they will pray for me for the rest of my life. What makes it worth it is you have a hand in making sure they get back to their families."The detachment here isn't the only place for angels to go. A second unit, also with the 1st FSSG, that cares for angels in the western portion of the I MEF's operating area, is stationed at Camp Al Asad. The detachment there has cared for 72 angels.The mortuary affairs field hasn't been around within the Marine Corps for very long, said Johnson.The Gulf War saw very few Marines doing the job, said Johnson. Instead the Corps leaned on the soldiers in the Army's mortuary affairs field, an occupation Marines still have yet to make full time.The detachment is pioneering a more systematic approach to mortuary affairs for the Corps to use in the future. Previously, the mission was approached differently for every conflict. This time around, Patterson and his Marines have laid the foundation for future operations.Last year's push into Iraq was the first time the Marine Corps set up a mortuary affairs unit, said Patterson. However, the unique, fast-paced nature of the conflict required the Marines to adapt to different conditions, which prevented them from developing a set of operating procedures that could be easily adapted in other conflicts.The 4th Supply Battalion, a reserve unit from Washington, D.C., is scheduled to relieve Patterson's detachments this fall, at which point his crew will return to its NBC duties and the augmentees will head back to their old units.The gang isn't worried about the changeover, though. They know the new guys have been set up for success.Rather than pass on a program with no structure, the detachment will turn over the keys to a house that has already been built on a solid foundation, one that the new group will hopefully build upon so every Marine will always find his or her way home.
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