FALLUJAH, Iraq -- On the northern edge of the city where Marines poised for their overwhelming attack a little over a month ago, they were still hard at work - putting the enemy fighters in their final resting place.
Marines from the 1st Force Service Support Group had the responsibility of removing bodies from the city, processing them, and then burying them.
With the body count from Operation Al Fajr still on the rise and raging battles ensuing about a mile away, the last of more than 460 bodies collected from fighting in Fallujah were placed in graves December 11, 2004, by 1st FSSG’s Provisional Mortuary Affairs Company.
Prior to the assault on the rebel-held city, military and Iraqi officials planned for the removal of dead bodies after lessons learned in Samarra and Najaf. With the health, psychological and religious concerns involved with such a job, 1st FSSG Marines had their work cut out for them.
Marines from 1st FSSG’s subordinate command Combat Service Support Group 15, augmented the full-time mortuary affairs detachment that is usually responsible for handling U.S. casualties. Many more Marines were needed to deal with the elevated number of enemy bodies expected in the planning stages, according to Maj. James R. Hensien, the officer in charge of the Provisional Mortuary Affairs Company.
There were numerous considerations that had to be planned for when preparing the enemy’s graveyard, explained Chief Warrant Officer 4 Cheryl Ites, the officer in charge of the full-time mortuary affairs unit for the I Marine Expeditionary Force.
Out of cultural respect, the Marines got approval from multiple Iraqi government offices including the Ministries of Health, and Religious Affairs before they buried the enemy casualties to make sure everything was done right, explained Ites, a 49-year-old Bethlehem, Pa., native.
“This is what makes us different from them,” said Lance Cpl. Darnell M. Johnson, a logistics vehicle operator assigned to the detachment in Fallujah when referring to the fact that Marines had to handle and bury the dead under certain guidelines. “We are actually taking the time to bury them, facing east toward Mecca, with respect to their religion.”
While fighting continued throughout the city and smokestacks from airstrikes dotted the city’s horizon, the provisional mortuary affairs team made up of Marines from multiple job fields buried the last 30 bodies in long trenches dug by back-hoes and bulldozers.
At the request of the Iraqi Ministry of Religious Affairs, for individual graves, the Marines dug the trenches to exceed Geneva Convention guidelines by 30 feet, allowing individual burials of anti-Iraqi forces within a 100-foot long trench. Each site is also recorded with global positioning system coordinates. This process will help locals who want to inquire about someone who may have been killed in the fighting.
The Iraqi government will have all the records, explained Ites.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs visited the burial site the day the Marines started burying the enemy bodies to be sure that everything was done in the proper manner. They approved the site and method the Marines used, and virtually disappeared, offering no help. They haven’t been back to the site since, said Ites.
“They came out the first day to see what we were doing,” said Ites. “They just said that we were doing a fine job. Everyone was glad we were doing it for them rather than just leaving the bodies in the street.”
When the fighting slowed and was contained in smaller pockets of resistance, the Marines were tasked with cleaning up the battlefield. With military police, motor transport, communications and a variety of other job specialties in its ranks, the mortuary affairs team began the “clean-up” mission.
Many of the units involved usually conduct resupply convoys and provide security for such convoys throughout Iraq, but they stepped outside their realm and did an outstanding job, said Hensien.
With their safety in mind, the Marines provided their own security while collecting remains, as infantry Marines fought insurgents often only a block away. They also had to be wary of the last ditch efforts insurgents displayed by rigging the dead with improvised explosive devices.
“It’s a sobering experience,” said Cpl. David M. Spearman, an ammunition technician from Greenville, S.C., who augmented the group. “It made me realize how much I took life for granted.”
Along with learning about the health concerns involved with handling the cadavers, using bodybags, processing and registering remains and grave sites, they were also told to expect decomposed, charred or otherwise mutilated bodies, which could create a heavy mental burden.
“I can’t really put a feeling on it,” said Lance Cpl. Arland R. Lowery, a supply clerk from Lake Ridge, Va., who was assigned to mortuary affairs. “I do my job while I’m here and sometime down the line, maybe I’ll look back, and what I’ve done will actually hit me.”
The Marines began collecting bodies about four days into the fighting and will continue collecting and burying the enemy until local residents move back into Fallujah and take over the task themselves.
Despite the fact that they were enemies in life, once the insurgents were killed, their status of an enemy threat no longer applied. The Marines are committed to being professionals, and they exemplify that by putting their personal feelings for the people who had been trying to kill them aside, and doing the right thing in the end, said Hensien.
“We have to do the right thing out here,” said Lowery. “It’s the Golden Rule. I know it wouldn’t happen out here (enemy caring for U.S. dead), but this is the same way I would want to be treated if the roles were reversed. We may be fighting each other, but at least our side is showing the diplomacy of war.”
The ongoing firefights in the city means the Marines will stay hard at work. They already had five bodies scheduled for pickup the next day.