CAMP TAQADDUM, Iraq -- When Cpl. Julian A. Ramon was killed while fighting terrorists in Ramadi on July 20, he began the long journey home to where he’d be laid to rest.
The process of getting Ramon to his loved ones and final resting place started that night in an old Iraqi Air Force hangar surrounded by his fellow warriors who would make sure he was taken care of.
It is a job few people would want to volunteer for. But for a small group of Marines and sailors in the deadly Al Anbar province, ensuring their fallen comrades are treated respectfully and make it home safely, is a welcomed responsibility.
The Marine Corps’ Personnel Retrieval and Processing units, formerly known as mortuary affairs, serve as a stepping stone on the journey home for those killed while serving in what is arguably the most dangerous province for U.S. service members in Iraq.
Called PRP for short, the units are made up of 51 reserve Marines and sailors from various units and job fields and are located here, Al Asad Air Base, and Camp Fallujah.
Here at Camp Taqaddum, a main logistics base located between Fallujah and Ramadi, the Marines have converted an old Iraqi Air Force hangar into the processing center for those killed in the Sunni-dominated area west of Baghdad. A large American flag visible from every corner inside the building hangs above the door where deceased service members are brought through, and seems to guard the Marines working there the same way it guards a casket of a fallen American hero.
Outside, the letters PRP outlined in sandbags can be seen labeling the top of the hangar, telling the rest of the base where the fallen are cared for.
When someone is brought in, the PRP unit is all business with reverence. Personal items like ID cards, wedding rings, good luck charms and letters never sent home are all inventoried then packed with the dead service member. Wounds are identified and documented.
While the remains are being tended to, other Marines prepare the metal transfer case covered by an ironed American flag that will carry the remains back to Dover Air Force Base.
“We try to focus on the job, and getting it done well, and not dwell on the life that was lost,” said Sgt. Jeff Ketterson, 26, a team leader with PRP, from Springfield, Mo.
At times gruesome, as one can imagine injuries could be from a combat zone, the experience of caring for the fallen is also rewarding.
“It’s a job we do with respect, and it is an honor to give respect to our fallen brothers and sisters,” said Marine Cpl. Jose D. James, a 22-year-old native of Annandale, Va.
This honor and respect is given to anyone who comes through PRP’s doors. There have been instances where Iraqi soldiers, contractors and other non-U.S. personnel have been handled by PRP. Whether U.S. or Iraqi, civilian or military, each is honored with a heartfelt and emotional service.
A transfer case draped with the flag of that person’s nationality is escorted through a line of military personnel to a vehicle waiting to take the dead to waiting plane that will take them to their next stop.
Although the job of mortuary affairs is mostly conducted off the main battlefield, the psychological impact is on the forefront of the minds of loved ones.
“My parents worry about the mental health aspect of my job, but they’re proud of what I do, and that the job gets done right,” said James, who feels his job keeps in the military tradition of leaving no one behind on the battlefield.
“It’s a job that ultimately has to be done,” he said with a tone of certainty.
Having such a demanding and emotional job takes a unique individual who can deal with the stress of seeing the bodies of fellow service members killed in action.
This reality can sometimes be easier said than done, according to a handful of Marines here who have dealt with seeing friends and acquaintances after they were killed in action.
“It was a shock; when I saw him, the seriousness of the job hit me,” said Lance Cpl. Chad H. Gooch, who processed a Marine he attended boot camp with. “I didn’t notice that I knew him until I was filling out the paper work.”
With a look of sadness and remorse reflected in his eyes, the 28-year-old recalled seeing his friend and family as they celebrated their boot camp graduation.
This wasn’t the first time Gooch has faced the reality of death. He worked at ground-zero of the World Trade Center terrorist attack directly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center in New York.
The job of PRP has “parallels” to the roll of a volunteer with the New York City Fire Department, he said.
“There is only so much you can do (once someone is already gone),” said Gooch, who recalled family members asking him to keep an eye out for their loved ones after the terrorist attack.
Many with the PRP unit agree that handling service members killed in action day-after-day is a visible sign of the brutality of war.
“I think these Marines are reminded every day that there is a war going on,” said Maj. Eric C. Young, who is in charge of all the PRP detachments in Al Anbar.
A 33-year-old native of South Glens Falls, N.Y., Young is the sole active duty member of PRP unit. He has the responsibility of not only ensuring the mission is accomplished, but that those working for him remain in good spirits.
Young says that this type of job is often given a gloomy prognosis with tales of mental disorders and the emotional toll of handling the dead. Young and his Marines are working to make sure this is not the outcome of their deployment though.
Open communication is critical to managing the pressures of such a demanding job, said Young.
“The main reason we’re getting through this is (that we are) talking about what we see,” explained Gooch.
Young and his Marines, which are volunteers from various reserve units stateside, also put a lot of effort into staying active to build camaraderie and relieve stress.
Many of the PRP members can be found lifting weights, playing video games, playing basketball on the court set up in front of their hangar and even participating in a weekend softball game when not working.
“We’re close here, and if anyone has a problem we talk about it,” said Ketterson, who gave up construction work to deploy for his second deployment to be with his Marines who have never deployed before.
After six months and more than 200 processing missions, with 132 of those being U.S. service members, keeping morale high and attitudes positive is often a concern for other people looking at the PRP mission from the outside. Ketterson sums up the morale issue easily.
“We know what we do is important and we’re proud to do it,” said Ketterson. “Anytime you’re proud of what you do, that keeps your morale up.”