Talking Proud Archives --- Military

Dignified transfer of the Fallen: a solemn movement of respect and honor

This is not a ceremony and not a media event

The Battlefield Fallen

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Chris Jones (left) wrote a moving story entitled, "The Things That Carried Him," published in the May 2008 edition of
Esquire. Jones is the Pollner Distinguished Professor, Fall 2009, The University of Montana School of Journalism.

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The Defense Department permitted him to follow the journey of Sgt. Joe Montgomery (right), 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, killed in action in Iraq on May 22, 2007. The 1-40th Cav is known as the "Denali."

Sgt. Montgomery died from wounds inflicted by an improvised explosive device (IED). Jones followed Montgomery from Iraq to his burial site in Scottsburg, Indiana. The entire trip took nine days. I commend his work to you.

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U.S. Army soldiers carry remains in a body bag past the burnt out wreckage of the U.S. Chinook helicopter struck by a missile November 2, 2003 on the outskirts of Fallujah, Iraq. Photo credit: Joe Raedle. Presented by Life magazine.

It is the spoken and unspoken word of all our military people in battle that they will leave no one behind. To my knowledge, no one has been left behind since the first Iraqi War. We had this goal in the Indochina War, but could not always fulfill it. I think the same to be true in all our previous wars. Many courageous American military men have been killed and maimed trying to get our wounded and Fallen comrades out. Many have taken risks to themselves that are incredible acts of courage. There are many stories about them --- a separate study indeed.

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Sgt. Ken Kozakiewicz cries as he learns that the body bag, next to him in the medical evacuation helicopter, contains the body of his friend in the Gulf War, 1991. Photo credit: David Turnley.

In most instances, the men on the ground put the Fallen into a body bag and place him aboard a helicopter, usually a medevac helicopter, for transit out of the combat area. This is done under hostile fire and during peaceful moments.

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There have been times when they could not get the Fallen into body bags, and had to upload them into a helicopter in a "hot zone," as is. This photo shows a Fallen soldier being loaded into a Huey helicopter medevac in Vietnam. This soldier is either Sgt. Richard Knight or Pfc. Ronald William Harrill, both from C Co., 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. Each of those men was killed on February 19, 1967 in a battle at the village of Lieu An on the Bong Son plain during Operation Pershing. The night before they had been in a firefight at the village. As they approached in the morning they tripped mines. Thanks to Robert Hodierne for granting permission to use this photo and that description. He was there. He operates a magnificent web site called Vietnam Photography. I commend it to you.

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"Dustoff" medevac UH-1 Huey guided into a tight landing zone to pick up wounded infantrymen. Art credit: Joe Klein. I have purchased this print --- it is magnificent. It is offered at Ozark Airfield Artworks.

I know from reading Indochina War memoirs that there have been instances where helicopters came in under intense fire to pick up the Fallen and wounded. One group of men on the ground with air support would work to suppress enemy fire, and another group of men would have no choice but to throw the Fallen as is or filled body bags into the helicopter and even put badly wounded in there on top of the body bags. Those are realities of intense combat. The helicopter's aluminum floor dripping in blood and the aircraft under fire, the skipper and his crew would try to get everyone out of there in one piece. Often they were hit on their way in and out, with aircrews busting buns to get out of there. Most of the time they succeeded. Sometimes not.

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"The body bags of the four U.S. military men were gently loaded on to waiting helicopters. The wash of warm air from the chopper ’s rotors caused the body bags to move unnervingly as I tried to delicately clamber over the dead and strap myself in for the journey back to Bagram. The medic sat next to me with hands tightly clenched. He now served no function on this aircraft ... I realized that the two door gunners and the medic were looking anywhere but at the body bags." Text and photo credit: Sebastian Rich.

I've heard and read many use the term "body bags" in a pejorative way. I can promise you that the term is chilling to those in the fight. Some have tried to give it different names. I understand the Pentagon has recognized the term "human remains pouch" as the official term since the first Iraq War. Generally speaking, I believe the term "body bag" has stuck. It is a stinging term, yet it more accurately reflects what's on the minds of the troops in the battle.

Uploading a Fallen onto transport out is one of the very first acts of respect and honor afforded them, however crude you might think of it. As conditions permit, a Fallen's comrades will take great care to put his remains in a sturdy, specially designed body bag and secure his belongings left on the battlefield with the bag. The bag itself can be made of vinyl or nylon, they are usually olive green, and lately have been made even more heavy duty than their predecessors.

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I want to pause here for a moment and refer you to a story I did in February 2005, "Those daily acts of bravery that will mark the Pedros as heroes forever." It is about the use of the HH-43 helicopter for search and rescue (SAR) and a recipient of the Medal of Honor, A1C William Hart Pitsenbarger, USAF, shown here. Pitsenbarger was dropped into an intense battle in Vietnam and ultimately killed.

Harry "Obee" O'Beirne wrote down his memories of retrieving Pitsenbarger. It was April 11, 1966. I commend the whole article to you, but wanted to highlight one excerpt from Obee's memoir:

"Charlie (Epperson, an Army Ranger) led me about 100 yards or so back into the jungle to where Pits lay with other bodies, covered with ponchos. They had been shot there, not gathered together. I took off the gas mask that Pits was wearing (against tear gas). He had been shot in the center of the forehead, and blood covered his face.

"I took out my handkerchief, and with water from my canteen, I washed his face. It made no difference to Pits, but it made me feel better. Flies were all over him, as with the other dead. Charlie helped me put Pits in a body bag. That was when I discovered that Pits had been shot three other times. Due to the blood on the face, (it bled so freely) Pits had to have been shot three times, continued to treat the wounded, before being shot in the center of the forehead.

"Charlie and I carried Pits' body back to the opening in the jungle for evacuation. We sent out another load on the chopper, and I told Lt. Shibler that Pits was dead. The next time the chopper came in, Shibler sent word to me that we were needed on another mission, and that I was to get on board - which I did.

"Pit's body was evacuated to the Saigon morgue with the rest of the dead, which was standard procedure at that time."

I also commend another article I wrote back in January 2006, “No compromise. No rationalization. No Hesitation. Fly the mission. Now!" about our medevac "Dustoff" aircrews. I commend these to you so you know how important it is to our forces to save our wounded and retrieve our dead from the fields of battle.

Just two excerpts.

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The first is about Major Charles L. "Combat" Kelly, the first commander of the 57th Medical Detachment (Air Ambulance-AA) in Vietnam, a medevac helicopter pilot, and the founder of the Dustoff medevac program:

“ 'Combat' Kelly', besides being a tremendous leader by example, employed some verbiage that soon became the motto of many in the medevac business. On July 1, 1964, he arrived at a very hot area to pick up the injured, and came under intense hostile fire. He was ordered to withdraw several times, and responded that he would depart 'when I have your wounded.' That idea quickly became the unofficial motto of all Dust Offs."

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"Wild Child II," typical of the brand new UH-1Hs sent to the 45th Medical Company (AA) at Long Binh, Vietnam (it so happens Wild Child II was replacing one of the new ones already lost in combat). On the left is Richard Cunnare, the crew chief, on the right, Dennis Telischak, the medic, 4th Flight Platoon, 45th Med. Co. (AA), on March 1, 1968.

The second excerpt has to do with the 45th Medical Company (AA), formed on September 13, 1967, at Long Binh, Vietnam, located near Saigon, just to the northeast.

I presented one wife's account of her husband's tour as a pilot with the 45th in Vietnam. She wrote:

“He was shot down once, surrounded by the enemy, under fire, but got out without a scratch. Crashed once because of a faulty tail rotor, survived that without injury too. At times he assisted the Docs and medical personnel as arms and legs were amputated. He helped in any way he could and went above and beyond his job description and duties (He said he felt it was the 'least' he could do... it was such chaos at times. I'm so proud of him. It had to be really hard. There are visual and other sensory memories that he will never forget, like the smell of burning flesh, and blood). He carried the wounded, sick, dying and dead back to the Medevac Units. The BIG RED CROSS on the side was supposed to signal to the enemy that it was an air ambulance, and was hands off, but as many of you know, it didn't stop them. We lost many a Medevac Pilot in Nam. Art had a Co-Pilot hit. Bullets would whiz through the cockpit.”

Every time I read an account of our medevac and search and rescue crews, chills go up and down my spine --- they are so brave, they care so much about their men on the run from the enemy, the wounded and the Fallen.

I must acknowledge how hard our men and women work to get a badly wounded troop from the battlefield to a theater hospital. Often, they are stabilized and moved on to the hospitals in Germany and the US, where they survive and go through tough therapy to restart their lives. Some, of course, die in the field or at the field hospital. I will discuss mainly this process of getting them home.

I came across this photo while doing my research, and wanted to highlight it.

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This is a photo of Sgt. Jennifer Wilson, NCO in charge of the Casualty Liaison Team at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, the main air base in that country. She is standing at a location called "Hero's Highway." Each patient brought by helicopter to the Air Force Theater Hospital here passes through Hero's Highway. This photo was posted by Multinational Force Iraq on July 10, 2009. The photo is credited to SSgt. Dilia Ayala, USAF, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing. I want to pass on some of Wilson's comments:

"It's unfortunate that their families can't be here. So I took it upon myself to step up and be that family while they are here. No one asked me to do it; I just did what I felt was right in my heart. I want them to know they are heroes. I feel just because they are passing away does not mean they cannot hear and feel someone around them. I talk to them, thanking them for what they have done, telling them they are a hero, they will never be forgotten, and I explain my job to them to help them be at ease knowing the family will be told the truth. I am far from an angel. I just do what is in my heart. I guess for me, I think about the family and the closure of knowing the Soldier did not pass away alone. To say I'm a hero ... no. The heroes are my guys who come in (through Hero's Highway). I want the families to know that their service member was a hero. They made the ultimate sacrifice, but before they passed on, they received the best medical treatment, and the staff did everything they could -- they were not in pain and they didn't die alone."

Wilson, and many others like her, do their best to be sure none of their patients die alone --- they often hold the wounded's hand and sit with him until the end.

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Evacuation channels for human remains. Joint Publication 4-06, Mortuary Affairs in Joint Operations.

There are collection points for the Fallen in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The military has defined the flow of the Fallen from battlefield to their home. The individual unit involved in battle is responsible for getting the Fallen's remains to a Mortuary Affairs Collection Point, the MACP.

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Sample layout of a MACP. Joint Publication 4-06, Mortuary Affairs in Joint Operations.

The MACP receives the remains, processes them, attempts a tentative identification, and evacuates the remains and accompanying personal effects to a Theater Mortuary Evacuation Point (TMEP). The MACP can also be tasked to conduct search and rescue operations to find and retrieve the Fallen's remains and personal effects. As a result, they have to be mobile and able to support maneuver elements, though their main facility will remain fixed at strategic points throughout the theater of war.

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Suggested TMEP layout. Joint Publication 4-06, Mortuary Affairs in Joint Operations.

The TMEP's responsibility is to prepare the Fallen's remains and effects for transport to the main mortuary in the US, which is located at Dover AFB, Delaware. The TMEP in many respects is a quality assurance outfit, checking and rechecking everything sent it by the MACP. It also prepares all shipping documents. It is usually located at a major point of embarkation.

Tentative identification of the Fallen in the field can be easy or very hard. The mortuary members recover as many human remains as possible along with biological and physical evidence. Information from witnesses, the Fallen’s unit, recovery personnel, medical, dental, and fingerprint records are vital in this process.

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I have learned of one TMEP operating in Anbar Province of Iraq back in 2004. It was the 1st Force Service Support Group

(FSSG). I've used a story by LCpl. Samuel Bar Valliere, USMC , as a resource. I commend his full story to you --- it is factual and at the same time very emotional. For example, he said Marines view every one of their Fallen as heroes and angels. Those in the detachment view their job as one where they return a new generation of Marine heroes to their families.

The above photo is of the outside of facility. Note what the Marines built with sandbags on the sloping sand above --- "Ma. No one left behind."

The 1st FSSG was a 20-person outfit with detachments in the eastern and western parts of Al Anbar Province, at Camp Taqaddum and Camp Al Asad respectively. You will recall intense fighting there back then, with battles in Ramadi, Fallujah and Najaf still ringing in many ears. Fallen in this region were first brought to the 1st FSSG's Mortuary Affairs detachment.

Valliere commented:

"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."

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A Marine attached to the 1st Force Service Support Group's Mortuary Affairs detachment at Camp Taqaddum, Iraq, breezes through the bunker the unit works out of July 31, 2004. Photo credit: Lance Cpl. Samuel Bard Valliere . Presented by vetshome.com

Among the first tasks is to receive an Angel, document the condition of the remains and any evidence of the Angel's identification and collect their belongings from the battlefield. For example, the det's people often find letters and photos in the Angel's pockets and sacks, even ultrasound images of a baby in the womb of the wife back home. Often friends of the Angel will show up, and between looking at things like family photos and listening to the stories of his friends and comrades, the

atmosphere can get highly emotional. Det people processing the Angel often have to spend time with his friends to help them deal with their emotions.

I need to pause here. Retrieving personal effects from the battlefield can be a very difficult process, especially when the battle is ferocious.

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In the photo on the left, you see a soldier recovering personal effects from the battlefield during the first Iraq war. In the photo on the right, you see several soldiers sifting through debris searching for personal effects, evidence and identification media during the Afghan War. Both photos were presented by the Army Quartermaster.

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Marines carrying 5.56mm M16A2 rifles, assigned to Combat Service Support Battalion 18 (CSSB-18), and Marines assigned to Mortuary Affairs (MA), search the wreckage of a destroyed Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV7A1) for evidence of remains from Marines listed as Missing In Action (MIA), at an ambush site located within the city of An Nasariyah, Iraq. Photo credits: MSgt. Edward D. Kniery, USMC. Presented by cryptome eyeball series

Sometimes Marine medevacs will deliver the Angel to the det, but on other occasions things can get so hectic that det people will have to travel to the scene to retrieve the Fallen.

Operating mortuary affairs outfits was new to the Marines in the Second Iraq War. During Desert Storm, they relied on the Army.

Once the Angel is ready to leave, the Marines call the tactical air command center and report the Angel is on the deck, ready for a Marine KC-130 Hercules to come in and take the Angel to Kuwait. As conditions permit, the next KC-130 on the schedule is redirected to get the Angel and take him to Kuwait.

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Here you see Marine Sgt. Scott Reckefus folding a flag over a transfer case, which is used to protect the remains of service members during transit July 19, 2006. I will talk more about the transfer case later. Photo credit : Cpl. Stephen Holt, 1st Marine Logistic Group.

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The transfer case is covered with the American flag. Once the KC-130 reports his impending arrival, everything stops on the base. All other incoming aircraft are diverted, and outgoing aircraft are delayed for departure. SSgt. D. D. Gunter, USMC , has said this:

“There’s absolutely no movement, everything stops. That shows the level of respect the Marine Corps has for Angels. Everybody in the plane’s crew forms a line on the ramp of the aircraft and renders the appropriate honors.”

The Army views of their Fallen are much the same as those of the Marines. The US Army Quartermaster Foundation presented a dated but useful "Quartermaster Professional Bulletin/Winter 1998." In one section, it says:

"US citizens will not tolerate leaving behind deceased military personnel. This is a simple statement of fact."

It goes on to say this:

"Modern day search and recovery is a vital, sensitive and important part of combat service support. The key to search and recovery on the modern battlefield is not the mortuary affairs team, but rather the responsibility of every unit. Mortuary affairs teams, located in the brigade support area (BSA), support the entire brigade.

"Unit leadership is responsible for initial search and recovery. When casualties occur and the tactical situation permits, a unit team should be organized to collect deceased personnel and their effects. The remains and effects are then retrograded to the BSA where a mortuary affairs team will handle the concurrent return of the remains."

Peter Bacqué of the Richmond Times-Disptach has written:

"Caring for dead soldiers in a dignified and respectful way is one of the Army’s most emotionally sensitive missions."

Ft. Lee is the home of the Army's Mortuary Affairs, and provides the companies that go to the war zones. At present, one of its greatest challenges is how to prepare remains of Fallen struck by chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. I won't go into that as it is a subject unto its own.

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I believe these are Army field mortuary detachment facilities in Iraq. The white container on a truck flatbed is a refrigeration unit. Presented by cryptome eyeball series

As indicated earlier, one of the top priorities for the mortuary affairs unit is to tentatively identify the Fallen. The military now has some advanced ways to conduct these identifications, both in the theater of war and, of course, back home.

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In this photo, credited to MSgt. Will Ackerman, USA, you see Sgt. Jose Vega, 311th Quartermaster Company, completing a form used to help provide identification of the Fallen at the mortuary at Sather AB, Iraq, back in 2006. Mortuary affairs trained military people fill out forms describing and annotating every wound and marking on the bodies they receive.

MSgt. Ackerman wrote a story published in the Monitor on June 8, 2006, "Mortuary Soldiers perform mission with respect and reverence." In his article, he wrote this:

"The mortuary affairs team processes the remains of American and Coalition forces, contractors and Iraqis who have died in Iraq. They document the condition of the remains at the time of death on an anatomical chart, listing wounds, tattoos, scars or identification marks. 'We write down anything identifiable,' said (Spc. Juan Mendezvega).

As mentioned earlier when talking about the Marine det, Ackerman tells us how sad it is to come across photos. He quotes Sgt. Vega saying:

“One of the worst parts is seeing pictures of the family. It reminds us they had people waiting back home.”

The Fallen also must be prepared to travel back to the US and a good deal of examination of the Fallen must occur prior to return.

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After completing the mortuary work that needs to be done, the Fallen is placed in a body bag and then in an aluminum transfer case, packed with ice. The case is not a casket, and it is wrong to refer to it as a casket. It is a case specially designed to transfer
the remains of our Fallen to the US in the best possible shape. It is officialy known as the Human Remains Container, the HRC. The Skydyne Company of Port Jarvis, New York made the HRC shown above, and claims "To this day, it is still the onlyaluminum transfer case used by the U.S. Armed Services and it’s allies."

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Expeditionary Mortuary Operations in Southwest Asia. Presented by Joint Publication 4-06, Mortuary Affairs in Joint Operations.

Ackerman says this about the case:

"The remains are placed in an aluminum transfer case in the condition they were received from the field along with a 'case file' that includes the anatomical chart, personal effects list and a death certificate from a medical authority. The remains are sent on a military aircraft to a regional mortuary in Kuwait. There, remains are then packed on ice for the journey to Dover AFB, where they are embalmed."

I should mention at this point that identification work done in the field is preliminary. Final identification is done at Dover AFB, Delaware, and I will talk to that endeavor later.

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I said earlier that to the extent possible, even under hostile fire, the respect, dignity and honor afforded the Fallen by our forces starts as soon as they learn they have lost one. The same is the case at the mortuary detachments and collection points. Ackerman said this:

"Although there is no requirement to do so, the team leads a brief ceremony as they load the remains ont the aircraft to pay respect for the individual’s service. They and volunteers carry the flag-draped transfer case onto the aircraft while a small military formation presents a final salute."

Those who prepare the Fallen for their trip to the US work in teams and are structured to work around the clock. Military people assigned this task can be rotated out after six months service in the combat zone. The trauma to them can be overwhelming. One must understand that they receive the remains in a wide variety of forms, from a single lethal gunshot all the way to burned and exploded bodies and handfuls of badly damaged remains.

For Iraq, the remains go to the regional mortuary in Kuwait, near a runway at the Kuwait City International Airport. It is called the Theater Mortuary Evacuation point. I am told it is not an easily recognizable facility, which is the way the military wants it. Many during the early days of the war didn't even know it existed. The purposes of the stop are to prepare the remains for their trip to Dover and to be close enough to a runway that can handle larger transoceanic transport aircraft.

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Upon arrival in Kuwait, the Fallen are moved usually by forklift into refrigerated containers mounted on truck beds. This graphic shows a M931 5T Tractor with a M871 Trailer and one 8x8x20 refrigerator.

Most of the work done in the field is rechecked here.

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I'm working off some 2003-2004 reports, which said the personal effects, once checked and rechecked, are boxed and sent to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. This photo, presented by the Army Quartermaster, shows a group of boxes holding a Fallen's personal effects in theater in Southwest Asia for shipment to the Personal Effects Depot in Aberdeen, Maryland.

The remains are moved out of the refrigerated units and into the remains-processing facility which in 2004 looked much like an Army field hospital. The facility is well lit and air conditioned. There is a substantial amount of ice on hand to pack the remains in the transfer case. There all kinds of signs hanging to remind soldiers how to correctly spell difficult words like decapitated and asphyxiation. Great emphasis is placed on spelling everything accurately. The identification data reads, "Believed to be..." underscoring that final identification is done at Dover.

The soldiers working here slept within their compound and seldom visited with other soldiers on the outside, anxious about meeting those who were about to go into battle. Those who go to battle also get anxious about meeting mortuary staff. It can be a lonely and anxiety fraught life.
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Introduction

The Battlefield Fallen

The Mortuary Affairs Operation Center at Dover and the Dignified Transfer of the Fallen