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thedrifter
01-25-06, 08:50 AM
New company picks up Marines' somber duty
By JEREMY REDMON
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 01/25/06

Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. — Family photos are the hardest part. Pictures of smiling spouses, young children and newborn babies.

Marines find them in the pockets of their dead comrades. They are trained to not focus on them. Count them, catalog them and place the pictures facedown, they are told.

But some Marines can't resist. Their curiosity is too strong. They make an emotional connection with the photos. And then the images haunt them.

Lance Cpl. John H. Allen plans to resist them when he arrives in western Iraq next month. He is among about 50 Marine reservists heading there to collect the dead under a new system.

In past wars, most Marine units recovered the remains of their own troops, even the bodies of their enemies. But in September, the Marine Corps formally activated a unit specifically for this mission.

The military predicts this new company, the first of its kind, will allow other Marines to continue fighting and not have to collect the remains of their buddies, an emotionally draining job that can distract them from their missions.

Allen, a 21-year-old waiter and bartender from Alpharetta, is assigned to a Marietta-based detachment of the new company responsible for what the Marines call "personnel recovery and processing." The unit recently trained at this sprawling base for its mission in Iraq. Much of that training focused on coping with death.

In Iraq, the Marines will place the troops' bodies, their family photos and other belongings in metal cases packed with 40 pounds of ice each. They will drape the cases with American flags and send them back to the United States, where the military will officially identify them and prepare them for burial or cremation.

No stranger to death

This will be Allen's first deployment with the Marines. He has never been in a combat zone. He has never carried a body. He has never sorted through the tiny details of a dead stranger's life.

But he knows about death. In the past five years, an aunt and both his grandmothers have died. His mother succumbed to cancer about a year ago. His girlfriend was killed in a car crash a month later.

"There is no telling what my reaction will be when I see my first remains," the Milton High School graduate said during a break from training. "I'm hoping and praying I will come back normal and even more full of God than I am now and make it a spiritual experience."

For about seven months, Allen and the others will be spread out among three bases in restive Anbar province of western Iraq. They are military police, cooks and supply clerks. They come from Georgia, the Washington, D.C., area, Missouri, Louisiana, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In civilian life, they are police officers, firefighters and mechanics.

All volunteered for this job. Some, like Allen, believe the mission could open doors in the FBI or CIA. Many signed up out of a sense of duty.

"I see this as a very honorable and respectable job," Allen said. "When someone dies, what the family wants is closure. And if they don't get closure, it will be harder for them to heal."

To keep focused, the Marines have been taught to shun emotional connections with the soldiers they "process." Some Marines suggest covering the faces of the dead with towels. That could help them avoid looking into the eyes of the dead, studying their faces and perhaps identifying with them.

Lance Cpl. Catlin Coleman couldn't resist, despite the admonition she got from her trainers not to look at family pictures. She said she remembers the photo she found in a Marine corporal's left breast pocket several months ago. He had been killed in a helicopter crash in western Iraq. The photo was of the corporal's wife and newborn baby he never had a chance to hold.

"For me, that was the hardest one I did out there," said Coleman, 19, of Berryville, Va. "I don't think it's humanly possible not to look at the photos."

Coleman is heading back to Iraq with Allen at a time when insurgents' bombs are becoming more devastating. The explosives are so powerful they are destroying U.S. tanks and obliterating armored Humvees.

Troops react differently to the remains they find after these attacks. Some are shaken by the severed limbs and gore. Others are traumatized seeing bodies that appear unscathed, almost as if they were sleeping.

One of the toughest challenges for Sgt. John Belizario was coping with the stench of burned corpses and decaying bodies. He washed his boots with bleach and sprayed his uniform with Lysol so he could feel clean.

Belizario said he processed hundreds of bodies of enemy combatants, U.S. and Iraqi troops and civilian contractors in Fallujah in 2004, including two Marines he had served with in Iraq. He said he had to take a break when he saw his two buddies. And then he went through a "long period of prayer."

"You have to set everything aside and look at it as just the job. It's remains," said Belizario, 24, a former Motorola salesman from McLean, Va. "Our guys need a way home. They need people to get them home."

The mission has attracted some intensely spiritual people. Belizario wants to become a military chaplain. Staff Sgt. James Morris said he is close to receiving his Master of Divinity degree. He spent several months retrieving bodies recently in Taqaddum.

"When you see death, you start questioning, 'What will happen to me?'" said Morris, 27, a martial arts instructor from Duluth.

Allen is a volunteer youth counselor at Alpharetta First United Methodist Church, where his mother's funeral was held in December. Sitting in the front pew, he tried to keep his emotions in check as he wore his dress blue Marine uniform. But Allen couldn't hold it all in. He wept openly during the funeral.

Now he bears a large tattoo of a winged heart on his chest with "Mom" inked in its center along with her birth and death dates.

A search in a field

In the last few days of his training, Allen came as close as he could to experiencing the real thing in Iraq. His instructors dismembered mannequins, splattered them with fake blood and planted them in remote locations of this base. They created make-believe scenarios for Allen and the other students, telling them several fellow Marines had been killed by bombs. They were given map coordinates. And then it was up to them to find their way to the blast sites.

Under gray skies, Allen and seven others piled into trucks and rolled away from their barracks to a lonely, soggy field of yellow weeds, not knowing exactly what to expect. An eerie fog hung low in the trees. The air was wet. Red Virginia clay sucked at the Marines' boots. Gunshots from a nearby firing range echoed in the distance.

Two Marines played dead in the field. They were on their backs, their eyes closed. One of Allen's comrades reached for a digital camera and started clicking photos. It was a crime scene and the photos could later help them reconstruct what happened.

Allen slipped on some latex gloves. He walked gingerly, sticking a small blue flag into the moist ground next to a soft green Marine cap, another blue flag beside a black address book and a red flag next to a body.

A short drive away in another field, a second group of Marines was tackling a more complex job. They were seeking the bodies of two Marines killed by a bomb. A pair of mannequin torsos lay among the weeds. A leg was nearby. A head lay on its side a few feet away. The Marines placed the body parts in plastic bags and then tucked them away inside larger green pouches.

Allen wonders how his experience will change him. He worries how people will perceive him when he returns home. "I don't want to be an outcast," he said.

He and the others picked up the two Marines who had been playing dead and placed them on stretchers. They carried them feet first as they have been taught to do out of respect for the dead. "One, two, three," they counted in unison before lifting the stretchers and sliding them into the back of a truck.

Then Allen and the others stood at arm's length from each other and started walking slowly back through the fog. With their heads hung low, they peered through the tall weeds. They didn't want to leave anything behind.

Ellie