March 30, 2003

Job gets busy for mortuary affairs platoon

By John Bebow
The Detroit News

CENTRAL IRAQ — The bodies of Iraqi soldiers lay face down in their long, deep fighting trench near the highway. One lost half his skull, blown away by artillery or a large-caliber bullet. A blood stain covered the next, shot once in his left side.
They seemed like miniature soldiers, just more than five feet long, a small loaf of bread near one, a thin blanket near another, each a monument to the overpowering force of Marines moving north to confront Saddam Hussein.

Yet Iraq’s soldiers are fighting in every field and town en route to Baghdad. As the first full week of war came to a close — with news from Washington that it could take months and require a siege against Baghdad — Marines settled in for the work ahead.

“We all thought we’d be in Baghdad on day six,” said Staff Sgt. Mike Brown, from Detroit. “That’s what the higher-ups were thinking.”

Two weeks ago, Brown and his platoon of “mortuary affairs” Marines were joking around in a camp in the rear, performing mock rifle drills with bottles of water, hoping to stay bored.

Instead, on Friday, this body-recovery team stacked 26 Iraqi soldiers in a mass grave. They were cleaning up after a firefight three days earlier, when Marine infantry troops fired away until it was clear for a sprawling complex of ammunition dumps, helicopter-landing zones and refueling stations.

Two lance corporals from central Ohio, Hans Comprix and Randy Aragon, gingerly pulled a grenade from the pocket of one dead Iraqi.

“We’ll stay out here as long as it takes,” Comprix said, as they lifted the soldier into a shiny black body bag.

Tasked with the most macabre war mission, the mortuary affairs Marines scrawled sayings of wisdom and dark humor on their helmets.

Their commanding officer’s said: “If you can read this, you’re having a good day.”

Aragon’s said: “Don’t Be The One.”

On Thursday, these body-collectors faced their first fallen Marine of the war. A gunnery sergeant. He had a wife and child at home. The bullet hit him in the face.

“It looked like it almost missed him,” Brown said. “Reality is setting in when we have to bury our own. It’s pretty tough. But we don’t worry about nightmares. We’ve got a job to do.”

They worked Friday in weather like June in Michigan. A bright sun and warm breeze followed a crisp night. Spindly gray bushes grew from a mix of sand and muck resembling red Georgia clay.

With the constant, deafening thump-thump-thump of choppers flying just overhead, the roadside camps felt almost like a set for a Vietnam War movie.

1st Sgt. Scott de Carrillo, of Oakland, Calif., worried that a queasy American public would see too much similarity between Vietnam and Iraq.

“Vietnam just won’t go away,” said de Carrillo, an 18-year veteran of the Marines who helps run a supply camp just behind the fighting grunts. “A lot of what I’m hearing is that the American people are surprised this is taking longer than a week. What they need to understand is that we are committed to a mission, a cause we believe in, and it’s better to do it here and now than suffer the cost of inaction in the years to come.”

Others, mostly younger, inexperienced Marines, responded with epithets when told that war planners had no timetable for completing the battle to remove Saddam Hussein. But few, if any, Marines are willing to put their names behind such criticism of their commander-in-chief, especially this early in the war.

One of the youngest Marines in Iraq took a more patient approach Friday.

“I told my mom I thought we’d be home in November,” said Pfc. Latyra Sayers, 18, from Ann Arbor, Mich. “I still think we can make it before then.”

For three days, Sayers could look down from her security post at an ammunition dump not far from the front lines and see a dead Iraqi soldier in the trench behind her.

She kept her back turned to it.

“I don’t need to go looking around,” she said. “Seeing the bodies, just one made it real for me. This is not a tourist attraction. Those were actual people. I know if it were me, I wouldn’t want to be gawked at.”

Sayers said she wouldn’t mind a slow fight, or a siege against Baghdad, if it saved lives.

“I’ll suck it up,” she said. “I don’t want to slaughter all these people if there is an alternative solution.”