Reverent returns for our fallen soldiers

Fri Jul 11, 12:15 AM ET

As I pulled on the body armor vest over my shoulders and donned the helmet, I could only imagine how difficult it must be to carry around these 60 pounds or so in 120-degree heat, every day in Iraq or Afghanistan. I wondered how these soldiers and Marines managed the weight, along with their weapons and ammunition.

On a recent visit to see my daughter in Washington, D.C., I went with her as part of her work to a meeting at the Armed Forces Medical Examiners Systems in Rockville, Md. A chance encounter with a remarkable woman, medical examiner Penny Rodriguez, churned my emotions.

Our tour of the facility included a stop in the morgue area. A stack of body armor vests and helmets caught my eye. Rodriguez told us that they belonged to military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. She said they perform autopsies on all those killed after they arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Her team also examines the body armor and suggests improvements. This stack of vests — each one representing a young life snuffed out in seconds — made the personal loss powerful and real.

Rodriguez, a tiny and compact woman, said she had spent 20 years in the Army's 82nd Airborne. When I mentioned that my son is serving in Iraq, her professional demeanor became personal. She told me that each soldier and Marine was a hero, as they put their lives on the line without complaint. Then she urged me to try on the armor and helmet.

Rodriguez wanted me to know how respectfully those returning home were treated, and that each body was accompanied throughout the process by a servicemember. She wanted me to know about "the big old sergeant" who carefully presses the white T-shirts worn under the uniform jacket and how he meticulously tailors each jacket to fit the remains. "He wants them to look as good as they possibly can when they are returned home to their families," she said.

I asked Rodriguez how she copes with performing the autopsies. She said that she talks to the fallen as she works, but that the procedure is always the same: "The first thing I do when I unzip the bag is put my hand in, rest it on their shoulder and say, 'Welcome home.' "

I regret that the public can't see the unloading of the flag-draped caskets at the base. But I am grateful that people such as Penny Rodriguez do the difficult job of bringing our returning heroes, our lost sons and daughters, home in a personal and reverent way.

As the mother of a soldier, there is comfort in that.

Madeleine Tavares is a leadership and training consultant in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.