Marines train at coroner's office

By Jia-Rui Chong Tribune Newspapers

March 29, 2009


The body was found behind a soccer field in a sunken, weed-choked streambed. It lay next to a dome tent and a pile of blankets.

Matthew Barlow snapped on a pair of latex gloves and hopped out of the coroner's van. A flashlight led him through the inky darkness. Barlow hoped he could stand the smell.

Lance Cpl. Barlow, 23, was one of 14 Marines embedded for three weeks last month at the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner. They were on their way to Iraq, where their job would be to collect the dead and start them on their journey back to their families. But first, the coroner's office was going to force them to confront death - its sights, its smells - day after day.

When Barlow started training for the specialty job last summer, he hadn't had much experience with death - no one close to him, not even a pet, had died. In the beginning at the coroner's office, he would hang back during autopsies. He was tentative when he had to pull on dead people's arms to help break rigor mortis.

"I was wondering if I could handle it," he said. "People think you'll go crazy doing it. I think, 'When am I going to go crazy?'"

After tramping about a hundred feet through the weeds, Barlow reached the tent, and the acrid fumes of human waste assaulted him. The smell was bearable.

A man's body was bundled in a white sheet. Barlow's task was to tie a rope around it to make the body easier to carry. It took four people to move the body to the van. At the coroner's office, two other Marines weighed and measured the body.

"That was cake compared to some of the other ones we have to deal with," Barlow said, looking a little relieved. "He was already wrapped up, and you couldn't see anything."

Barlow was studying criminal justice at Chattahooche Technical College in Marietta, Ga., and thinking about becoming a cop when an instructor told him that joining the Marine Corps would jump-start that career.

About a year and a half ago, he joined a Marine Reserve unit, which allowed him to continue his studies and his customer service job at a Lowe's. In the Marines, he started out in motor transport, learning to drive seven-ton trucks and Humvees. When he heard about the personnel retrieval and processing specialty, he switched.

"Motor transport was easy," Barlow said. "I wanted to do something with more depth."

Barlow attended training for a few weeks at the Army's Joint Mortuary Affairs Center in Virginia. At his first autopsy, he turned white as the pathologist made the first cut into a young man who had died of a drug overdose. A friend back home had died days before under similar circumstances.

"I tried not to look at the face," he said.

His class spent a week at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where casualties from Iraq land before they are returned to their families. They handled dead people for the first time, learning how to strip them and wash them with soapy water.

Barlow can still visualize some of the battered bodies. "Some of it's like hamburger meat," he said quietly.

Mortuary Affairs school only partially prepared him for his experience at the Los Angeles County morgue, Barlow said. The bodies he worked on at Dover had been somewhat tidied up, but in Los Angeles he was arriving on the scene within hours of the death.

Fred A. Corral, a lieutenant in the coroner's investigations division and a former Marine, imagined such shock therapy when he came up with the idea of embedding the Marines.

"We want to give them some presence of mind for what they're dealing with out there," said Corral, 55. "They'll be needed in death in its worst forms."

Corral believed that some of the things the Marines would see in Los Angeles would be directly applicable in Iraq. Bodies burned in plane crashes, thrown around in motor vehicle accidents and riddled with gunshots were going to look the same.

But the scale of the trauma in Iraq probably will be greater, he said. For one thing, the Marines probably will see more dismembered bodies because insurgents fire rocket-propelled grenades or high-powered rifles as opposed to handguns.

Corral's idea reached the Personnel Retrieval and Processing Company, which has about 200 members in Marine Reserve detachments based in Washington and Smyrna, Ga. The first group came to Los Angeles for four days last summer. Barlow's class is the second group.

Although other detachments have spent short stints at coroner's offices in several states, Barlow's group went through the longest, most intense training, Marine officials said.

Barlow's first test came a few days after his arrival at the beginning of February. He had to pick up a man who had apparently shot himself.

When Barlow reached the house, police officers warned him that the scene was macabre. He steeled himself. His heart was racing when he walked over to the body. He was stunned by the damage.

"The head was mutilated, gone," Barlow recalled.

He examined the wound and thought about the high-powered rifles that Iraqi insurgents would be using. This was definitely from a rifle, he thought. He told himself just to plunge in. You're just looking at a human body, not a person you know, he thought. These are just remains. He reminded himself of what other, more experienced Marines had told him: This is just a job.

Barlow started picking up pieces of bone and brain. He realized he was OK.

With each body, the fear settled down, Barlow said.

"It's just exposure," he said. "Once you do it a couple of times, it just desensitizes you."

One day near the end of training, Barlow arrived at the coroner's office clutching an energy drink. He and four other Marines were ready to start their night shift. Barlow started playing Scrabble on a cell phone with Lance Cpl. Ruslan Duggins.

Cpl. Derrek Williams went in and out of the room on smoke breaks. It was more than an hour before the first van pulled up with a body. Williams was the first out the door. He rolled the body into the intake room and positioned it on the floor scale. Williams shouted out the man's eye color to the forensic attendant, who was filling out the paperwork. He helped put the man's hand on a scanner for fingerprints.

The call for the body behind the soccer field came about 5 1/2 hours into the shift. Sgt. Robert Lee, the most senior Marine on duty, shouted down the hallway for Barlow.