Thursday, March 10, 2011

With honor and dignity

Mortuary Affairs trains aboard Quantico

Cpl. Earl Vannatter, a Mortuary Affairs Marine with Personnel Retrieval and Processing Company, sketches out a scene where a dummy Marine has fallen.
Many Marines have seen HBO Film’s movie ‘‘Taking Chance” starring Kevin Bacon in the true story of a Marine lieutenant colonel who escorts the remains Pfc. Chance Phelps from Dover, Del., to his home in Wyoming.

What the movie did not describe were the Marines who had to catalogue and collect Phelps’ remains from the battlefield.

These Marines are 0471s, Mortuary Affairs, and on March 5 and 6 they trained aboard Quantico.

More than 40 reserve Marines from the Personnel Retrieval and Processing Company based out of Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C., performed their monthly weekend drills at Camp Upshur. They come to Upshur approximately seven months out of the year for their training cycles, so they can train in open spaces they aren’t afforded JBAB.

Nearly 20 more from the unit are currently training at Camp Lejeune preparing to deploy in the coming weeks to Camp Bastian, Afghanistan.

The Mortuary Affairs job isn’t high profile, but they do what must be done — make sure no Marine is left behind.

‘‘We take the burden off the depleted unit,” said 1st Sgt. Christine Brewer, the PRP first sergeant. ‘‘If a Marine goes down, the unit must continue with their mission. We are there to give them that peace of mind and make sure the Marine is accounted for.”

By design, the process is very calculated.

‘‘Typically we have a good idea of where and who we are looking for,” said Staff Sgt. Troy Heitzer, the training chief of PRP. ‘‘When we arrive at the scene, we assess the area and decide if we can be more thorough or if we have to be hasty, such as when we are in the battle zone. Typically the area is secured before we get there.”

Next the Marines of PRP will walk on line and sweep the grid area where the remains, gear and personal belongings are located, Heitzer said. Once everything is tagged the Marines will use white ribbon to grid the area, which could be as big as 300 meters by 200 meters. A Marine will sketch out the scene and where every item is located in the grid.

The Marines try to handle all the remains with the upmost care, but they also try to transfer the remains as quickly as possible,” Heitzer said.

‘‘The faster you can collect the remains and get them to Dover [Air Force Base in Delaware], the better chance the workers at Dover have of making the funeral an open casket,” said Cpl. Robert Arnold. ‘‘That’s crucial because those family members and friends can get more closure if they can see the fallen’s face.”

Once everything is accounted for, the Marines will collect the gear and personnel belongings as well as the remains

‘‘You have to have a stomach of steel for this job,” said Gunnery Sgt. Ty Addington. ‘‘There have been Marines in this company who have processed remains of Marines they went to boot camp with.”

The work is not for light of heart, so the chain of command of PRP makes sure their Marines are taken care of.

‘‘We keep a watchful eye on them simply because of the harsh work they do,” Brewer said. ‘‘Usually if there are any issues, the junior Marines can see it among themselves and they help each other out. But nothing is a big surprise for them. They all knew what they were getting themselves into when they volunteered.”

Almost all of those Mortuary Affairs Marines seemed to share the same mantra: Take care of our fallen brothers.

‘‘I wanted to be in this unit because we got a chance to deploy, but more importantly it’s an honorable job where we can take care of our fallen Marine brothers,” said Cpl. Mike Keller.

‘‘This isn’t a high profile job,” said Cpl. Kyle Finkbeiner. ‘‘It’s hard for a lot of people to even think about the kinds of things we have to do and see. But we know somebody has to step up, and we are honored to do it. It’s a very rewarding feeling finding our fallen brothers and making sure their remains are paid their final respects.”