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Guard Soldiers Prepare the Dead
Associated Press  |  August 11, 2006
CAMP ANACONDA, Iraq - In a small, quiet corner of this huge base, a soft-spoken group of National Guard Soldiers sees to one of war's most gruesome tasks: preparing the bodies of American troops who have died in combat to return home.

The six-member team, from the 311th Quartermaster Company in Puerto Rico, is one of five mortuary teams at bases across Iraq. These Soldiers have prepared more than 100 bodies of American troops to be sent home.

They've also prepared about 200 bodies of Iraqi civilians, detainees, police, Soldiers and civilian contractors.

"We treat all human remains with the same respect," said Sgt. Carlos Colon, 25. "Everywhere we carry them, they go feet first as if they were walking."

Their task usually begins with a call from the base hospital or from a medevac crew that has just flown in a body from another part of the country.

After picking up the remains in their ambulance, the group brings them to a processing center - an airy, sparse-looking building with wood-lined walls and an American flag hanging over a doorway next to a sign that reads "Honor Dignity Respect." The bodies are rolled inside the building on two-wheeled stretchers and placed on a metal table in the center of the room.

Black body bags are opened. Then comes the task of going through pockets and clothing, looking for personal effects.

"Pictures from their family. That's the hardest part. When you're going through their pockets and you see a picture of their kids, their wives, their dads," said Sgt. Jose Vazquez, 21, of Guayama, Puerto Rico. "They've got people over there waiting for them, and they're not going to go back. Just, they're going back in a case."

Personal effects are placed in a bag and kept with the remains. Then the body bag is sealed and tagged, and - if they're Americans - the body bag is placed in a large metal transfer coffin for shipment to the United States. An American flag is secured on the top.

It is work that is usually done in silence; for this team, what few words are necessary are spoken in Spanish.

"It's pretty quiet in there. It's not something that I said, 'All right guys, I don't want you making too much noise or anything,'" said Colon of Patillas, Puerto Rico. "Just everybody kind of knows what to do. I guess it's just a sign of respect that everybody decided to show."

The group, which is on call 24 hours a day, lives in white trailers next to the area where the bodies are processed and have tried to make the space as comfortable as possible by adding items such as a basketball hoop. The idea, said Colon, is to leave the work at the mortuary.

After a body is processed, it is taken to the airfield for what Sgt. Daniel Mendoza, 21, of Ponce, Puerto Rico, describes as a "patriot ceremony."

Air Force personnel form two columns facing each other and the metal case is carried between the columns and loaded into the plane. A chaplain says a prayer, and the dead American is flown to Kuwait, and then makes the final flight home.

Remains of Iraqis who died in the hospital are usually returned to their families. Detainees who die in custody are often taken to the United States for an autopsy before being returned to Iraq.

Often, the bodies of the dead are accompanied by one of the living who was there when the person died. When a private contractor dies, someone from the company usually accompanies the body home. In the case of an American serviceman or woman, someone from their unit often travels with the body to the United States.

"The family wants to hear what happened to them from someone who was there," said Mendoza.

The team - who arrived in August 2005 and are completing their one-year tour this week - are not morticians in their civilian lives, and most joined the National Guard to earn money for college.

As the group prepares to return to Puerto Rico, they said they'll take back lessons learned from caring for the dead.

"I think the most important thing we have learned is about how important is life," Vazquez said. "You see so many young kids here. You're not the only one. You've got family back there waiting for you. Loved ones."

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