Marine veteran Cheryl Ites jokingly says growing up with five brothers in an all-boy neighborhood on Mankato's Sixth Avenue conditioned her to survive in a war zone.
She knows of what she speaks.
In 2004, she was a chief warrant officer in charge of a mortuary team at Fallujah during a period that included the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War. The Mankato native came back from her overseas service, where handling corpses and body parts were routine duties, with no signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Cheryl can take just about anything," said Veda Ites, 88, of Mankato, confirming her daughter's healthy mental state. "She always been strong-willed -- that helped."
A 1973 graduate of Mankato High School, 60-year-old Ites, now of Alexandria, Virginia, joined the Marines in 1974 as a way to pay for college. She enlisted as a military police officer.
"I was on active duty for a period of time. When I went back to college, I stayed in the military reserves," she said.
In 2000, she began overseeing a small platoon in Ohio that handled graves registrations.
"I did not throw up at accident scenes (when she was an MP), so they thought I was a good fit," she said of her Dayton assignment.
While in the reserves, Ites earned a master's degree in education and taught for six years at a Catholic school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
"Then 9/11 happened," she said.
Ites and her husband, Frank Gunter (a college instructor and military veteran), were raising three children when she was activated as a mortuary affairs officer in 2003.
"I jumped at the unique opportunity that allowed me to go over to the war," she said. "I equate it to being in the minor leagues when all of a sudden, you are sent up to the majors."
Ites was in Iraq in 2003-2004. She served three tours in those two years. The work included identifying the bodies of U.S. servicemen, and later the focus switched to cataloging Iraqi deaths.
The mortuary team used refrigerated rooms in a potato factory while they examined the dead brought in from the city's war-torn streets. Ites used a green log book to keep track of the corpses, which often could not be identified by name.
The bodies were not stacked; they were placed side by side. After the remains were examined, they were placed in body bags and placed in storage.
"We had a mission to do," she said describing her team's efforts to give dignity to the dead.
Eventually those bodies -- mostly men's, but some were women's and children's -- were buried in a nearby cemetery.
Burial services were conducted by local Imams, Ites said.
Ites closed the operation in December 2004. A 49-year-old at the time, she remembers being more concerned for her young team's mental duress than for her well-being. While working in the building, the team was subjected to strong odors and buzzing flies. She didn't want the images, sounds and smells of those horrific times to stick with those 19- and 20-year-olds and later cause them harm.
"Those Marines were my kids," she said.
During the six weeks her daughter was stationed in Fallujah, Veda Ites traveled from Mankato to the East Coast to help care for her grandchildren.
"One was in college, our middle child was in high school and our youngest was in sixth grade. Mom came to help take care of them," Cheryl Ites said.
Ites retired from the military in 2009 and now works as a civilian in the Pentagon. She received a Bronze Star in recognition of her service in Iraq.
Although only one of her siblings is a military veteran (brother Don served in Vietnam), Ites believes her family gave her the tools that got her through the Fallujah experiences.
"... My bringing-up. My parents did not shield us. They taught us death is a part of life," Ites said.
While in Mankato for an Ites family reunion last August, Cheryl and Veda began making plans to get together at Triangle, Virginia, which is home to the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
The mortuary crew's logbook, where they recorded information about the corpses and body parts recovered in Fallujah, will be part of a future exhibit in a new wing at the museum.