Sgt. 1st Class Alisa Karr teaches students at the Mortuary Affairs Center at Fort Lee in Virginia.
Sgt. 1st Class Alisa Karr teaches students at the Mortuary Affairs Center at Fort Lee in Virginia. Tina Tennessen/NPR
Inside Mifflin Hall at Fort Lee, Va., 11 students gather in a room that could pass for a pre-med class. A model skeleton stands on wheels in one corner; a partially dissected plastic torso rests on a table in the rear. The instructor, Sgt. 1st Class Alisa Karr, begins the lesson with a review of the body's bones.
But these soldiers are not studying anatomy to become medics. They are learning to care for the dead.
When these 11 students graduate from training at the U.S. Army's Mortuary Affairs Center, they will earn the title 92M — military code for mortuary affairs specialist. Some of those who have volunteered to work with the dead will serve at collection points in Iraq and Afghanistan; others will work in the port mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. They will help recover, identify and prepare the remains of fallen soldiers.
The 92Ms have cared for the majority of the more than 4,500 military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. They operate under a code of conduct that's part scientific and part symbolic. Using the language of a medical examiner, they fill out forms describing and annotating every wound and marking on the bodies they receive. They also "render honor" to each soldier in their care. The 92Ms make sure the dead travel home feet-first and draped in a flag.
It takes seven weeks and four days to complete training at the Mortuary Affairs Center. The center's staff makes the lessons as realistic as possible. They can't re-create the hot, sandy conditions of Iraq, but they do expose students to violent deaths. The soldiers make regular visits to the city morgue in Richmond, where they learn what death looks and smells like. There, students observe autopsies and discover whether they can handle the work.
"We see things in the military that most civilian funeral directors will never see," says Sgt. Maj. Frank Rivero. He helps run mortuary training at Fort Lee and brings 28 years of experience to the program. When the war in Afghanistan began, Rivero was stationed in Germany at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Many of the remains he processed from the fighting in Afghanistan were so badly damaged that he and his colleagues needed DNA technology to identify the deceased.
The 92Ms assigned to mortuary affairs collection points in Iraq and Afghanistan work in teams of six. During a 24-hour shift, they can process the remains of approximately 20 soldiers. Rivero and the other staff at Fort Lee talk openly with the students about the psychological hazards of the job. One in three mortuary affairs specialists will be affected by post-traumatic stress disorder, Rivero says. To mitigate the stress, 92Ms serve shorter tours than the other soldiers. They rotate out of the field after six months.
Training at the Mortuary Affairs Center culminates with a field trip to Dover Air Force Base. It's the first time the students will see — and help care for — fallen soldiers.
"It's the definition of why we're here," says Pfc. Angelia Gantz. At Dover, Gantz and her classmates will watch as seasoned 92Ms put the finishing touches on the soldiers before they are sent home to their families.