Science, Symbolism Mix in Army Mortuary Training At Fort Lee in Virginia, soldiers train to become 92Ms — mortuary affairs specialists. They will go on to help recover, identify and prepare the remains of fallen soldiers. The 92Ms use the language of medical examiners, and they also make sure to properly honor the soldiers in their care.
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Science, Symbolism Mix in Army Mortuary Training

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Science, Symbolism Mix in Army Mortuary Training

Science, Symbolism Mix in Army Mortuary Training

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

NOAH ADAMS, Host:

And I'm Noah Adams.

In a classroom at Fort Lee, Virginia, a U.S. Army instructor stands in front of 11 soldiers. There is a skeleton by her side, and she says we do not deal with the living. These soldiers have volunteered for the Army and volunteered to work with the dead. They'll become mortuary affairs specialists.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

ADAMS: Fort Lee is just south of Richmond, Virginia. It's the home of the quartermasters. Whatever is needed in the field, the quartermasters get it there. At Fort Lee, you can learn how to build a pipeline, set-up a water plant, computer systems. You'll see soldiers marching by who are dressed in white - chef whites, they're called. The military's top cooking school is here, and the Mortuary Affairs School.

Unidentified Man: Take seats.

Unidentified Group: Fallen, but not forgotten.

ADAMS: Every class in mortuary affairs starts this way. A soldier student will command take seats, and the class responds fallen, but not forgotten. It's a pledge, a promise understood by everyone in the military. We will never leave a fallen comrade.

ALISA KARR: Okay. Today's class is in going to come at your SM4-20-65, okay? Now, like I told you yesterday, what's today's class?

Unidentified Woman: Anatomy.

KARR: The anatomical chart, D4-A93. So, anatomical chart, we will be dealing with wounds, wounds and injuries.

ADAMS: The instructor is Sergeant First Class Alisa Karr. After her students graduate from this basic course, they can serve in what the military calls a theater of war, including duty at a battle field collection point.

DOUGLAS HOWARD: We're not going to make a forensic anthropologist out of someone who's in the classroom today for seven weeks, four days. Absolutely not. We are going to teach them how to survive in a forensic environment.

ADAMS: Douglas Howard is the deputy director of the Mortuary Affairs School. His graduates will have autopsy experience and be ready to help a medical examiner who might say...

HOWARD: Please hand me the right tibia of victim so-and-so. The soldier has to know which one of the shin bones is, in fact, the right tibia.

KARR: Like I told you, before we start, we going to review from yesterday, okay? All right, ya'll better be on it this morning. Top of the foot.

Group: Tarsal.

KARR: Bottom of the foot?

Group: (unintelligible)

KARR: Top of the hand?

ADAMS: The graduates might also work in Delaware at the Dover Port Mortuary. Soldiers who die in Iraq or Afghanistan will come through Dover, more than 4,500 so far. The bodies arrive in aluminum transfer cases. The case is draped with a flag and is always carried feet first. The body is examined for cost of death, and then - if possible and if the family wishes - prepared for viewing. A casket is shipped to the soldier's hometown. Elapsed time, usually, from death to homecoming: five to seven days.

OSCAR ESPINOSA: My name is Oscar Espinosa. I'm a PV2 in the U.S. Army, and I'm from Modesto, California.

ADAMS: Private Espinosa is 19 years old. He walked into an Army recruiting office and said he wanted to join up with mortuary affairs, surprised the recruiter, who hadn't heard of that specialty. Oscar Espinosa has long been fascinated by the body, by human anatomy.

ESPINOSA: Ever since I was a child, I've always looked at the way we move and work and I've always wondered, you know, what are the components that do this? It's a very delicate machine, and when you get down into it, it's very interesting.

ANGELIA GANTZ: Private First Class Gantz, first name Angelia from Sebastian Inlet, Florida.

ADAMS: Private Gantz is 37, has a husband and two teenagers back in Florida. She spent years working with the disabled and now see Mortuary Affairs as a career move. And she wants to help the families who lose sons, daughters, husband, wives.

GANTZ: There's only 1 percent of America that's actually doing anything for the country as far as willing to defend it and die for it, and I was tired of not doing anything.

KARR: Okay, moving on. Gunshot wounds, okay? Going to see a lot of these, right?

Man: Cool.

KARR: You have contact gunshot wound?

ADAMS: The instructor, Sgt. Alisa Karr, continues her morning lesson in a darkened room, showing images of gunshot wounds, lacerations, amputations, fourth degree burns, which she describes as not compatible with survival. Sgt. Karr's experience includes time in Kuwait, in command of a theater mortuary evacuation point at an air strip, processing bodies from Iraq, everything double checked, packing the human remains pouches in ice, securing the transfer cases on the next plane stateside. Her team of specialists work 24-hour shifts, no way to predict how many bodies or when. Sergeant Karr spent seven months in Kuwait, and long term says she's doing fine.

KARR: Personally, I've had no problems. And sometimes I wonder if that's a problem. Should I be thinking of this differently after doing this for 11 years? I don't know. But I love my job. I look at it as scientific. You know, I have to take myself out of the humanization. It is a human, and I will respect that soldier, mother, father, son, daughter. You know, but then I have to take it into the realm of more scientific. I'm like, wow. That's how I survive.

FRANK RIVERO: I'm Sgt. Maj. Frank Rivero, and I'm the senior mortuary noncommissioned officer for the United States Army.

ADAMS: Sgt. Maj. Rivero has been posted to many conflict areas. In Germany at Landstuhl, he dealt with hundred of bodies from the war in Afghanistan. He has been troubled by his experience.

RIVERO: We see things in the military that most civilian funeral directors will never see. There's very serious traumatic cases that - bodies that are coming back mutilated or inflicted with mass trauma or some type of explosion that occurred. And many cases, the remains are severely burned, and it's very difficult to identify them.

ADAMS: Post traumatic stress syndrome - PTSD. Sergeant Major Frank Rivero says one in three mortuary affairs personnel will be affected. And he counsels others at Fort Lee by talking openly about his sleep problems, his severe depression. Treatable, but Rivero says, the mortuary specialist, no one sees his wounds, and they may never go away. The Army recognizes the difficulty of the duty. When the specialists go off to Iraq - the sandbox, the soldier's call it - they serve a six-month tour, not a year, then a return to base in Virginia for a rest and more training. Fort Lee is home to both of the Army's mortuary companies, about 400 soldiers in all. Private First Class Angelia Gantz, who we heard from earlier, had a chance to talk with two specialists who were looking forward to their third trip to Iraq.

GANTZ: They're pretty high depth about their job. They like what they do, and they do it well. And it was better for them to be there than here and not really getting to be hands on with anything. So they were actually volunteering at the tax center when I had my taxes done, said they were bored.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADAMS: Pvt. Gantz, her classmate Pvt. Espinosa, graduated last week at Fort Lee. They could be in Iraq as early as July.

KARR: All right. We'll going to stop right here. Kelly, take him on a break.

ADAMS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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