APRIL 6, 2003 · When American troops die in the war, their bodies are sent home, but not directly. At Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, teams of medical workers process the remains and prepare them to be sent to family members. It is honorable work, and it can be traumatic. Maj. Kate McGraw is a psychologist who works in the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base. She says she overcame her own squeamishness and can now work long hours behind what she calls "the double doors." Her job is to pay close attention to her colleagues, to make sure they're coping mentally as they process bodies. This is McGraw's diary, about learning to work, and cope, in a military morgue.

My expectation was that I would be really upset psychologically and maybe not even be able to do the job. Maybe get sick to my stomach or pass out even.

What I discovered was that when I focused on the idea that a person had actually lost their life serving their country, that that made it much easier for me to face the job without any long-term damage. But what makes that difficult is when you look at the personal effects that often accompany the remains, like the photographs and the things that really tell us who this person was.

"Eyes are a very expressive part of your face and so a lot of times nonverbal communication is a good way to check and see if someone is struggling."

So a lot of people will deliberately not look at that while they're working on the remains and not read the paper and not listen to the radio or watch television, so that they're not making that connection. Not because they don't care but because maybe, perhaps, the fear that they might care too much and that might interfere with their ability to do their job.

But there's definitely a strong sense of sadness and most of the time when we're working in the mortuary, people are in full gowns and masks so you have a lot of communication through the eyes. And eyes are a very expressive part of your face and so a lot of times nonverbal communication is a good way to check and see if someone is struggling. We don't directly ask them, 'Are you OK?' But we'll just stand there and offer them an opportunity to speak or to not speak if they don't feel like they need to at the moment.

It tends to start out with just some kind of superficial conversation, maybe not even related to the task at hand. And then gradually they may feel more comfortable in saying, 'Hey, you know, maybe the other night I was having this nightmare' or 'Is this a typical thing for me to be experiencing?' That's kind of how we help them the most.

Dover Air Force Base

Washington Post: 'Caring for Those Who Receive U.S. War Dead'

Dover Post article on Kate McGraw's team


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