ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Nearly 7,000 service members have lost their lives since the U.S. went to war in 2001, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq and other countries. Every death is followed by an elaborate choreographed ritual that requires a very human touch to return the dead to their families. We're going to meet a man now who has spent his entire career doing this sensitive work - a military mortician. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre has his story.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: At Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, a military transport plane brings home service members killed in Afghanistan.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible).
MYRE: It's a part of the war the public only sees from a distance, if at all. But for Army Sergeant 1st Class A.G. Shaw, this work has been his life for 25 years. He's a 92 Mike, military-speak for a specialist in mortuary affairs. The job requires reverence and discretion. Thanks and recognition are rare. Shaw's comfort came from a supportive grandmother.
SGT 1ST CLASS A G SHAW: In her estimation, you're doing God's work 'cause you're bringing closure to families and you're bringing folks home.
MYRE: Shaw is a big, burly man with a deep, calming voice. In a long military career that's now winding down, he's seen the impact of U.S. wars from many places and many angles. Shaw has recovered troops killed on the battlefield in Iraq. He's consoled families in the U.S. as they receive the body of a loved one. One of his most powerful memories was at a military base in Hawaii. Shaw was handling the skeletal remains of a service member killed many years earlier in Vietnam.
SHAW: I ran across a young lady who was a baby when her father went off to war. She's never had any physical contact with her father. So she wanted to touch her father.
MYRE: The container holding his remains was opened.
SHAW: She had one of the backbones. And there's the way she was holding and touching and caressed this bone.
MYRE: The moment left a permanent imprint.
SHAW: Those five minutes where she was in prayer and in thought and she was finally touching a physical piece of her father, even though it seemed macabre, it did something for her. Then she washed her hands and she went home. And she was crying because I was driving the vehicle. And she was very thankful.
MYRE: At times like these, Shaw says, he's stoic on the outside and limp on the inside.
MEGHAN OGILVIE: He's seen things that none of us - the majority of us would - you know, one day of it wouldn't be able to handle.
MYRE: That's Meghan Ogilvie. She runs Dog Tag Bakery, a nonprofit group in the Georgetown section of Washington. The ground floor of the old white brick building is a working bakery filled with the fragrance of cakes and coffee. Those smells waft up to the second floor, where the group also has a classroom that trains veterans like Shaw to enter the business world.
OGILVIE: If you have good music going, I mean, A.G.'s on the - A.G.'s dancing. He's moving. He's clapping. He's singing. He has a zest for life, you know? He has it. And I think his service didn't allow him to always be able to show it. And maybe he has a greater, you know, passion for it because he's seen the other side.
MYRE: In a lengthy interview just outside Washington, Shaw isn't inclined to talk about the global politics of America's wars. He speaks about honor and pride, respect for the work, and insights gleaned from his job. Shaw says everyone in his profession has a number.
SHAW: A number of instances, a number of traumas, a number of exposures before things just get too heavy.
MYRE: Shaw divides the job into three parts. All are challenging. All add to a person's number. Part one, he says, is working with the bodies. This means autopsies and embalming. It wasn't easy, especially in the beginning.
SHAW: I found it hard to look the decedents in their face. I would have a problem because I'd get to imagining this person's life. And it ticks away at you.
MYRE: In Iraq, troops were often killed by powerful roadside bombs.
SHAW: It's not like the movies. We don't die pretty.
MYRE: The second part of the mission is putting a service member's affairs in order. This includes gathering the belongings of the deceased.
SHAW: When you're there packing their room for them, now you see what kind of person they were. It hits you.
MYRE: The third part is comforting the families. This often involves meeting at a civilian airport and escorting the family on a lengthy car ride to collect the remains at Dover Air Force Base.
SHAW: Sometimes they want to engage you. Sometimes they're speaking amongst themselves. Sometimes it's just regular things. Did I leave the stove on? Some of these people you want to hug and you want to tell them it's going to be OK.
MYRE: But it can also be tense.
SHAW: Sometimes it's not always pleasant for the service member. You got the people, like, you will not bury him in this uniform, or why are you here? You killed him. But you have to be professional. And you take it.
MYRE: Shaw just turned 44, and this is the only real job he's had. He's done it much longer than most.
SHAW: I think I've reached my number, so I want to do something that's happier than dealing with people's grief and sad emotions.
MYRE: Back at Dog Tag Bakery, Kyle Burns, who runs the training program, says veterans often underestimate the skills they can offer.
KYLE BURNS: I think it's epidemic in that transition from the military to the civilian world the lacking of understanding or appreciation for their own skill sets and their own experiences.
MYRE: But she's a big fan of Shaw.
BURNS: He has a very clear vision of the future, and he understands there's probably a lot of ways to get there.
MYRE: Shaw says he's not yet sure what he'll do after he retires on January 2, though he knows what puts him at ease.
SHAW: I do photography. So I'm going to see how far that takes me because you've got a camera, people smile at you. And you encapsulate happy times.
MYRE: He hopes to find those happy times in St. Louis, where he grew up and where he'll start a new chapter with his wife and their two teenagers. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.
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