Mortuary affairs unit provides critical help in COVID-19 crisis

By Capt. Matthew Cline | 377th Theater Sustainment Command | May 12, 2020

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NEW YORK —

Surrounded by the densely packed skyscrapers of the Big Apple, Soldiers of the 54th Quartermaster Company have been hard at work across the five boroughs of New York helping the NYC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) in the city’s ongoing fight against COVID-19.

The 54th Quartermaster Company has a unique and challenging role in the response. The Soldiers are responsible for the collection and processing of virus-related casualties throughout the city. For a community with a population over 9 million, this is no small task.

Speaking from the busy planning wing of the 377th Theater Sustainment Command Headquarters in Belle Chasse, La., Maj. Valerie Manuel, the Senior Mortuary Affairs Planner for the command who supervises the 54th’s mission, had confidence in the mission’s success.

“They got right in there and started with the process,” she said. “The commander and first sergeant have a really good working relationship with the OCME and the city really appreciates what they’re doing.”

Prior to the unit’s mission beginning on April 2nd, The Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinated with U.S. Army North, the lead Department of Defense element in the U.S. response, to ensure the Soldiers could help the city as quickly and efficiently as possible. Because the Soldiers are working closely with civilians, the combined response is considered a Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) mission.

“A lot of it has been proactive, we try to make ourselves available and make sure that the civil authorities understand we are here and able to provide assistance when we see it needed from a logistical standpoint,” said Cpt. Ethan Frazee, the commander of the 54th Quartermaster Company. “Every day we’re learning from working with the civilian authorities, and we’re also learning what we’re capable of internally.”

The 70 Soldiers of the 54th have been working 24 hours a day since their mission began, operating out of what is known as a Disaster Portable Morgue Unit. The facility enables the casualty recovery teams to assist in body collection throughout the city, along with identification and processing of personal effects until the bodies find their final resting place. This prevents an overwhelmed hospital system from having to process the casualties in addition to their already demanding treatment measures.

Despite the extensive training in mortuary affairs the Soldiers receive prior to a mission like this, there are inherently challenging effects to mental well-being while working with cadavers on a daily basis. The U.S. Army Behavioral Health Team for Combat Stress has been working hand-in-hand with the Soldiers from the start to identify any indications of compromised mental health. The unit is also equipped with survey devices that are used before and after each shift to enable behavioral health specialists to monitor behavioral changes.

Of all the measures taken to ensure the Soldiers’ mental well-being, none have been as popular or effective as the therapy and service dogs that come to the casualty collection points to interact with the Soldiers. Juan Serrano, Assistant Vice President of Military and Veteran Liaison Services for Northwell Health, contacted employees from his company via email to see if any were willing to volunteer their time to bring their licensed therapy and service dogs to the Soldiers to help them deal with the stress of the mission. The reply was overwhelming.

“We exceeded our request immediately,” Serrano said. “It was amazing to see that kind of a response.”

The Northwell employees are not alone in their appreciation of the 54th’s mission. There has been a positive response from almost every corner of the city in which they now serve. New Yorkers have donated gift baskets, brought snacks, and routinely thanked the Soldiers when they are out on mission.

“It makes every day easier when you have people so willing to provide support, you don’t have to look for it, it’s just there,” said Frazee. “It’s been tremendous throughout the city with their acknowledgment and recognition for us being here.”

Going forward, the troops will continue to assist the OCME and the City of New York until their services are no longer deemed necessary and the city infrastructure is able to sustain the fight against COVID-19 independently. For now, however, the troops provide a sense of security for the people of the city in a dark and challenging time.

“Their presence gives New York reassurance that we are not fighting alone and that’s the most important takeaway,” Serrano said. “We are not fighting alone.”

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