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NEWS | Feb. 11, 2016

Honor and respect in death, as in life

By Staff Sgt. Nicole Dykstra 78th Training Division

JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. - In a quiet, unassuming tent in the woods of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., a group of dedicated Soldiers stand ready to greet their comrades who gave the ultimate sacrifice. This is Warrior Exercise (WAREX) “Arctic Lightning,” a two-week annual training event held at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. Units are tested to react to the unpredictability of a simulated combat environment while living in adverse conditions. 

The Los Angeles-based 387th Quartermaster Company’s and their mortuary affairs specialists’ role at “Arctic Lightning” begins when another unit transports a simulated casualty to their Mortuary Affairs Collection Point (MACP). These simulated casualties are the result of the exercise’s dynamic scenarios that expose units to realistic combat events such as improvised explosive devices, indirect fire, and small arms attacks.

Casualties are most often transported by litter to the MACP. Upon arrival, the mortuary affairs specialists have a specific manner in which they carry the casualties, an indication of the solemnness with which they perform their duties.

“Fallen Soldiers are always carried feet-first to simulate walking into the MACP,” said Pfc. Channing Lewis, a mortuary affairs specialist in the 387th. “It’s very important because it’s our way of honoring their presence with us.”

Reverence and respect are the core themes the mortuary affairs Soldiers exude in everything they do. Great care is taken to maintain the dignity of the fallen service member from the moment they arrive at the MACP to the moment they depart.

“When we are preparing the case file for the remains, next to the name we write ‘BTB,’ for ‘Believed to be,’” said Lewis. “Even if the remains are accompanied by someone who knows the Soldier or maybe saw what happened, we don’t want to assume we have the Soldier’s real name. We want to be as accurate as possible, because the Soldiers deserve that.”

Once the case file are started, mortuary affairs specialists will begin to collect and inventory all the personal items and equipment that accompanied the remains. Gentle hands check every pocket, search every piece of clothing to ensure any personal items the service member was carrying will be preserved for his or her family members.

“Whether it’s as simple as a watch or something more personal like a letter, these things are very important to the family, so we want to make sure we handle everything very carefully,” said Lewis.

Inventoried personal effects are placed together in a bag that will accompany the casualty to the final location before being brought home, the Theater Mortuary Evacuation Point (TMEP). Sensitive items and unit equipment will similarly be inventoried and then returned to the service member’s unit.

“Remains can be kept here for up to 48 hours before being transported to a TMEP, but we really aim for less than 24 hours,” said Spc. Toby Rutledge, a mortuary affairs specialist in the 387th. “From the time we first receive a casualty, we have 72 hours to get that service member back stateside, so we are always working as quickly as possible.”

Timing is important because final preparation of remains takes place at the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operation at Dover Air Force Base, Del. To preserve the remains for the journey, up to 80 pounds of ice is necessary, and the ice must be replenished several times before the final flight home, said Lewis. 

During “Arctic Lightning,” Soldiers of the 387th Quartermaster Company took advantage of the multinational component of the exercise by training with Canadian forces in an effort to improve skills that don’t get as much attention. Some of the Canadian service members on their training site acted as casualties so the mortuary affairs specialists could practice processing non-U.S. remains, a realistic experience in the Army’s current joint environment.

“Working with the Canadian forces here challenged us to go back to our books to see how we would process the remains of foreign nationals,” said Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Heath, non-commissioned officer-in-charge of the 387th. “We are already proficient in handling American casualties, but when it comes to mass casualty events, you need to be prepared for remains from anywhere. Here we got a pretty unique chance to work on that.”

While the Soldiers of the 387th acknowledge the stressful nature of their job, there is a deep sense of duty that drives them to continue.

“Every death is sad, but it’s sadder when you see someone wearing the same uniform you wear, who signed the same paperwork you signed,” said Rutledge. “You feel like you know them, which is hard, but we have to be here giving them every bit of respect that we can.”