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Marine Corps Mortuary Affairs

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Updated September 10, 2003

After we lose servicemembers in a war, many do not think about who gets them back home. For those Marines who died during Operation Iraqi Freedom, there is a small, virtually-unknown company of reservists who answered the call.

Mortuary Affairs (MA) Company, Combat Service Support Group-11, has been tasked with the sometimes-difficult job of recovering, processing and shipping their fallen brothers and sisters back to the United States quickly.

"We make sure everyone gets home, regardless," said Staff Sgt. Ralph Patterson, Acting Company Gunnery Sergeant, MA Company. "We honor them by getting them home. We go by the Marine Corps philosophy 'We take care of our own'."

The Marine Corps did not have a dedicated mortuary affairs unit before Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to Patterson. The Marine Corps relied on an Army unit and about ten Marines that trained others during the first Gulf War, but there was not an entire unit dedicated to bringing back fallen Marines.

Three reserve units each dedicated about eighty Marines and sent them to the Mortuary Affairs Army school in January, as the Armed Forces was preparing to deploy. These trained Marines became part of the first Mortuary Affairs Company to serve in combat for the Marine Corps.

"I am really glad the Marine Corps is doing this now," said Sgt. Jeremy Davis, MA Platoon Sergeant, a 24-year-old native of Denver, Colo., "it's not a glorious job, but it needs to be done, and it needs to be done by fellow Marines."

The Marines sometimes had to sift through ashes and vehicle remains for days to find personal identification, such as dog tags or nametapes. They did not stop until they knew they have identified all the missing servicemembers in an area. Sometimes the only thing they found was a dog tag to identify someone.

"Dog tags always seem to make it. I don't know what they're made of but they seem to survive through anything," said Patterson. "One of our Marines was looking through the wreckage of the amtrack and found a melted glob of metal that was a rifle. There was a chain hanging out of that metal glob and when we cut it open there was a dog tag inside."

"If it is possible to have someone identified, you want to," said Lance Cpl. William Smith, a 25-year-old mortuary affairs specialist from Marietta Ga. "We don't want to turn a KIA to an MIA."

Patterson said he spent two days in a pile of debris that used to be the driver's area of an amphibious assault vehicle that was hit by a missile. He almost quit, but something inside told him to keep looking. A few hours later, he found the dog tag of the last Marine left to be identified from the vehicle. He unexpectedly saw that name again later.

"There was a story in the Marine Corps Times about a woman who was left at home caring for her children while her husband was fighting in Iraq," said Patterson. "It went into a lot of depth about the family. At the end of the story it said, 'In memory of (the Marine's name)'. That is one of the many parts of the job that make it worthwhile."

The Marines of the mortuary affairs company follow strict rules and military traditions when handling the bodies of fallen servicemembers.

"We go by the old traditions of handling bodies of a fallen brother," said Smith. "You don't stand over the remains. You don't walk over the remains. That's for friend or enemy.

"We give the dead Iraqi soldier the same respect we would give our own Marine. They are warriors, just like us."

The mortuary affairs Marines take their job seriously because they aren't doing this for themselves; they are doing it for fallen comrades, their friends and families.

"Our CO told us before he left that you can judge a civilization by how they treat their children, their elderly and their dead," Smith said. "The last part is our job."

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