Tents in Kuwait serve as U.S. mortuary
CAMP WOLVERINE, Kuwait -- The bodies come in most every day. The American soldiers here strip them of their belongings and lay them in metal coffins packed with ice.
By JIM KRANE
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
"Most people are scared of us," said Spc. Steve Rawlings, who works in the white tent serving as the mortuary for U.S. soldiers killed in neighboring Iraq. "Most people don't want to talk about death."
The Theater Mortuary Evacuation Point occupies a forlorn cluster of tents at the back corner of this sand-covered base in Kuwait, hidden behind stacks of shipping containers.
Few people venture here, other than an occasional jogger and the 30 mortuary affairs specialists like Rawlings, who handle the American corpses shipped to the base. Outside the main tent, a hundred or more metal caskets - or "transfer cases" - sit at the ready, each wrapped in plastic. A dusty refrigerator truck with a windshield sticker reading "Mortuary" is parked nearby.
The soldiers - all members of the U.S. Army's 54th Quartermaster Company, based at Fort Lee, Va. - have one of the most difficult and delicate jobs in the U.S. military. Few get as realistic a view of the war's stark toll on Americans.
All U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq - whether in combat, by accident or suicide - pass through the morgue before being flown home to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
The bodies' arrivals at Dover are closed to the public and the media, a legacy of the television coverage showing American soldiers who were killed during the Vietnam War.
As of Friday, 544 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq, according to the Department of Defense.
The 54th Quartermaster Company (Mortuary Affairs) dates to 1923, when it was called the 350th Graves Registration Unit. Its members participated in World War II, the Gulf War and the U.S. intervention in Bosnia, and transported bodies from the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon.
On Saturday, there were no arrivals from Iraq.
"It's a good day," said Pfc. Michelle Beaudoin, 21, of Buffalo, N.Y. , who listened to soft soul music on a boom box inside the tent. "We get busy days and slow days."
A tough day at the mortuary follows a major calamity in Iraq, such as the Nov. 2 downing of a Chinook helicopter near Fallujah that killed 16 U.S. soldiers or the Nov. 15 collision of a pair of Black Hawk helicopters in Mosul that killed 17.
"No matter how many remains come through here, you have to stand back and take a breath and continue to work," said Rawlings, a soft-spoken, bald 24-year-old with tattooed forearms. "You just basically block it out. You imagine the remains aren't real. They're just a shell."
The morgue is a way station for a dead American's last trip home. When a U.S. soldier is killed, Beaudoin and Rawlings explained, the body goes to one of several collection points at Iraqi airfields and is transferred quickly to a flight to Kuwait.
Bodies arrive at the airport next to Camp Wolverine that serves as the chief base for long-range U.S. military flights. Corpses are taken to the tent and placed on one of six plywood tables draped in blue cloths.
Inside that tent, nine caskets sat in a stack, one of them draped in an American flag. On the shelves behind, a stack of folded flags sat wrapped in plastic.
Soldiers prepare the corpses by transferring them from body bags into the coffin cases. Inventories of wounds and possessions are taken, the paperwork is written up and labels are affixed to the coffins. The embalming is done in Delaware, Beaudoin said.
The bodies do not stay long in Kuwait - typically less than a day - before being flown home. Occasionally, family members or high-ranking officers are allowed on those flights, said Army Capt. Randall Baucom, spokesman for the Coalition Forces Land Component Command in Kuwait.
Soldiers train for the morgue assignment by working for a month at the city morgue in Richmond, Va. Beaudoin, who was studying for a degree in forensic science before joining the Army, worked at a corpse collection point in Iraq before coming to the mortuary. "It's been an experience," Beaudoin said. "It's not something everyone can handle."
The military denied permission to photograph the mortuary area, saying it was the most sensitive portion of Camp Wolverine.
On the Net:
Army Mortuary Affairs: http://www.quartermaster.army.mil/mac
54th Quartermaster Company: http://www.quartermaster.army.mil/49thgrp/54th
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