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ON POINT II: Transition to the New Campaign

The United States Army in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM May 2003-January 2005

Part IV

Sustaining the Campaign

Chapter 13
Taking Care of Soldiers


Final Honors for the Fallen: Mortuary Affairs in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM

Although survival rates increased dramatically during OIF, some Soldiers still made the ultimate sacrifice. When a Soldier died, his or her remains were handled by Army Mortuary Affairs (MA) specialists. The 54th Quartermaster Company, the only Active Duty MA unit in the Army, operated all mortuary affairs operations in Iraq.54 The US Army’s Quartermaster Branch had the responsibility for all mortuary doctrine and training for the Armed Services. These Soldiers processed and evacuated the remains of all Soldiers from theater in accordance with the Concurrent Return Program, which stated that all US Soldiers would be returned to the United States.55 Before the Korean war, Soldiers killed on foreign soil were usually buried in temporary graves to be disinterred after hostilities for permanent burial.56 This created problems because the location of temporary graves was often lost. During the Korean war, the remains of deceased Soldiers were immediately processed and shipped in refrigerated containers through Japan to the United States for internment.57

Soldiers lost in combat in OIF were remembered in multiple ways before being returned to the United States for burial. First, every unit would conduct a “fallen Soldier” ceremony at their base camp to render appropriate honor and respect. The unit then provided for the remains to be transported to a theater mortuary evacuation point (TMEP) facility at Camp Doha, Kuwait. At Camp Doha, a chaplain received the remains with a prayer and with Soldiers standing at attention and saluting the “angels” before they were transported back to the United States.58

Throughout all operations in Iraq, MA Soldiers maintained a high level of dignity and respect for the deceased Soldiers. Frederik Balfour, a journalist who gained permission to observe the MA unit, witnessed their dedication when he was in Iraq: “What truly distinguishes them as great Soldiers is the compassion and humanity they bring to their unenviable task.”59 According to Staff Sergeant Erik Thomsen, the job was a labor of love. Thomsen said, “We’re the one job that nobody wants.”60 Located some distance from the frenetic activity of Camp Doha to preserve the dignity of every fallen Soldier, the MA Soldiers accepted that they were hidden from view and that their work received little public or media coverage.61 According to Specialist Amelia Santoro, “It puts families at ease knowing somebody out there is taking care of them and that they’re getting proper respect.”62 Thomsen wanted military families who lost loved ones in Iraq to know “that their loved ones, every step of the way, were treated with the full respect of the United States military. . . . To us,” he said, “they’re heroes.”63

Chapter 13. Taking Care of Soldiers

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