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The US Marine Corps has established a new type of unit for use in Iraq. No, we are not instigating a revival of the Central America-style military assassins. These death squads are a company of Marines whose sole (soul?) duty will be retrieving the bodies, body parts and personal effects of those killed in action. The first ever "personnel recovery and processing" unit will be on the ground in Iraq in September. The very need for such a specialty is very telling of our situation in Iraq.

The premier recovery unit, based out of Atlanta, is intended to free up combat soldiers from having to recover the bodies of those fighting along-side them, a duty the military brass views as "an emotionally draining job that can distract them from their missions."

In Iraq, the Marines will place the troops' bodies, their family photos and other belongings in metal cases packed with 40 pounds of ice each. They will drape the cases with American flags and send them back to the United States, where the military will officially identify them and prepare them for burial or cremation.

The Marines who have volunteered for this unique duty are not doctors or medics or medical specialists.
They are military police, cooks and supply clerks. They come from Georgia, the Washington, D.C., area, Missouri, Louisiana, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In civilian life, they are police officers, firefighters and mechanics.

But how will such duty effect these young volunteers? The unit's training is something of an experiment in methods to minimize traumatic psychological damage.

...the Marines have been taught to shun emotional connections with the soldiers they "process." Some Marines suggest covering the faces of the dead with towels. That could help them avoid looking into the eyes of the dead, studying their faces and perhaps identifying with them.

Lance Cpl. Catlin Coleman couldn't resist, despite the admonition she got from her trainers not to look at family pictures. She said she remembers the photo she found in a Marine corporal's left breast pocket several months ago. He had been killed in a helicopter crash in western Iraq. The photo was of the corporal's wife and newborn baby he never had a chance to hold.

"For me, that was the hardest one I did out there," said Coleman, 19, of Berryville, Va. "I don't think it's humanly possible not to look at the photos."

But retrieving photos is part of the duty description:

Family photos are the hardest part. Pictures of smiling spouses, young children and newborn babies. Marines find them in the pockets of their dead comrades. They are trained to not focus on them. Count them, catalog them and place the pictures facedown, they are told.

Part of the AJC's report focuses on one young man, Lance Cpl. John H. Allen, a 21 year-old bartender from Alpharetta, a suburb of the Atlanta sprawl.

This will be Allen's first deployment with the Marines. He has never been in a combat zone. He has never carried a body. He has never sorted through the tiny details of a dead stranger's life.

"There is no telling what my reaction will be when I see my first remains," the Milton High School graduate said during a break from training. "I'm hoping and praying I will come back normal and even more full of God than I am now and make it a spiritual experience."

Lance Cpl. Allen explained why he volunteered for such a task:

"I see this as a very honorable and respectable job," Allen said. "When someone dies, what the family wants is closure. And if they don't get closure, it will be harder for them to heal."

Very noble. Impossible to say that such sentiments are not laudible. But the program and this profile raises serious questions in my mind.

First, how badly is the overall mission progressing if such units are needed for the first time in our history? Second, what kind of VA care can these Marines expect when they leave the theatre? Because they will, I fear, need serious after-action care. From an administration that is more concerned with tax cuts than seriously addressing veterans health care issues. Or even civilian health care.

Originally posted to aggressiveprogressive on Wed Jan 25, 2006 at 07:50 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Totally clinical (none)
    Just another step in pulling apart the relationships that make for healthy people and societies. Can't have anyone feel too much or get too emotionally involved--they might start turning against this folly.

    Buckle your handbaskets, America.

    by Soy Lechithin on Wed Jan 25, 2006 at 07:58:40 AM PST

    •  I expect the program (none)
      will relieve some combat soldiers from the trauma of having to collect the bodies of people they know personally. But I think it will merely trade-off the severe trauma to those who are in this unit instead. I guess the military logic is that they keep the fighters going while rotating in new members of this unit as the old ones are too messed up.

      "She was very young,he thought,...she did not understand that to push an inconvenient person over a cliff solves nothing." -1984

      by aggressiveprogressive on Wed Jan 25, 2006 at 08:03:46 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  misery concentration (none)
    They figure it's better to concentrate the misery with one small unit than have the whole Marine Corps deal with it a little at a time.

    A cat is a camel designed by lobbyists for the hump industry

    by bobinson on Wed Jan 25, 2006 at 08:06:14 AM PST

  •  I hate to say it, but (none)
    Please give this a recommend. I think its an important story that's getting no coverage.

    I know the need to filibuster Alito is more pressing at the moment, and that the illegal domestic spying is of greater import to our democracy. But I think this program is something kossacks should be aware of.

    "She was very young,he thought,...she did not understand that to push an inconvenient person over a cliff solves nothing." -1984

    by aggressiveprogressive on Wed Jan 25, 2006 at 08:17:27 AM PST

  •  "Graves Registration" (4.00)
    I know two Vietnam vets who got out of combat patrol duties by volunteering for "Graves Registration." That was Army, though I'm a little surprised the Marines haven't always had such a program for combat theatres. Same kind of duties.

    Both the vets I know still suffer PTS, but then again, so do all the combat vets I've known. War has always been Hell.

  •  Who will be here for these soldiers? (none)
    They can try to train them all they want - but the reality is the duty will take a toll on them. There is no way they can shut out the pain and emotion of what they are doing.

    Every medical person I know that is working with dying patients is required to be evaluated and debriefed regularly by professional therapists. Police and firefighters work with professionals regularly.

    What is the government going to do for these young men and women when they come home?

    Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you..... Ralph Waldo Emerson

    by SallyCat on Wed Jan 25, 2006 at 08:26:30 AM PST

    •  Put them on a waiting list (none)
      for VA care at a facility that will not be very convenient to any of these veterans who do not live in a large city.

      Bush have already tried to cut military benefits wherever he can get away with it. He tried to cut combat pay. He has cut the VA budget. They are proposing to cut funding to the national guard this year. It troubles me greatly.

      "She was very young,he thought,...she did not understand that to push an inconvenient person over a cliff solves nothing." -1984

      by aggressiveprogressive on Wed Jan 25, 2006 at 08:32:34 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I probably put have put rhetorical (none)
        or snark next to the question...

        As a Vietnam Era vet - I saw too many young men come home with a pain in their eyes. These young men had seen too much and felt too much for an unjust and immoral war. The soldiers I worked with that had served in 'Nam and still stayed in the Army were haunted by the experience and conflicted by their sense of duty to country and their knowledge of how wrong that war was.

        Now we are doing it again....

        This administration just thinks they should all be 'okay'. Yeah right....what they are doing in Iraq is immoral. What they are doing to our vets is evil beyond words.

        Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you..... Ralph Waldo Emerson

        by SallyCat on Wed Jan 25, 2006 at 08:39:39 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  death squads (none)
    Interesting article, but the second sentence is incorrect.   Our military IS organizing latin america-style death squads to murder Iraqis.

    See here

    "Overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty." George Washington, 1796.

    by acquittal on Wed Jan 25, 2006 at 08:40:06 AM PST

    •  OK. I'll concede that (none)
      there such programs. Controllong secret killers is the stuff of neocon's wet dreams. But this particular program is not one of those.

      "She was very young,he thought,...she did not understand that to push an inconvenient person over a cliff solves nothing." -1984

      by aggressiveprogressive on Wed Jan 25, 2006 at 08:46:24 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  we all should bear the collective anguish (none)
    we (Americans) are causing in Iraq and elsewhere for our troops and the civilian populace. In place of ignoring the human/psychic costs we all should understand them - that way we dont fucking go to war because some-know-nothing neocon academics and their enabler-in-chief "think" its a good idea to "spread freedom" - fascist assholes....

    anyway recommended....

    "Sometimes it's like his record skips or like some coke-dusted and liquor-glazed synapse is unable to fire and he's just stuck" RudePundit

    by christhughes on Wed Jan 25, 2006 at 11:01:03 AM PST

  •  speaking of cold (none)
     The Secretary for Veterans Affairs was on either MSNBC or CNN, I cannot recall which. ...but he was saying how Morale is very High among War Amputees. He was smiling and so happy after his visit to Walter Reed. This Sick Wingnut was talking about how Happy the Amputees are. OH MY GOD!!! I felt sick to my stomach. This  Guy made me want to throw up.

    He was going on and on about all the great medical advances for Amputees and all that is being done for them. He went on about how all the Patients at the VA are just delighted to be getting Physical therapy and are happy as clams.

    OH MY GOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Just when I thought I heard the lowest of the low..!!

    It is one thing to say Amputees are coping and are making progress...it is another to say they are happy with great morale and just so grateful to have served and be getting help and all is grand at Walter Reed!!!!!! HOly crap!!

    Carry the battle to them. Don't let them bring it to you. Put them on the defensive and don't ever apologize for anything. - Harry S. Truman

    by wishingwell on Wed Jan 25, 2006 at 01:56:36 PM PST

  •  necrocracy (none)
    We are all stars in the ghoul show.

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