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.