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Grim Business of Dealing With the Dead

Military's mortuary affairs specialists -- all volunteers -- do a job no one else wants to do.

May 08, 2003|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

FT. BLISS, Texas — Their job begins when the fighting and dying are done.

Known in the military as "92 Mikes" or, more grimly, as "diggers," these soldiers are assigned to recover America's dead.

"We are the defenders of a sacred trust," said Tom Dourlier, director of the U.S. Army Mortuary Affairs Center. "The trust is that if your loved ones go to war and lose their lives, we will recover them and bring them back with dignity, reverence and respect, so the families can lay them down in fields of honor."

Dealing with the dead -- gathering their remains, inventorying their effects, bringing the bodies home -- is a job few in the military want.

"The sights, sounds and smells of what they do, others avoid," reads a tribute to these soldiers posted on the center's Web site. "They surround themselves with sorrow, tragedy and grief, and call it their job."

In civilian life, Lisa Ontiveros, 40, is an attendant at the Los Angeles County morgue and works part time as an embalmer. But now the good-humored Army Reserve staff sergeant has been deployed to the Persian Gulf for a second tour there, tending to the dead.

The bulk of the fighting in Iraq may be over, but there undoubtedly are victims of accidents or battlefield episodes yet to come. That means work for the soldiers with the military occupational skill designation 92M.

"You're in a war zone -- people are going to die," Ontiveros said recently between long draws on a Marlboro just before leaving Ft. Bliss for Kuwait. "It's a given."

In her job at the county morgue, Ontiveros has prepared the body of an 18-month-old gunshot victim and embalmed Hollywood actors. But handling victims of war is different.

"The bodies die by artillery, bombs blowing up," said Ontiveros, a member of the Army Reserve's 653rd Area Support Group based in Moreno Valley. "In L.A. ... every body's intact."

It is the responsibility of mortuary affairs specialists to gather up what can be found of the victims of battle and any personal property or other items that can help identify the dead. Ontiveros served six months in Saudi Arabia performing that function during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"The dead will tell you a lot," she said. "You can see the pain in their faces. I've seen some in fetal position, fists clenched. They were in pain and no help came to them in time."

Other soldiers lose their lives because of medical problems or die in accidents. Ontiveros recalled one young American who tried to shoot himself in the foot but was killed when the bullet ricocheted off the floor and hit him in the head.

"If it's a nonsense death, you go, 'Why?' " the staff sergeant said.

Clad in crisp, tan desert camouflage, Ontiveros is called "Quincy," "Mortuary Mama" and "Body Snatcher" by her friends back home. She doesn't mind. She is proud of her work.

The mortuary affairs specialists of the Army Quartermaster Corps, all volunteers, are not supposed to smoke, tell jokes or use profanity around human remains. If they enter a building housing corpses, they must doff their caps.

"It's enjoyable because I care," Ontiveros said. "You've got to have a good, clear head to do this. You can do it to a certain point and then freak out because there is a body not to your liking."

When she's not on duty, Ontiveros relaxes by playing pool, going dancing and caring for her two dogs and cat.

"She's a sweetheart," said Juliet Leon, a co-worker at the morgue.

For Mortuary Affairs Center director Dourlier, who began dealing with America's combat dead during two tours in Vietnam, the toughest part of the duty is not the gore, but handling the personal effects of the deceased.

"To go through the contents of a wallet and see pictures and letters of times spent together as a family, you realize the family does not know yet, and you think of the grief they will have to go through," Dourlier said by telephone from the center at Ft. Lee, Va.

All personal property of the deceased is supposed to be painstakingly inventoried on computer discs for return to the families, although items such as matches or cigarettes may be discarded.

"These guys carry so much stuff with them," Ontiveros said. Sometimes, she said, she and her colleagues must use discretion about what to send home. When love letters were discovered on one soldier killed in Operation Desert Storm from a woman who was not his wife, they were thrown out.

Recovered bodies initially are placed in what is officially designated a "human remains pouch." Mortuary affairs specialists don't like the term "body bag."

"You put garbage in a bag," Dourlier said.

The pouch is used for transport from the battlefield. Before bodies are returned home, they are placed in hermetically sealed aluminum cases.

The remains of Americans killed in the Iraq war have been returned to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where autopsies are carried out and DNA testing and dental records are used to make formal identification. The bodies are then placed in full dress uniform and returned in a casket to the next of kin.

"Our mission is to get the fallen heroes home to their families as expeditiously as possible," said Air Force 2nd Lt. Allison Tedesco, a spokeswoman at Dover.

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