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Marines embedded at L.A. County coroner's office

Fourteen troops in a specialty unit confront death and learn how to collect bodies to prepare themselves for similar work in Iraq, where the scale of the trauma probably will be greater.

March 25, 2009|Jia-Rui Chong

The body was found behind a soccer field in a sunken, weed-choked stream bed. It lay next to a dome tent and a pile of blankets.

Matthew Barlow snapped on a pair of latex gloves and hopped out of the coroner's van. A flashlight led him through the inky darkness. Barlow hoped he could stand the smell.

Lance Cpl. Barlow, 23, was one of 14 Marines embedded for three weeks last month at the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner. They were on their way to Iraq, where their job would be to collect the dead and start them on their journey back to their families.

But first, the coroner's office was going to force them to confront death -- its sights, its smells -- day after day.

When Barlow started training for the specialty job last summer, he hadn't had any personal experience with death -- no one close to him, not even a pet, had died. In the beginning at the coroner's office, he would hang back during autopsies. He was tentative when he had to pull on dead people's arms to help break rigor mortis, the stiffness that develops after death.

"I was wondering if I could handle it," he said. "People think you'll go crazy doing it. I think, 'When am I going to go crazy?' "

After tramping about a hundred feet through the weeds, Barlow reached the tent, and the acrid fumes of human waste assaulted him. The smell was bearable.

A man's body was bundled in a white sheet. Barlow's task was to tie a rope around it to make the body easier to carry. It took four of them to move the body to the van. A few minutes later, the van backed into the driveway at the coroner's office. Two other Marines weighed and measured the body. Barlow jotted the height and weight on a green form.

"That was cake compared to some of the other ones we have to deal with," Barlow said, looking a little relieved. "He was already wrapped up and you couldn't see anything."

Barlow was studying criminal justice at Chattahooche Technical College in Marietta, Ga., and thinking about becoming a cop when an instructor told him that joining the Marine Corps would jump-start that career.

About a year and a half ago, he joined a Marine Reserve unit, which allowed him to continue his studies and his customer service job at a Lowe's. In the Marines, he started out in motor transport, learning to drive seven-ton trucks and Humvees. When he heard about the personnel retrieval and processing specialty, he switched.

"Motor transport was easy," Barlow said. "I wanted to do something with more depth."

Barlow attended training for a few weeks at the Army's Joint Mortuary Affairs Center in Virginia. It was tough.

At his first autopsy, he turned white as the pathologist made the first cut into a young man who had died of a drug overdose. A friend back home had died days before under similar circumstances. Barlow wondered if his friend looked like this on the gurney, if another doctor had sliced into him this way. "I tried not to look at the face," he said.

His class spent a week at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where casualties from Iraq land before they are returned to their families. They handled dead people for the first time, learning how to strip them and wash them with soapy water.

Barlow can still visualize some of the battered bodies. "Some of it's like hamburger meat," he said quietly.

Mortuary Affairs school only partially prepared him for his experience at the L.A. County morgue, Barlow said. The bodies he worked on at Dover had been somewhat tidied up, but in Los Angeles he was arriving on the scene within hours of the death. He was stunned by the messiness.

Fred A. Corral, a lieutenant in the coroner's investigations division and a former Marine, imagined such shock therapy when he came up with the idea of embedding the Marines.

"We want to give them some presence of mind for what they're dealing with out there," he said. "They'll be needed in death in its worst forms."

Corral, 55, who served in the Vietnam War, said he wished he had gone through a program like this before shipping out.

"The shock value would not have been as great," he said. "Seeing dead soldiers, you don't forget things like that."

Corral believed that some of the things the Marines would see in Los Angeles would be directly applicable in Iraq. Bodies burned in plane crashes, thrown around in motor vehicle accidents and riddled with gunshots were going to look the same.

The bulk of the work for Marines in the specialty unit is similar to that of the forensic attendants in Los Angeles: transporting the remains, taking basic measurements, snapping photographs to document the injuries and cataloging clothing.

But the scale of the trauma in Iraq probably will be greater, Corral said. For one thing, the Marines probably will see more dismembered bodies because insurgents fire rocket-propelled grenades or high-powered rifles as opposed to handguns.

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