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At Baghdad airport, soldiers' remains recorded before heading home

BAGHDAD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT—The large sign reminds everyone of the task at hand. Respectful Reverence Requested, it reads.

A two-room makeshift building covered with brown camouflage netting is the first stop in a somber chain that leads to the air base at Dover, Del. Sometimes soldiers from a unit will drop off one of their own. Other times, hospital workers deliver the bodies of those they couldn't save.

Here, specialists—all trained in the United States—make tentative identifications and fill out paperwork noting tattoos and scars. They cut open pockets so as not to miss any personal effects, such as wedding rings, watches and glasses. Everything is inventoried and placed in zip-lock bags.

A blood-stained stretcher leans against a stack of aluminum caskets that are marked "head" and "foot" at either end. Three large refrigerator units sit next to the low-slung building perched near the tarmac.

"You need to have a very bad short-term memory to do this job," said Pfc. Mark Beals, 22, of Kansas City, Mo., and the 54th Quartermaster Company, based in Fort Lee, Va. "You try to forget about what you saw, you think about what you're going to do tomorrow rather than today."

The task is fairly straightforward. Permanent identification, embalming and dressing of the body take place stateside. But the job takes its toll. There's a soldier to process every day.

Sgt. James Frazier of Tallahassee, Fla., said thoughts of his 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son come to him every time a body arrives. "I just think about their family trying to get their loved ones back as soon as possible," said Frazier, 37, also of the 54th Quartermaster Company. But Frazier tries to steel himself. "You can't get emotionally wrapped up in this job. It can be harmful if you let that happen. You have to stay focused on the mission."

And the mission is to have the deceased out of Iraq and on their way home within 12 hours.

"After we process the body, we contact the Air Force. Once we get a flight, they get top priority. They'll get a bird within the next six hours tops," said Capt. Anthony Wagner, assistant chief of staff for logistics with the 1st Armored Division headquarters at Baghdad airport. Wagner, of Olympia, Wash., is in charge of mortuary affairs as well as the base laundry.

The next stop is a mortuary collection point at Camp Wolf in Kuwait, where the dead from the war in Afghanistan also arrive. The planes then fly to Germany and on to Dover.

There are other mortuary collection points in Iraq, including Mosul and Tikrit, which send bodies straight to Kuwait whenever possible.

When Baghdad's airport mortuary gets "slammed," as it did when a suicide bomber killed 22 at the United Nations headquarters in August or when a Chinook helicopter was shot down near Fallujah earlier this month, initially killing 15, the nights are especially long. Several 40-foot-long refrigerator trucks roll into action. Sometimes the specialists send a chemical decontamination platoon because it can set up an on-scene water supply system to wash the dead.

"You choose to do this job," said Staff Sgt. Albert Vincent of Pensacola, Fla., the 54th Quartermaster Company noncommissioned officer in charge of the airport mortuary. "Some people think they can do it no problem, but then they go up and see the mortuary. Not everybody's got the intestinal fortitude. It ain't pretty."

Vincent, who's been doing mortuary work for seven years, decides how many people should be present when a soldier begins his or her final flight home. He brings in a chaplain and sometimes allows a soldier's close friend from the unit to be present.

A small service is held on the tarmac, usually with the chaplain saying a prayer before and after the remains are loaded onto the aircraft. Occasionally, taps has been played but often there is no bugler.

So much death makes one appreciate life, he said. "A lot of people take things for granted, but I tell my wife I love her every day. I tell my kids I love them every day."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+REMAINS

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): USIRAQ+REMAINS