Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mortuary affairs, present traumatic stress

Death shapes life for teams that prepare bodies of fallen troops for final flight home
By Martin Kuz
Special to Stars and Stripes
Published: February 17, 2014

About this series

Stars and Stripes is looking at the mental health of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and how they cope with war’s internal burden while deployed. This series is produced with the support of a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.

BAGRAM, Afghanistan — The first body was the most difficult. Pfc. Durell Siverand found a family portrait in the dead soldier’s wallet that showed him posing with his wife and two daughters. A mortar blast had killed him on the day he turned 21.

Siverand, one year older, had landed in Afghanistan less than three weeks earlier with the 54th Quartermaster Company of the 82nd Sustainment Brigade. The mortuary affairs unit occupies a large metal hangar at Bagram Air Field, some 40 miles north of Kabul. In this space, where a small wall sign reads “Dignity Reverence Respect,” death controls the order of life.

Siverand and Pfc. Alex Valdivia belong to one of the company’s two teams of mortuary affairs specialists. As the “dirty hands” crew of their eight-member team, they prepare the bodies of fallen troops for the final flight home.

Before deploying, Siverand worked in a morgue for a short time, and after arriving at Bagram last summer, he spent several days observing the unit that the 54th replaced. He was nervous but ready on the morning of his initial 24-hour shift.

By evening, after delivering the private’s remains to a cargo plane, he felt unmoored.
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