The Magazine

The Hardest Job in the Army

From the May 19, 2003 issue: Meet the men and women of Mortuary Affairs.

May 19, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 35 • By MATT LABASH
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"And so we brought our dead man home. Flew his body back, faxed the obits to the local papers, called the priests, the sexton, the florists and stonecutter. We act out things we cannot put in words."

--Thomas Lynch, "The Undertaking"

Camp Wolf, Kuwait

The backstretch of the Kuwait International Airport, like much of the rest of the country, is ugly. It is barren and arid, and the frequent sandstorms that whip through make the entire place look like it's been breaded in a Shake 'N' Bake bag. Yet there is a special pocket in this otherwise nondescript military tent city. It is a place where cause becomes effect, where military service is considered sacrament, where all the editorial-page flapjaw about "sacrifice" becomes haltingly, disturbingly real. It is the Theater Mortuary Evacuation Point.

At a gate on the camp's outskirts, I roll up in an SUV with Army Col. Richard Dillon, who oversees the 377th Theater Support Command, under which fall the Mortuary Affairs personnel from the 54th Quartermaster Company and two reserve units. Though we are comfortably in the rear, where quartermasters like Dillon usually do the unglamorous work of getting infantry types their bullets and beans, Dillon has brought along a sidearm--as mandated by the Army ever since a civilian contractor was murdered by a terrorist not far from here in January. "We took custody of the body to enable us to process his remains with the same dignity and respect of each of our own soldiers," says Dillon. Since that day, the men and women of Mortuary Affairs have grown considerably busier.

Dillon is tall with a thin mustache. He speaks in the plodding, carefully measured cadences of a computer specialist, which is what this reservist is in his civilian life--a life he hasn't known since his deployment in December 2001. "It's been over a year since I've heard a dog bark," he laments (although he re-upped for another stint when his initial year-long assignment expired). His wife and children live back in New Orleans, but he speaks in the geographically indistinguishable accent shared by many military lifers who, moving every two or three years, never get the chance to settle into regionalisms.

At the gate, we come to a crossroads. One road goes to the military side of the airport. The other is traveled only by Mortuary Affairs personnel, who bring along the bodies of deceased soldiers in order to send them home. Dillon made sure his people had access to a separate entrance, he says, because nothing shakes an incoming soldier's morale like seeing one of his fallen comrades returning home in a refrigeration truck.

The soldiers live in the space where they work. Descending into this subculture, one expects a certain amount of M*A*S*H-like black humor, for coping purposes, if no other. In advance of this visit, I have read a Gannett reporter's account of his travels with a forward collection team (the Mortuary Affairs troops who travel to the forward areas, so that individual units can drop off their deceased). Their helmet graffiti read "Don't Be the One" and "Smell the Dead." Here at Camp Wolf, these young soldiers also have pressure releases. They laugh about overweight reservists and assign vicious nicknames--"Juggernaut" to the sergeant with the large head, "PW" (for "P-- Whipped") for the officer they heard chatting up his girlfriend on the phone. But there is one thing the company commander, Capt. Brooks Brenkus, says is never, ever done: "We don't joke at all about remains."

Brenkus speaks with a clipped, bolt-action intensity, and still looks like the multisport high school athlete he was back in Maryland, even though he's a grand old man at 27 years of age. That's a year older than the average age of the deceased coming through. (Of the 128 publicly identified American dead--there are 140 total as of May 5--a fifth weren't old enough to order a drink in a bar.) Brenkus knows about death--his father died when he was 15, forcing him to be "the rock of the family." And he has spent plenty of time in bars, where he has heard people talk about war.

Under the influence of beer and bravado, people say stupid things. He hears it all the time. He hears them talk about "acceptable risks," and about the relatively few casualties--"it could've been worse." He is just waiting, upon his return, to hear someone say, "Tough break--those who died signed up for the job," or, "It serves them right, they should've never been in Iraq." If he does, he says, "you can come visit me in jail, because I would lose it without thinking twice." For this conflict is not something he's just watched on TV. "I've seen the face of nearly every person that's died in this war," he says. "It's more than just another war to me."