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Mortuary Affairs
By Staff Sgt. Dave Lankford, 316th ESC PAO
Jan 13, 2008 - 5:47:31 PM
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Blackanthem Military News
Staff Sgt. Terry Lee, 54th Quartermaster Company, is awarded the Bronze Star at a ceremony here Jan. 4 by Brig. Gen. Gregory E. Couch, 316th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) commanding general, for her outstanding performance as noncommissioned officer in charge of mortuary affairs at LSA Anaconda. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Dave Lankford)
LSA ANACONDA, Iraq - Soldiers of the 54th Quartermaster (QM) Company's Mortuary Affairs Detachment received the thanks of a grateful command in an award ceremony here Jan. 4.

Fallen servicemembers are no longer buried overseas the way they were for much of American history. Therefore, the responsibility of returning the remains of war fighters killed around the world to the United States now falls on the members of mortuary affairs collection points.

This is without a doubt the most thankless job in the military. While every servicemember has benefited from the many services provided by their fellow Soldiers, such as medical, financial or administrative, it would be safe to say that no warrior wishes to cross the path of mortuary affairs. In a time of war, however, it is one of the most important jobs in the military.

"After the trigger puller, it's probably the most important job down range," said Col. Jack E. Lechner, 316th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) (ESC) chief of staff.

Families want their loved ones returned to American soil. This is why the military is still scouring the battlefields of Korea and Vietnam looking for the remains of those missing or killed in action.

"That's American culture," said Lechner. "Families need closure."

Staff Sgt. Terry Lee, the Mortuary Affairs Collection Point noncommissioned officer in charge, said the reason she chose mortuary affairs is because she felt the job could be done better.

"I was recalled back into the Army in 2003 by the 729th Transportation Company out of Fresno, Calif. and deployed to Iraq. About 30 days prior to redeploying I lost a close friend," said Lee.

During a convoy Oct. 26, 2005, the 729th entered an ambush. IEDs and rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) exploded while automatic weapons opened fire. In the command vehicle, Sgt. James "Ski" Witkowski, used his body to block an RPG which landed near his turret to minimize the blast and keep it from falling inside. He died instantly, saving the lives of his comrades.

"He was always smiling, never complained. He was the type of Soldier that lifted you up when you were down," said Lee.

Lee now runs the very same mortuary affairs collection point she visited after Witkowski's death. Though she felt the operation was run professionally at the time, she saw vast room for improvement. She knew she was the person who could make a difference.

The changes she has made become immediately apparent upon entering her area of operation. The Soldiers in her charge display professionalism on par with elite units such as the Old Guard. Many of her Soldiers are fresh out of advanced individual training but exhibit a level of military bearing far above the norm.

Lee and her team reduced the time it takes to process and evacuate a fallen Soldier from Balad to Kuwait from 24 hours to just 12. Lee also supervised the first ever Army/ Marine mortuary affairs joint training experience in Iraq, whereby Soldiers and Marines specializing in mortuary affairs worked side-by-side learning about one another's procedures and establishing best practices.

Dignity, honor and respect are a way of life for these Soldiers when dealing with the remains of the departed. However, witnessing the grief of survivors is often the most difficult, and sometimes painful, part of the job, said Spc. Adam Jakes, a mortuary affairs specialist with the 54th QM Co.

"We transport the remains of local Iraqis to the ECP (entry control point) to be returned to their families. Seeing their grief first hand isn't easy. That's probably the hardest part of the job," said Jakes.

Pfc. Bryant Ouch, a 54th QM Co. mortuary affairs specialist, has been interested in mortuary affairs since the seventh grade. For him the hardest part of the job is inventorying personal effects.

"When you come across a family picture or a Father's Day card you can't help but to see a personality in the remains. It makes it very hard," said Ouch.

"We in the 13th CSSB (Combat Service Support Battalion) are honored to have had such a great mortuary affairs team assigned to the Battalion. It not only takes strong leadership and strong Soldiers but also a very special warrior to do what they do. Staff Sgt. Lee and her Soldiers have done an exceptional job at taking care of our fallen comrades. They are by far the most professional mortuary affairs team I have ever worked with," said Lt. Col. Tim Sullivan, the 13th Combat Service Support Battalion commander.

Lee also gives much of the credit for her success to the 316th ESC.  "A group like this can't succeed without support, and we've had great support," she said.

All of the members of the mortuary affairs team find the work difficult, and they all have their own ways of relieving the stress inherent in such an emotionally demanding occupation. The one thing they all agree on is that they could not do it without each other.

"I hand picked my Soldiers, and I couldn't have done it without them," said Lee. "I would gladly come back and do it all again, but not without my team."

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Jennifer Payton
08 Aug 2008, 13:08
I am so proud to call this soldier my Mother!
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