An ambulance loaded with injured troops. The less fortunate—those who die—end up in the care of fellow servicemen and -women who have to carry out gruesome work while struggling to hold on to their own sanity.
By Chris Hedges
Jess Goodell enlisted in the Marines immediately after she graduated from high school in 2001. She volunteered three years later to serve in the Marine Corps’ first officially declared Mortuary Affairs unit, at Camp Al Taqaddum in Iraq. Her job, for eight months, was to collect and catalog the bodies and personal effects of dead Marines. She put the remains of young Marines in body bags and placed the bags in metal boxes. Before being shipped to Dover Air Force Base, the boxes were stored, often for days, in a refrigerated unit known as a “reefer.” The work she did was called “processing.”
“We went through everything,” she said when I reached her by phone in Buffalo, N.Y., where she is about to become a student in a Ph.D. program in counseling at the University of Buffalo. “We would get everything that the body had on it when the Marine died. Everyone had a copy of The Rules of Engagement in their left breast pocket. You found notes that people had written to each other. You found lists. Lists were common, the things they wanted to do when they got home or food they wanted to eat. The most difficult was pictures. Everyone had a picture of their wife or their kids or their family. And then you had the younger kids who might be 18 years old and they had prom pictures or pictures next to what I imagine were their first cars. Everyone had a spoon in their flak jacket. There were pens and trash and wrappers and MRE food. All of it would get sent back [to the Marines’ homes].
“We all had the idea that at any point this could be us on the table,” she said. “I think Marines thought that we went over there to die. And so people wrote letters saying ‘If I die I want you to know I love you.’ ‘I want my car to go to my younger brother.’ Things like that. They carried those letters on their bodies. We had a Marine that we processed and going through his wallet he had a picture of a sonogram of a fetus his wife had sent him. And a lot of Marines had tattooed their vital information under an armpit. It was called a meat tag.”
The unit processed about half a dozen suicides. The suicide notes, she said, almost always cited hazing. Women, she said, were constantly harassed, especially sexually, but it often did not match the systematic punishment and humiliation meted out to men who were deemed to be inadequate Marines. She said that Marines who were overweight or unable to do the physical training were subjected to withering verbal and physical abuse. They were called “fat nasties” and “shit bags.” The harassed Marines would be assigned to other individual Marines and become their slaves. They would be sent on punishing runs in which many of them vomited. They would be forced to bear-crawl—walk on all fours—the length of a football field and back. This would be followed by sets of monkey fuckers—bending down, grabbing the ankles, crouching down like a baseball catcher and then standing up again—followed by a series of other exercises that went on until the Marines collapsed.
“They make these Marines do what they call ‘bitch’ work,” Goodell said. “They are assigned to be someone else’s ‘bitch’ for the day. We had a guy in our platoon, not in Iraq but in California, and he was overweight. He was on remedial PT, which meant he went to extra physical training. When he came to work he was rotated. One day he was with this corporal or this sergeant. One day he was sent to me. I had him for an hour. I remember sending him outside and making him carry things. It was very common for them to dig a hole and fill it back up with sand or carry sandbags up to the top of a hill and then carry them down again.”
The unit was sent to collect the bodies of the Marines who killed themselves, usually by putting rifles under their chins and pulling the trigger.
“We had a Marine who was in a port-a-john when he blew his face off,” she said. “We had another Marine who shot himself through the neck. Often they would do it in the corner of a bunker or an abandoned building. We had a couple that did it in port-a-johns. We had to go in and peel and pull off chunks of flesh and brain tissue that had sprayed the walls. Those were the most frustrating bodies to get. On those bodies we were also on cleanup crew. It was gross. We sent the suicide notes home with the bodies.
“We had the paperwork to do fingerprinting, but we started getting bodies in which there weren’t any hands or we would get bodies that were just meat,” said Goodell, who in May will publish a memoir called “Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq.” The book title refers to the form that required those in the mortuary unit to shade in black the body parts that were missing from a corpse. “Very quickly it became irrelevant to have a fingerprinting page to fill out. By the time we would get a body it might have been a while and rigor mortis had already set in. Their hands were usually clenched as if they were still holding their rifle. We could not unbend the fingers easily.”
The unit was also sent to collect Marines killed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The members would arrive on the scene and don white plastic suits, gloves and face masks.
“One of the first convoys we went to was one where the Army had been traveling over a bridge and an IED had exploded,” she said. “It had literally shot a seven-ton truck over the side and down into a ravine. Marines were already going down into the ravine. We were just getting out of our vehicles. We were putting on our gloves and putting coverings over our boots. I was with a Marine named Pineda. I was coming around the Humvee and there was a spot on the ground that was a circle. I looked at it and thought something must have exploded here or near here. I went over to look at it. I looked in and saw a boot. Then I noticed the boot had a foot in it. I almost lost my lunch.
“In the seven-ton truck the [body of the] assistant driver, who was in the passenger seat, was trapped in the vehicle,” she said. “All of his body was in the vehicle. We had to crawl in there to get it out. It was charred. Pineda and I pulled the burnt upper torso from the truck. Then we removed a leg. Some of the remains had to be scooped up by putting out hands together as though we were cupping water. That was very common. A lot of the deaths were from IEDs or explosions. You might have an upper torso but you need to scoop the rest of the remains into a body bag. It was very common to have body bags that when you picked them up they would sink in the middle because they were filled with flesh. The contents did not resemble a human body.”
The members of the mortuary unit were shunned by the other Marines. The stench of dead flesh clung to their uniforms, hair, skin and fingers. Two members of the mortuary unit began to disintegrate psychologically. One began to take a box of Nyquil tablets every day and drink large quantities of cold medicine. He was eventually medevaced out of Iraq.
“Our cammies would be stained with blood or with brains,” she said. “When you scoop up the meat it often would get on the cuffs of our shirts. You could smell it, even after you took off your gloves. We weren’t washing our cammies everyday. Your cuff comes to your face when you eat. Physically we were stained with remains. We had a constant smell like rotten meat, which I guess is what it was since often the bodies had been in the sun and the heat for a long time. The flesh had gone bad. The skin on a body in the hot sun slides off. The skin detaches itself from the layer beneath and slides around on itself.
“Our platoon was to the Marines what the Marines are to much of America: We did things that had to be done but that no one wanted to know about,” she said. “The other Marines knew what we did, but they did not want to think it could happen to them. I had one female Marine in my tent who would talk to me. The rest would not give me the time of day. The Marines in Mortuary Affairs knew that any day could be our day. Other Marines, who have to go out on the convoys, who have to get up the next day, have to get on with life.”
Her unit once had to recover two Marines who had drowned in a lake. It appeared one had leapt in to save the other. The bodies, which were recovered after a couple of days by Navy divers, were grotesquely swollen. One of the Marines was so bloated and misshapened that the body was difficult to carry on a litter.
“His neck was as wide as his bloated head, and his stomach jutted out like a barrel,” she writes in the book. “His testicles were the size of cantaloupes. His face was white and puffy and thick. Not fat, but thick. It was unreal. He looked like a movie prop, with thick, gray, waxy skin and the thick purple lips. We couldn’t stop looking at these bodies because they were so out of proportion and so disfigured and because, still, they looked like us.”
It was hardest to look into the faces of the dead. She and the other members of the mortuary unit swiftly covered the faces when they worked on the bodies. They avoided looking at the eyes of the corpses.
Once, the unit had to process seven Marines killed in an explosion. Seven or eight body bags were delivered to the bunker.
“We had clean body bags set up so we could sort the flesh,” she said. “Sometimes things come in with nametags. Or sometimes one is Hispanic and you could tell who was Hispanic and who was the white guy. We tried separating flesh. It was ridiculous. We would open a body bag and there was nothing but vaporized flesh. There were not four hands or a whole leg in a bag. We tried to distribute the mush evenly throughout the bags. We were trying to do the best we could sorting it out. We had the last body bag come in. We opened up the body bag and it was filled with the heads. I looked at four before looking away. Not only did we have to look at them, we had to pick them up and figure out who it belonged to. The eyes were looking back at us. We got used to a lot of it. But the heads worked the other way. They affected us more strongly as time passed. We saw on the heads the expressions of fright and horror. It made us wonder what we were doing here.”
She processed one Marine whose face was twisted at the moment of death by rage. The face of this Marine began to haunt her.
“I had this feeling that something awful had occurred,” she said. “The way he had come in and stiffened he had this look to his face that made my stomach curl. It looked angry. Often expressions on bodies would look fearful and hurt. The faces looked as though they had received death. But this face looked like he had given death.”
She and the other members of the unit became convinced they could feel and hear the souls of the dead Marines they had processed and housed in their reefers.
And then there was a body that was brought in one day that was not stiff.
“He was fully dressed in his cammies and his whole body was intact,” she said. “His hands were lying folded across his stomach.”
She and the others noticed that the Marine on the table was breathing lightly. The chest was going up and down. They frantically called their superiors to find out what to do. They were told to wait.
“Just wait? Wait for what?” she cried.
She remembers the doc saying: “There’s nothing we can do. Just wait.”
“People don’t wait for this sort of thing,” she protested. “What are we waiting for? What if this Marine was your brother, would we wait?”
They stood and watched as the man died. Goodell stormed out of the bunker.
“There was always a heaviness in the air,” she said. “It felt like I was being watched. We would feel hands on our shoulders or hands on our heads. Everyone had stories of sounds they heard or things they had felt. I was on watch at the bunker and I heard the back door open. I assumed it was one of the Marines coming in to use the Internet or the phone. I waited for them to come up. They would always come up. But no one came up. I got up and didn’t see anyone. I went back to my duty hut and I heard footsteps walk across the bunker. This kind of thing happened often.”
Her return to the United States was difficult, filled with retreats into isolation, substance abuse, deep depression and dysfunctional relationships. Slowly she pulled her life back together, finishing college and applying to graduate school so she can counsel trauma victims.
“Every single Marine I know goes to Iraq to help,” she said. “While I was there that is what I thought. That is why I volunteered. I thought I was going to help the Iraqis. I know better now. We did the dirty work. We were used by the government. The military knows that young, single men are dangerous. We breed it in Marines. We push the testosterone. We don’t want them to be educated. They are deprived of a lot and rewarded with very little. It keeps us at ground level. We cannot question anyone. We do what we are told.
“I am still in contact with most of the people I knew,” she said. “They are not coping. One lives in VA [Veterans Affairs], constantly seeing psychologists and psychiatrists. One was kicked out of the Marines for three DUIs. Another was kicked out of the Marines because he took cocaine. Those who have gotten out are living below the poverty level. And what people do to cope is re-enlist. When they re-enlist they do better. They function. I am the only one who went to school of the 18 Marines in Mortuary Affairs. But I am in counseling at the VA. I have been diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety, depression and substance abuse. What separates me from them is that I have a great support system and I found my salvation in my education.
“War is disgusting and horrific,” she said. “It never leaves the people who were involved in it. The damage is far greater than the lists of casualties or cost in dollars. It permeates lifestyles. It infects cultures and people and worldviews. The war is never over for us. The fighting stops. The troops get called back. But the war goes on for those damaged by war.”
Not long ago she received a text message from a Marine she had worked with in Mortuary Affairs after he tried to commit suicide.
“I’ve got $2,000 in the bank,” the message read. “Let’s meet in NYC and go out with a bang.”
Chris Hedges is a former Mid-East bureau chief for the New York Times and the author of Death of the Liberal Class. This article originally appeared on Truthdig.com on March 21, 2011.