Story by SSG Tegan Kucera on 07/24/2019It takes a resilient mind, day in and day out to recover and process the dignified transfer of fallen service members as well as keeping a professional mental attitude.
This is what it means to perform the job of a mortuary affairs specialist in the military.
"Our job is tough, but it's a great pleasure and it's very beneficial to our service to recover our own," said Gunnery Sgt. Joshua Thibadeau, a resident of Decatur, Georgia and assistant capabilities team leader for the Personnel Retrieval and Processing Company (PRP), a Marine reserve company based out of Smyrna, Georgia.
The PRP Company is the only one within the Marine Corps, they take their job very seriously because they are ones who prepare their fallen comrades to be received by their families.
"It's personally gratifying and rewarding to know that I can bring closure to a family," said Thibadeau.
In order to always be prepared for the worst to happen the PRP is always training and practicing the correct way to perform every single function from recovering the remains out in the field (to include personal effects) to receiving and processing. They are always carrying out the proper way to care for those who can no longer care for themselves.
"We try to give the respect and reverence that the fallen service member deserves, so even in our training we practice that every single day," said Staff Sgt. Anthony Latney a platoon sergeant with the PRP Company, based in Quantico, Virginia.
Though the company is based out of two locations they still try to train together as much as possible so they can keep a good working relationship with each other. This way they know what to expect from themselves and each other.
"I am very much tied to the mission and the Marines that I serve," said Latney.
Latney, who lives in Washington said it is his job to ensure that all the training needs are met so they are ready to recover, receive and transport the remains not only properly but also in a dignified manner so as to pay respect to a fallen hero.' He happily does this because he wants to be as helpful as possible.
"Personally, I'm all about helping people and what better way to help than is to ensure that a person's loved one get home with all the respect and honors that they deserve, because they have performed the ultimate sacrifice," said Latney.
This year they are at Camp Grayling, Michigan, performing their two week training in Northern Strike 19, a National Guard Bureau sponsored joint, accredited exercise that provides accessible, readiness-building opportunities for units from all services to achieve or sustain proficiency in conduction mission command.
"This exercise is very realistic in preparation for the real world scenarios, the Marines are getting a lot of good experience that they will see and encounter overseas," said Thibadeau. "Doing exactly what we're doing over here, this exercise is very beneficial to them."
Not only is the training beneficial for the Marines, one Soldier found has found their way to get the most out of annual training as well, because they have not had an opportunity to learn mortuary affairs since leaving school years ago.
"For us in the National Guard, we don't get this kind of training, we don't have the capabilities," said Cpl. Stacey Stilwell a mortuary affairs specialist with the 217th Brigade Support Battalion Headquarters, Headquarters Company based out of Lincoln, Arkansas. "We don't have the people to actually even pretend to simulate something like this. To get to see it first hand and able to do it is really neat, and satisfying because we don't get to do this often."
Stilwell said she thinks there are only a handful of mortuary affairs specialist within the whole state, at least she thinks so as she has yet to meet another from the Arkansas National Guard, and so she is relishing this opportunity to work with others who have the same job. An opportunity she was only hoping to have before coming to Northern Strike 19, she saw the PRP Company would be here but until she was on ground herself she did not know if she would be able to participate in their training.
"It's pretty amazing working with the Marines, we're not the same branch but the training is the same because mortuary affairs is the same across the board," said Stilwell a resident of Denton, Texas.
The only difference is the army mortuary affairs specialist are not taught to search and recover the fallen service members. For Stilwell her job starts when the service member is handed into her care. Stilwell didn't know she could handle the remains because she had a fear of the deceased, but when her job was discontinued in the state, she thought it would help with her associate's degree in crime scene investigation to get over this fear.
In order for any mortuary affairs specialist to learn to deal with the remains, they all go to a morgue during their training, the Marines also go to one before each deployment. This means that not all who choose to learn the job choose to remain doing it. Not all can do it, and even those who can sometimes have trouble continuing to do so because they not only take care of US service members, but foreign combatants too. Mentally it can take a lot out of a person to process a service member and give the same respect to a foreign national adversary.
"It will mess with you, it's the job first and then when you're done you feel like you know this person, that's your battle buddy regardless," said Stilwell.
Stilwell said first comes the fallen and giving them the proper dignity, reverence and respect and then after she and others can look after themselves to help deal with it. To this end after each time they have to process someone the specialist will all get together in what the Marines call a hot wash' where they can talk, cry and let all their feelings out.
"It hits you on a different level, so to be able to talk it out and express that emotion that is a big deal because otherwise it will eat at you," said Stilwell.
After each deployment the Marines will have a three day decompression in Germany where they can discuss issues, emotional stressors and help prepare them to go back into their normal lives.
Even though they may have more psychological hurdles to deal with the mortuary affairs specialists in both the Army and Marine. Reserves love what they do because they see it as giving back to those who have given the ultimate sacrifice and to those who are left behind.