Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq

Jess Goodell with John Hearn, Casemate Publishers
Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq

In 2004, Jess Goodell, who enlisted in the Marines following her high school graduation, volunteered to serve in the Marine Corps' first officially declared Mortuary Affairs (MA) unit in Iraq. The MA unit's mission is to recover and process the remains of dead soldiers and Iraqi civlilians. It was only at the very end of the platoon's two weeks of training that the instructors mentioned PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder. "It's a real thing," they assured them. "Like the flu."

Upon completing her tour of duty on the MA platoon, Goodell returned to the States and received minimal support from the military in her efforts to assimilate back into civilian life. She, along with other members from her unit, suffered mental, physical, and emotional breakdowns as they tried to deny or repress much of what they experienced. Some couldn't assimilate at all and just reenlisted. For Goodell and others, it took years before they could confront their own fears and the horrors of what they'd been through day in and day out in Iraq.

The following is an excerpt from Jess Goodell's book, Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq.

Chapter 4: Processing

They brought in the first body. The grunts brought him in. There weren’t lights in the middle of the bunker yet, only along the side of the wall, so we put the body there and then we . . . did nothing. Although we had been trained, we didn’t know what to do next. We were taught, but we didn’t know. They took the time to tell us what to expect, but when the first body came in, several of us froze. We became inept and couldn’t do anything, really. We just didn’t know . . . we just couldn’t. . . . We knew how to complete the paper work and what had to be done, but when it’s real, when it’s no longer an abstract thought and when it’s in your face, in front of you, you stand there, motionless, wondering, What do I do?

The Sir had called in every person in our platoon and designated people to particular tasks. He said, “You two are going to carry, you two are going to turn the body over, and you two are going to do the paper work.” He wanted all of us there, I’m certain, so that we could help each other out, help each other deal with it, because I’m sure that the Sir thought that we might panic and maybe we weren’t going to be able to do this. After all, most of us were eighteen and twenty year old kids still. If we didn’t know it, The Sir did.

He gave us step-by-step instructions. “Roll him over to document his wounds.” We may have known that a Marine was hit by bullets or a grenade, but we may not have known where. But when we tried to turn him over, we couldn’t. Rigor mortis was setting in and he was already beginning to stiffen, except for his waist, which was like a pivot point. Even when we strained to turn him over, we could not. It was awkward and we were silent except for The Sir’s slow, calm, firm instructions. “C’mon guys, you were trained on this and you know what to do,” he reassured us. And so, eventually, we did it. “Okay,” The Sir said, “now write down any distinguishing marks, any tattoos.” So we did. “Now, write down which body parts are missing and shade the missing parts black on the outline of the body.” So we did. We followed The Sir’s directions, marking the wounds, drawing the tattoos, shading the missing parts black. We had to be told throughout what to do next and how to do it.

After the first body, the processing went smoother. The Sir organized us into teams of four, which were usually then divided into two members who would be the “hands on” for the body and two who would complete the paper work. In time, a process of sorts evolved. A body would come in and we’d remove every item from the pockets and inventory all of the gear that was on him. We couldn’t assume that all of his gear was on him. They don’t always have two boots. They don’t always have Kevlar helmets or a flak jacket or the things that might be expected to be there. They are gone. Missing. The body parts they covered may be missing too. We then conducted an inventory of all the items that were in the pockets. Exactly what they had on them when they died can then be verified. When down the road the family asks, “Where is this picture? We know he always carried this picture with him,” we could report that he did or he did not have it on him when he died. Or if money wasn’t there that someone thought was, we could check our inventory. If there had been a pen in their pocket, or a note, if there were two twenties and two ones, we documented it. We would precisely document what he did and did not have on him at the time of his death.

We would inventory everything. Everybody had a copy of The Rules of Engagement in their left breast pocket. Some would have knives or earplugs, food, a spoon. Pens. Rolled up pieces of paper,a scribbled reminder to ask their mother to send Skin So Soft or Blue Star Ointment to keep the sand fleas away, a scrunched up wrapper, trash that wasn’t thrown away — trash that would now become part of a family’s lasting memories of a son, husband, brother, father, hero.

There were pictures. A man and his wife and daughter. A farmhouse and barn in Iowa. Many were the pictures teenagers would carry back home. A high school student with his football teammates. A young man in a sleeveless t-shirt leaning against a 1983 Camaro. A letter in which a Marine tells his widow that he is now dead, but that he loves her still, and he wants her to give their daughter a kiss from him.

Some items were uncommon, like the sonogram of a fetus. Some were not uncommon enough, like a suicide note.

We would examine the remains for distinguishing traits such as birthmarks, scars and tattoos. Where are they on the body? What is their approximate size? How can they be described? We would write down the wounds that were on the body. If there are bullet wounds, where on the body are they? If they are in the head, where in the head? How many? We would get the appropriate form and mark the outline of the body with dots or Xs where the Marine was hit. Where body parts were missing, we would shade those parts of the outline black. If a part of the head was missing, we’d shade that area black.

We tried to identify each body, but that wasn’t always easy. They may have their dog tags on, they may not. It was not unusual for a body to have missed-matched dog tags. It could be that a kid was wearing someone else’s dog tags, even though it was against regulations. Maybe they have their military ID in their wallet, but maybe they don’t. Their name might be on their blouse or trousers or cover, but it might not be readable, if it is there at all. When you share a tent or small hole with others, belongings get mixed up. Items such as these do not always match up, which is why we would write down everything a person had on them. Initially, we fingerprinted them but did not continue the practice for very long because it became too difficult. There were not always fingers. Or the fingers were stuck in the position they were in when the Marine died, as if still holding his M-16, for example, and we could not unbend them easily.

We would then put the remains into a clean body bag and put the bag into a metal box we called an aluminum transfer case, similar to a coffin. We then placed the case in a reefer where it stayed cool. When it was time to take it to the flight deck to go home, we would drape an American flag over it and carry out a processional, a separate one for each set of remains. Four of us, one at each corner of the case, would walk it through two rows of Air Force personnel who were there to do the flying. They would all salute the remains as we walked them through. They would salute as if they were saluting the President of the United States, as if they were saluting their own fallen family members. Ramrod straight backs, their arms at a 45-degree angle. There was such a strong emotion contained in that salute, such a fierce intensity embedded in the ritual, that it never subsided, even after too many processionals. In fact, it got stronger. Each time we came away from it knowing in our hearts that we were all Marines, and that we were in this together. Each time we’d walk back to the bunker ready once more to go on.

If each processional strengthened our resolve, it also removed us a bit further from the mainstream of the Camp. As the causalities in creased, so did the possibility of death and the awareness of what it was that the men and women of Mortuary Affairs did. 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.

The processionals and the nature of our work in general also impacted us as individuals. Before the Corps and the war and Mortuary Affairs, death seemed to occur rarely and to people who were old; another’s body was off limits, often sacred, not to be touched without permission, and certainly not to be pieced together like a sad, gruesome puzzle; social isolation was temporary and voluntary, and ostracism was unheard of except when someone had done something unspeakably wrong. All of these taken for granted understandings changed for us.

Chapter 17: Heads

When we would go on a convoy to pick up remains, sometimes it was easier than other times, sort of. Sometimes it was a body and we would put the body in a body bag. Sometimes body parts were severed, but we could still pick them up and put them in a body bag. If it was one person, it would be easy. All the remains were put into one body bag and it would all be shipped together. Sometimes there was more than one person and the cause of death was an explosion. There would be many body parts and they would be strewn all over, all along the ground, and we would have to pick them up. When we were at these sites, often times, the remains were still hot, which meant that the fire fight just finished. Other times we would go on a convoy because they said they had a fallen Marine and we would have to wait for the fire fight to finish before we could even go in to retrieve them.

On occasion, we would scoop the remains by hand, scoop the flesh, handfuls of flesh, and place it into a body bag. We tried to get every piece of remains so that the extremists couldn’t parade through town with whatever had inadvertently been left behind. We tried our very best to get every single remain.

Not all of us went on every single convoy. Maybe half of us went. When they came back, the half that didn’t go processed the remains.

One time several Marines were killed at once and we had a slew of body bags flood the bunker. This would happen. There had been seven Marines killed and our Marines returned to the bunker with seven or eight body bags filled with flesh. We opened the bags and tried to sort out and organize the body parts and bits and pieces into coherent wholes. There was a foot still in a boot that still had a dog tag, and that went into one body bag. A leg, with that portion of the trousers intact that carried the Marine’s name, was placed in another body bag.

Our goal was to separate and classify the remains in a way that resulted in the right body being sent home to the families, even though we all knew that, from the Marine’s perspective, it didn’t matter. If one of my Marines blew up and if I did too, we could be buried together. That’s how we Marines are. We labored over this for the families’ sake.

The Marines who didn’t go on the convoy would never know what to expect when a body bag was opened. Anything could be found. One time Pineda and I pulled back the flap of a bag and found only mounds of shapeless flesh which we scooped out with our hands. Everything looked the same. There weren’t four hands or a whole leg or a foot in the bag. It was all vaporized mush. We sorted through it all, doing our best to find anything we could identify that would help us.

At times we found gear in the flesh: Kevlar and an ammo pack and once, a radio. I pulled at a line that came up out of the goop, a phone cord with a receiver on the end. I untangled it from the mounds of liquidy flesh but couldn’t remove it. It was stuck. Pineda helped me locate the rest of the phone inside the portion of torso itself. We found a dog tag here and a blouse name tag there and color and texture helped us with sorting by race. Finally, we were able to arrange it all into seven portions, seven Marines, but we could tell we didn’t have all of the remains, that parts were missing, though we weren’t sure what.

A couple of Marines went back out to the vehicles to make sure that they had brought in all of the body bags. They found one more and brought it into the bunker. When we pulled back the flap of this last bag, we were looking into the eyes that stared back from severed heads. The bag contained only heads. We were not expecting that. At all. We removed them from the bag and placed each with the rest of its remains. We could tell they were all Marines. Their haircuts were high and tight.

By now it was almost impossible for us to look at the faces. We couldn’t look at the faces anymore. The faces were looking back at us.

Certainly, we were always tired and we couldn’t hold down our food, so maybe we weren’t as sharp as we might have been earlier in the deployment, but the heads were staring back at us. We’d look away, then glance back to record any tattoos or scars or specific wounds or other identifying traits, and they’d catch us and stare us down. We’d have to cover their faces to process the rest of them.

We saw so much throughout the eight months of the program, and we managed to get used to a lot of it. A situation that may have made us throw up more or less continually early on, may have had the same effect only once at this point in time. But the heads worked the other way. They seemed to affect us more strongly as time passed. It was powerful and real and something we couldn’t shake.

I sent an email to my mother about what was happening with the faces. Not wanting to alarm her, I was a little vague about the impact they were having upon us. I did, however, tell her about one Marine in particular who had been at the bunker for a couple of days and how I was getting a very bad feeling from him. Well, my mother assumed I was talking about a live Marine and offered me advice on what I should do to avoid him and how I should report him to the higher ups. Later, when I read her email, I saw mine to her below it and noticed that I’d addressed it to “Mommy.”

Excerpted from Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq by Jess Goodell with John Hearn, with permission for Casemate Publishers. © 2011 Jess Goodell with John Hearn.

Posted on BrainLine February 13, 2013.