When I was 17 I joined the Army as a Mortuary Affairs Specialist. Many people don't realize that this position exists, or at the very least they don't think about it often.
Mortuary Affairs (92M) is the second-oldest job in the military, second only to infantry. It deals with the assistance of autopsies of fallen soldiers, and of the processing of the personal effects (inventory of all of their belongings that they didn't have on them when they died and sending them back to their families). It also includes performing funeral ceremonies, which is probably the only time that people ever see them or acknowledge them. In my (probably bias) opinion, it is amongst the most honorable positions in the military. However, it's also a very difficult and oftentimes thankless position, because it requires a level of emotional and mental depth that can be very difficult for some people to maintain for an extended period of time. Here's a short story to offer some perspective into what these men and women experience:
*TRIGGER WARNING: CONTAINS SENSITIVE CONTENT REGARDING THE MILITARY*
I was still in training, and I went to Aberdeen, Maryland, where we process the personal effects of the soldiers. This was the first time that I'd gone there, but it wouldn't be the last, as I later got stationed there for a little while. I was helping with the case of a young kid, maybe 19 or 20 years old. Part of our job in Aberdeen was to read through the journals of the soldiers to make sure there's no sensitive material or anything before we send it back to the families. So I was reading through his journal and I quickly found myself relating to him. He was around my age at the time, and he thought and acted much like I did. He had a girlfriend back home and was planning on proposing (he'd even bought a ring). I'd already read through the letters that he'd received from his friends, family, and girlfriend, and I'd read through the letters that he'd written to them but never got the chance to send, so I was pretty familiar with his interpersonal relationships (I'd been working on this case for a couple days). Throughout the last portion of his journal, he discussed his unit's geographical position in Afghanistan (that's one of the reasons why we read the journals and letters), and how uncomfortable he was. He felt that where they were was dangerous and left them too exposed, and it was really concerning to him. He'd gone through his chain of command (squad leader, platoon sergeant, platoon leader, etc) and told each of them of his concerns, and unfortunately there was nothing that could be done. There was a new commander, and that's where he wanted them, and this kid didn't have enough rank on his chest to effect anything. So, finally, he puts in a transfer request. At the time of him writing these entries, I couldn't tell you how long ago he'd put in the request or had to wait or anything, but miraculously he gets approved. He's gonna be a Cav Scout, and he's going to be moved soon, already had his orders. Shortly before this kid was supposed to leave, his unit got attacked. I don't remember if anyone survived, but I know that the kid didn't. His final entries were of him talking about how excited he was to be leaving, and about how much he missed his soon-to-be fiancé. After Aberdeen I went to Dover, Delaware, where we assisted with the autopsies. Ironically enough, I recognized the name of the first soldier that I worked on; it was the same kid. I do not say it lightly when I say that I almost cried when I saw this kid. Here was a young man who I had just spent days getting to know. I knew him more intimately than his own family, because I knew his inner-most private thoughts, I knew his likes and dislikes, his goals and dreams, and I'd intensively studied all of his belongings, to include journals, letters, computers, and photographs. He had become almost like an old friend in those days, and now I was standing there staring at his ruined remains, knowing that, if the attack had come just a few days later he'd probably have been on the phone with his girlfriend at that very moment. But instead he was on my table. As I helped perform his autopsy, all I could think about was all of the things that he'd gone through. You see, one of the hardest parts about Mortuary Affairs is the personal effects, and then seeing him in person like that was like seeing an old friend passed away. If you've ever read a really good book or seen a really intense movie then you know how easy it is to become attached to the characters. You begin to experience what they're going through as the author describes it, and you feel what they feel. Now imagine that the character is real, and after you finish the book you find yourself standing in front of his lifeless body.
I apologize if that story was a bit too much. I could've described it in far more detail if I'd chosen to, but honestly I'm not too sure how much I'm actually allowed to talk about when it comes to specific cases (we have to get a Secret clearance before doing this job). However, even after all these years I could still describe in explicit detail a large portion of the cases that I did in all facets of my job, because those images and thoughts and experiences are burned into my memory like a vivid painting.
That's what this poem is about. It's not about any case specifically, but about the job of Mortuary Affairs Specialist. I wrote it as part of the performance that I did with my veteran performance poetry group, The Combat Hippies. Before I wrote it, I was in a very bad place mentally and emotionally, and over time poetry has helped me to find myself again. This piece is very special to me because it was the beginning of my "recovery." Please let me know what you think of the poem, and if you like it I'd really appreciate it if you could share it to spread awareness for the brave men and women who work behind the scenes of our military.
**If you'd like to learn more about Mortuary Affairs, check out this book on Amazon: United States Culture and its Effects on Military Policy Regarding Mortuary Affairs