A Wartime Oasis of Selfless Compassion

Among the Iraq war's unsung heroes are the mortuary affairs team, who distinguish themselves with their humanity and special brand of courage

By Frederik Balfour

In retrospect, it seems almost fitting that I spent my last days in Iraq with the mortuary affairs team. I first met this extraordinary group of seven -- six young men and one woman -- on Apr. 6, when NBC producer Paul Nassar and I accompanied the body of NBC anchor David Bloom to their tent (see BW Online, 4/7/03, "David Bloom's Last Ride "). As it turned out, I saw much of them over the next two days, as we waited for a helicopter to come and carry Bloom's body out of Iraq.

Grim as that was, the arrival of the bodies of two other journalists, Christian Liebig of Germany's Focus Magazine, and Julio A. Parrado, the New York correspondent for Spain's El Mundo, made it worse. I had shared a tent with Liebig and Parrado for 10 days back in Kuwait before the war began. Neither had ever covered a war before, and both were apprehensive about their assignments. They had been embedded in the 26th Forward Support Battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division, where, supposedly, they would be safely behind the line. They were killed just south of Baghdad when an Iraqi missile hit the tactical operations center of the Second Brigade.

"REALLY, REALLY SAD."

  When their bodies arrived, I went through their belongings looking for contact information on family or friends. Each discovery evoked tears. I found the book Julio was reading when I last saw him, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Christian had photos of his girlfriend, his German-English dictionary, and his passport. I realized he had turned 35 on Mar. 31, somewhere on the long trek to Baghdad.

I will grieve their deaths for a long time. But what warmed me was the dedication of the unsung heroes of this conflict: the mortuary affairs team from the 54th Quarter Master Company, based in Fort Lee, Va. That they ever volunteered for work that most of us would rather not even contemplate is remarkable enough. What truly distinguishes them as great soldiers is the compassion and humanity they bring to their unenviable task.

Take 27 year-old Amelia Santoro, the only woman on the team. Her infectious smile brightens an otherwise truly depressing place, the mortuary affairs tent some 25 miles southwest of Baghdad. Her sunny disposition fades, however, when I ask how she's coping. "I just want this war to be over," she says. "It's really sad doing this, really sad, but someone has got to do it. It puts families at ease knowing somebody out there is taking care of them and that they're getting proper respect."

SMELL OF DEATH.

  Santoro seems to want to talk, so we talk some more: "The hardest remains so far was this 22-year-old," she recounts. "I read the letter he wrote to his mother that was in his pocket, and I broke down. He talked about watching his sergeant die, how he tried to give him CPR, and it wasn't enough. I broke down because he was so young. I walked outside, took a minute, but said to myself, 'I gotta get a grip, this is my job, I gotta do it.'"

She and the others had already handled more than 25 dead U.S. soldiers -- about one quarter of all coalition deaths. But the true test of her compassion was the day when a dead Iraqi came in with others. "Before that, I was thinking 'let's get those bastards,'" she says. "But when we had to bury him, that was sad."

Santoro and the others do their best to keep morale up. The first day I was there, Christopher Frye, a member of their team, celebrated his 21st birthday. They had made him a cake using a MRE (meals ready to eat) vanilla pound cake complete with homemade icing of cocoa powder, sugar, peanut butter, and water rations. When things are slow, they watch DVD movies on a laptop computer, wrestle, read motorcycle magazines, or go scavenging for items to cheer up their desolate surroundings.

LEFT BEHIND.

  The tent where the team works and sleeps is located out in the desert, more than a mile from any other soldiers. It was perpetually dusty from the desert winds and had only the sand for a floor. Proximity to regular troops would "bring morale down," says Darren Hughes, a 26-year-old private from Cincinnati. When Hughes elaborates, I wish for the moment he hadn't: "People don't want to smell it."

It strikes me as odd that the Army emphasizes the importance of getting all of its soldiers home, yet it seems to spend little time and money supporting this critical function. Its 20 refrigerated vans never made it to Baghdad. They're still sitting offshore somewhere on a ship. So the Army had to rent trucks in Kuwait and didn't even have time to paint them with camouflage, leading to awkward misunderstandings. "People who have seen the truck have stopped and asked if it was the PX," says Sergeant Edward Valez.

Making matters worse, the battery on Valez's Army communications radio can't be recharged, which means he has to drive to another unit to find out transportation arrangements for casualties. "It gets very frustrating," he says.

BIBLICAL BEAUTY.

  I understand his frustration. Due to the lack of communications, I was unable to leave Iraq with the bodies of Christian and Julio, as I'd planned. The helicopter arrived when I was in another part of the encampment. I wouldn't leave Iraq for another two days.

Finally, on Apr. 10, I rode the jump seat of a Chinook helicopter back to Kuwait in a three-bird convoy with other casualties. For most of the 2½ hour journey we flew low to the ground -- less than 100 feet -- which the pilots explained was a safer altitude should we encounter enemy fire. It offered a superb view of rural Iraq, miles and miles of desert suddenly broken by an oasis. We saw herds of sheep, camels, palm groves, and mud huts. It seemed as if things had remained unchanged since biblical times.

After we touched down at the tarmac in Camp Doha, Kuwait, a chaplain recited the 23rd Psalm. Then, some 30 soldiers stood at attention and saluted as the bodies were unloaded from the helicopter and onto a waiting mortuary van. The formality was a far cry from from what I'd seen back in that gritty tent in the Iraqi desert. Yet I knew the importance of the efforts of those seven mortuary soldiers.

Balfour, who had been embedded in the 3rd Division, is now in Kuwait City

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht