Soldiers prepare fallen heroes for final homecoming

Story and Photo by Spc. Naveed Ali Shah
13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) Public Affairs

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — When a U.S. service member makes the ultimate sacrifice in theater, Soldiers with the Mortuary Affairs Collection Point at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, prepare them for their trip home.

Since February, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lifted the Clinton-era ban on media coverage of the return of fallen service members, families have been able to choose whether or not to have media coverage of the transfer. The Balad MACP is where fallen service members start their journey home.

"Our mission here is the disposition of remains … with dignity and respect," said Sgt. Tyrell Wheatley, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the JBB MACP with the 54th Quartermaster Company.

The first step in the process is to use a metal-detecting wand to ensure the body does not have any sort of unexploded ordnance, he said. This step protects both the Soldiers who take care of the remains here at Balad and those who will care for the body upon its arrival in the states, said Wheatley, a Baltimore native.

"We have a 'dirty guy' and a 'clean guy,'" said Wheatley. "The dirty guy actually goes through touching the remains with his gloves searching for any UXO, anything that could possibly be dangerous. The 'clean guy' keeps an eye on him, has the paperwork ready to jot down anything that he finds."

Once all the personal affects have been documented, the body is placed on ice to preserve it for the flight to Dover Air Force Base, Del., he said. Then the transfer case is sealed and draped with a freshly ironed American flag, he said.

From there, the 54th QM Co., the chaplain and Soldiers from the fallen Soldier's unit perform a ramp-side ceremony to pay their last respects before the body is transferred to the U.S.

With the impending withdrawal of U.S. forces and the coinciding scale back in combat missions, the level of casualties has fallen to record low levels, meaning less work for the mortuary affairs Soldiers, Wheatley said.

"I was here in 2004 and it was really busy and, at this point, thankfully, we haven't had a lot of work in our business," said Wheatley. "I remember processing at least 300 remains in the six-month period in my first deployment, but we've been here about three months now and I believe we've only processed five."

Spc. Amanda Soldano, the assistant NCOIC with the MACP, said she loves her job, but it is certainly not easy, especially when she has to go through the pockets of the fallen Soldiers and pull out pictures of their family or letters they wrote.

"I love it; it has a lot of honor and respect," said Soldano, a Murrieta, Calif., native. "I love the feeling of accomplishment of sending a fallen hero home. I feel like I've done something for the family, but detaching yourself emotionally, that's the hard part. I try not to get attached to the person, because I do view them as a hero."

The Soldiers with the 54th QM Co. take pride in knowing they are the first step in sending fallen heroes on their journey to their final resting place, Wheatley said.

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Sgt. Tyrell Wheatley, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Joint Base Balad Mortuary Affairs Collection Point with the 54th Quartermaster Company out of Fort Lee, Va., irons an American Flag to prepare it to be draped over a transfer case Jan. 18.

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Sgt. Tyrell Wheatley, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Joint Base Balad Mortuary Affairs Collection Point with the 54th Quartermaster Company out of Fort Lee, Va., and Spc. Amanda Soldano, the assistant noncommissioned officer in charge of mortuary affairs with the 54th QM Co., drape an American flag over an empty transfer case as if preparing it for movement to the U.S. during a demonstration Jan. 18 at the JBB MACP.

 

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Spc. Christian Shodahl, a mortuary affairs specialist with the 54th Quartermaster Company out of Fort Lee, Va., conducts an inspection on a simulated casualty during a demonstration Jan. 18 at the Joint Base Balad Mortuary Affairs Collection Point. Shodahl, a Florence, Ky., native, has been doing this job for five years and calls it a rewarding, albeit sobering, experience.

news photo
Spc. Amanda Soldano, the assistant noncommissioned officer in charge of the Joint Base Balad Mortuary Affairs Collection Point with the 54th Quartermaster Company out of Fort Lee, Va., drapes an American flag over an empty transfer case as if preparing it for movement to the U.S. during a demonstration Jan. 18 at the JBB MACP.