May 19, 2013
‘Death and After in Iraq’
Posted on Mar 21, 2011
By Chris Hedges
“We had clean body bags set up so we could sort the flesh,” she said. “Sometimes things come in with nametags. Or sometimes one is Hispanic and you could tell who was Hispanic and who was the white guy. We tried separating flesh. It was ridiculous. We would open a body bag and there was nothing but vaporized flesh. There were not four hands or a whole leg in a bag. We tried to distribute the mush evenly throughout the bags. We were trying to do the best we could sorting it out. We had the last body bag come in. We opened up the body bag and it was filled with the heads. I looked at four before looking away. Not only did we have to look at them, we had to pick them up and figure out who it belonged to. The eyes were looking back at us. We got used to a lot of it. But the heads worked the other way. They affected us more strongly as time passed. We saw on the heads the expressions of fright and horror. It made us wonder what we were doing here.”
She processed one Marine whose face was twisted at the moment of death by rage. The face of this Marine began to haunt her.
“I had this feeling that something awful had occurred,” she said. “The way he had come in and stiffened he had this look to his face that made my stomach curl. It looked angry. Often expressions on bodies would look fearful and hurt. The faces looked as though they had received death. But this face looked like he had given death.”
She and the other members of the unit became convinced they could feel and hear the souls of the dead Marines they had processed and housed in their reefers.
“He was fully dressed in his cammies and his whole body was intact,” she said. “His hands were lying folded across his stomach.”
She and the others noticed that the Marine on the table was breathing lightly. The chest was going up and down. They frantically called their superiors to find out what to do. They were told to wait.
“Just wait? Wait for what?” she cried.
She remembers the doc saying: “There’s nothing we can do. Just wait.”
“People don’t wait for this sort of thing,” she protested. “What are we waiting for? What if this Marine was your brother, would we wait?”
They stood and watched as the man died. Goodell stormed out of the bunker.
“There was always a heaviness in the air,” she said. “It felt like I was being watched. We would feel hands on our shoulders or hands on our heads. Everyone had stories of sounds they heard or things they had felt. I was on watch at the bunker and I heard the back door open. I assumed it was one of the Marines coming in to use the Internet or the phone. I waited for them to come up. They would always come up. But no one came up. I got up and didn’t see anyone. I went back to my duty hut and I heard footsteps walk across the bunker. This kind of thing happened often.”
Her return to the United States was difficult, filled with retreats into isolation, substance abuse, deep depression and dysfunctional relationships. Slowly she pulled her life back together, finishing college and applying to graduate school so she can counsel trauma victims.
“Every single Marine I know goes to Iraq to help,” she said. “While I was there that is what I thought. That is why I volunteered. I thought I was going to help the Iraqis. I know better now. We did the dirty work. We were used by the government. The military knows that young, single men are dangerous. We breed it in Marines. We push the testosterone. We don’t want them to be educated. They are deprived of a lot and rewarded with very little. It keeps us at ground level. We cannot question anyone. We do what we are told.
“I am still in contact with most of the people I knew,” she said. “They are not coping. One lives in VA [Veterans Affairs], constantly seeing psychologists and psychiatrists. One was kicked out of the Marines for three DUIs. Another was kicked out of the Marines because he took cocaine. Those who have gotten out are living below the poverty level. And what people do to cope is re-enlist. When they re-enlist they do better. They function. I am the only one who went to school of the 18 Marines in Mortuary Affairs. But I am in counseling at the VA. I have been diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety, depression and substance abuse. What separates me from them is that I have a great support system and I found my salvation in my education.
“War is disgusting and horrific,” she said. “It never leaves the people who were involved in it. The damage is far greater than the lists of casualties or cost in dollars. It permeates lifestyles. It infects cultures and people and worldviews. The war is never over for us. The fighting stops. The troops get called back. But the war goes on for those damaged by war.”
Not long ago she received a text message from a Marine she had worked with in Mortuary Affairs after he tried to commit suicide.
“I’ve got $2,000 in the bank,” the message read. “Let’s meet in NYC and go out with a bang.”
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