What motivated you to join the Marines?
My parents divorced when I was 16, and as a result, the stable home life that I once knew was no longer there. When the recruiter came to my high school and offered the chance to get away from home and become my own person, I jumped at the chance. I was further motivated by the fact that the recruiter was targeting the males in the class. I knew I had what it took and I wanted to out-perform the males.
What are the responsibilities/mandates of a Mortuary Affairs Unit?
It was our job to recover and process people who lost their lives while in Iraq. What this meant was that it was our responsibility to send home any and every last piece of the people who died, home to their families. Sometimes our platoon would get a call that said a firefight was taking place and that there were men down. We would load up our vehicles and convoy to the area. Once the shooting stopped we would rush in and retrieve the remains. At other times, we would receive a call and a platoon would let us know that they had Marines who had died and that they would be bringing the remains in to our bunker. When the platoon arrived, they would carry in their fallen by means of makeshift stretchers made of ponchos, poncho liners, or even their uniform blouses. Once the remains were within our bunker walls we would record any identifying marks such as tattoos or scars. We would inventory every item that the remains had on them including items such as pens, paper, utensils, pictures, wallets, money….We would try to identify the remains using identification found in wallets or pockets or on the nametags on the uniforms. Sometimes units would help us identify remains if necessary. Then we would place the body bag in an aluminum transfer case, drape a flag over the top and tie it in place with rope, and bring the remains to the flight line where we would place it on an aircraft.
Once the bodies started coming in, how was the MA Unit perceived on base?
Once the bodies started coming in, our platoon seemed to pull back from the other Marines on base. We kept to ourselves. Interaction with other Marines was very limited. I remember the females in my platoon were told what I did and they left me alone. They seemed to understand that our job was difficult but they never talked to me about it.
How did the effects of dealing with death on a daily basis affect the members of the MA Unit? How did it affect you?
It was not uncommon for members of our platoon to step outside and throw up. I know a lot of us struggled to sleep and eat. We processed a lot of remains that had been burned or charred from either an explosion or the sun and the bodies eerily resembled cooked meat (I suppose that’s because essentially, it was). I think we all became aware that today could be the day that it was one of us on the litters (processing tables) that were being processed.
As one of the few females in the Unit, how did you avoid being stereotyped as a “female marine”?
It was very difficult to not fall into that stereotype. I avoided it by working out in the gym with Cherie, a female Marine friend of mine, every day. I kept to myself and wouldn’t engage with the male Marines’ sexual banter. My officer called me into his office one day and told met that he was worried about me because I didn’t hang out with or talk to the male Marines. I had to explain myself and that I was there to get the job done and not to be labeled as a “female Marine.” I think in the long run it helped me gain respect as a Marine.
After completing your work with the MA Unit, what happened when you returned to the United States?
There was pressure to not talk about the experience. I was simply a Marine doing my job. The Marines who were involved during the initial invasion during 2003 convinced me that what I had gone through did not compare to the experiences they had. I went about my job and the daily life of a Marine as though I never went to Iraq. There was too much pressure and I didn’t want to be seen as a weak, female Marine. I pretended like it never happened and so did everyone else.
When it was our turn to leave Iraq and come home to the States, it was mandatory that every Marine in our platoon speak to someone about our experience. As a platoon, we were “debriefed.” They had us answer questions using a stylus on an electronic pad, which made me think our responses and reactions were for creating statistics rather than to help us on our personal journeys. We were called individually into rooms to speak with people who we were told would help us. They asked us about our eating, sleeping, and sexual habits, all of which, unsurprisingly, had been severely altered as a result of being in a combat environment. And the only response they had for me was that I needed to speak to someone when I got back to the States. Once I got back to the States I told my unit that I had been told I needed to speak to someone about my experiences. They gave me a hard time about it and, as an excuse because I didn’t want to be seen as weak, I told them that I had been ordered to see someone. Again, my experience yielded the same results; the doctors told me that I needed to speak to someone—not to them, but someone else. Needless to say, I was only continually recommended to speak to someone about my experiences and yet none of the “counselors” I spoke to were willing to help me. As a result, I spoke to no one.
In your view, does PTSD affect female military personnel differently than male military personnel?
I think PTSD is expressed differently by females than by males. Whereas males may become aggressive, or drink to excess, females (or at least I) tend to detach myself from social situations and become withdrawn from relationships. I found myself in abusive relationships that I stayed in. I have always been a hard worker yet I stopped working for myself and became a servant for others. I think that both females and males suffer from substance abuse, rapid transience (moving from place to place), and social isolation.
How has your experience in the MA Unit changed you?
I think that the American culture is a culture that largely denies death, especially in the Marine Corps. We are taught to think that we can do anything, and that we are strong and indestructible. Being in the MA platoon was very grounding in that it exposed the realistic side of war. Citizens and families die, and we are no different. We are vulnerable and our wounds run deep. MA allowed me to see how fragile life is. I gained a great appreciation for life that I never knew before.