While I was in college studying kinesiology, I had the opportunity to work in the local funeral house. Now, this job was definitely not handing out pamphlets to the families of the lost ones; instead, I would be driving around to the local hospitals picking up cadavers and then taking them back to the funeral home to assist the embalmer in funeral preparation.
I remember in the interview with the funeral director that he asked me in his scary monotone voice, “Mr. Hardt, how do you deal with seeing dead bodies?” Being young and still a little immature, I answered quickly with little or no thought process. “Well, sir, it shouldn’t be that bad. They don’t bite; they’re dead.”
I could hear the young woman who was typing up a storm in the cubical just beside us come to a dead stop. The funeral director took off his glasses and looked at me only as a doctor would in a dramatic scene in a movie. With a slight smirk, he replied, “Mr. Hardt, you know what? You are the perfect person for this job; you start today.” I replied confidently and even more disrespectfully, “Hey, that’s cool, sir. I will make sure I liven it up back there.” The woman who had been typing in the cubical giggled and started typing away.
The funeral director extended his hand to confirm my employment. As I shook his hand, I could not get over the fact that his hand was ice-cold, leaving me to say another smart-ass comment. “Sir, your hands are ice-cold. Does that happen after working here for a while?” He canted his head, and then with a sarcastic smile, he replied. “Mr. Hardt, where you will be working, things will seem cold even if you’re standing next to the cremating platform.”
He then let go of my now ice-cold melting hand and walked away, leaving me to think about what he had said.
The mission, like usual, was straightforward: go out and search some abandoned buildings, as well as try to locate the terrorist caches. After being here for some time, every agonizing, uneventful patrol just seems to be the same. Ray and I, along with Sergeant Lawrence, had the monotonous task to comb the desert with the metal detector.
On this patrol, we had an Air Force Staff Sergeant along with his awesome sniffing dog, Rex. Before the patrol, I spent time hanging out with Rex. I am the biggest animal lover, especially dogs. It was so amazing to see certain men while playing with Rex going from their typical bravado to being like a child getting their first dog. I went from straight depressed to feeling great. Something about Rex made me feel like I was playing with my dogs at home.
We started our patrol by making our way outside the wire, leading to a big open field. The truck came to a halt; the ramp thudded to the ground, and we made our way out with Rex leading the way. I tried not to concentrate on Rex; I was a little worried that the local, mangy dogs would attempt to attack Rex. Rex and his keeper made their way a little in front of Ray and me. Sergeant Lawrence was pulling security for Rex and his keeper.
As Specialist Murray and I walked a distance back, Specialist Murray started to comb the desert with the metal detector. Now, remind you that in Iraq, the levels of garbage are ridiculous, so if you go over a lump of dirt, the metal detector will give you the impression that there is a high source of metal, making the annoying sound — beep, beep.
Specialist Murray came across a suspicious lump in the earth. I got on my knees and started to unearth the area, throwing dirt everywhere. I started digging. I then quickly stopped and looked at Ray and asked a question. “Hey, what if there is something under here, and I am pounding at it with this shovel, and it explodes?” Specialist Murray looked like he was going to just bust out and start laughing.
“Hey, at least you know you found something.” We both started laughing, and then out of nowhere, an M-4 pierced the morning peacefulness, followed by yelping from what sounded like a hurt dog. The first response that Specialist Murray and I took was to kneel and scan the area. I looked over in the direction where Sergeant Lawrence and the dog handler were. I saw a dog going in circles and then plop to the ground and go still. My jaw just dropped. I could not believe what I had just witnessed.
The lady who was nearby tending sheep walked solemnly over to the dog. She looked down at the dead dog and then bent down. As she bent down, she looked over in my direction, I mouthed to her, “sorry.” Her hand suddenly went on the dog’s stomach just to confirm that the dog was dead. After a couple of seconds, she made her way back to her sheep. Specialist Murray and I both got up and started making our way toward Sergeant Lawrence and the handler. Sergeant Lawrence informed us that one of the wild dogs had attacked Rex, so they had to kill the dog. I knew that Sergeant Lawrence did the right thing because the dogs here are sick and diseased, and they always seemed to be chasing our sniff dogs and us.
Good enough reason for me, but being a dog lover, I had a hard time dealing with it. I was talking to Specialist Murray as we walked. “Ray, killing a bad person is no problem, but killing a dog — that would take a lot for me to do. Matter of fact, I could not do it.” Ray replied, “Killing anything — easy.” I quickly mumble, “Dogs are subhuman; they respond to fear and protect their area, as we would.” But that comment fell on infantry ears.
As we walked, Sergeant Lawrence gave us the word to make our way to the trucks. We had been flexed to investigate another possible extrajudicial killing.
We started making our way to the scene. I was riding in the back along with Specialist Murray, who was in the other hatch. As we quickly drove, I asked Specialist Murray a question. “Do you think this will be our main job while being here?” Specialist Murray just stared off into the city and shook his head in a disgusted manner. There are times here where certain things make you ponder your own mortality. As we made our way closer to the scene, I could see many Iraq nationals on the side streets.
These people were not waiting for a parade; they were waiting for the morgue attendants, crime scene investigators to show up. Driving down the road, we passed a young man who was trying to get our attention. Specialist Murray turned to me and yelled, “Hey, I think that man is trying to get our attention.” We tried to get the vehicle commander to stop, but he was busy doing his job listening to the radio and scanning the area. After getting down the road a little, a local national managed to wave down the trailer truck. He pointed out the location of the body.
Before we got off the truck, we started to prep our gear for the task of picking up the body. I opened the bench and grabbed six pairs of surgical gloves. I then picked up two black body bags just in case. The ramp dropped. Sergeant Lawrence and I walked to the shack where the bloody, dead body was located. I took a quick glance around, and it seemed like the whole community had made their appearance. Sergeant Lawrence had me pull security down the street right by the shack as the investigation and preparation for the removal of the body took place. I saw a middle-aged man making his way past me. I asked him politely to stop. He replied in almost perfect English, “It is my brother.” I was shocked that this man had no emotion, no tears. I told Sergeant Lawrence, and the man walked through the security cordon.
After we did a reasonable investigation as well as put some stories together that had some creditability, we had a good picture of the murder that had taken place. The local nationals reported that an individual walked up the street and shot the victim two times in the back and then rolled him over and finished him off by shooting him in the forehead. Then the shooter fled on foot Eastward, heading back where he had come from. The local nationals gave an excellent description of the man.
After our physical investigation, we gathered that the man was in his 40s. The victim had been shot once to the left side of the head, once to the right hand, and two times to the lower back.
The task of putting a body in a body bag, while the whole community watches, takes on a completely different meaning. You must be cognitive of the fact that these people have religious and burial practices, so every move could be possibly scrutinized. As Sergeant Lawrence and some of the other NCOs started bringing the body out, they requested that I come help.
As I walked over to the shack, I started helping place the bloody, disfigured body in the bag. I looked right at the victim’s face, and I was not even taken aback, yet by all of the blood and brain matter oozing out. I was as cold as an ice cube, and it was 100 degrees outside. Sergeant Lawrence told me to zip the bag up, so I knelt down and placed the man’s hand gently in the bag. It was ice-cold, matching my feelings. At that point, I had a flashback of working in the morgue.
As we finished the job, the family came to recover the body. Four men wearing traditional robes picked up the body bag and slowly started walking away. I began to imagine what this would feel like, and I could not. Something in me had separated me from the whole thing. As soon as the four men disappeared, the bad news of death kept on coming.
Sergeant First Class Evens received news that more dead bodies had been discovered. We started to make our way down the street. As we made our way down the narrow road, I began to have weird flashbacks from the first deployment when we were ambushed on a small street in Tel Afar.
I quietly got Sergeant Lawrence’s attention. “Sergeant Lawrence, I am having a flashback from Tel Afar; what about you?” He quickly responded, “I know, me too.” It’s not often that while on patrol, people have time to share stuff like that, but just for that moment, I felt better knowing that I wasn’t the only one thinking about the ugly past; sometimes things like that keep you on your feet.
Walking the long narrow street, making our way over by a Sunni mosque, we came to a four-way intersection. We all stopped. Right in front of me, I saw what looked like a blood spot and what looked like two tomatoes, but I was not sure. The local nationals told Sgt. Sergeant First Class Evens that the body had already been recovered. I was surprised, to say the least; usually, the body will just be lying there for a while. Local nationals confirmed that one local national had been killed. We happened to find evidence of a 9 mil casing; it was good enough evidence.
Just when you think the bloodshed would be over, it continued. At the location of the missing body, another call came to investigate another murder.
We started walking down the road, and I began to take a look at the men around me. For a quick minute, I had a vision of all of us wearing all black suits. I think that would represent the whole funeral procession image or “CSI” image. I quickly snapped out of it, trying to get mentally ready for the next scene.
The trucks came rolling around; we all jumped in our own trucks and made our way to the location.
As we came down the road, we noticed that local nationals were telling us which way to go. We went to an alley, and there lay two bodies in a pool of dark, muddy blood. Sergeant Lawrence and I dismounted the truck and made our way to the carnage. Our platoon medic was already there; it was like he just appeared. Specialist Royal Balbag had possibly the most experience with victims, so I knew that he was going to try his best to get these guys living again.
Specialist Royal Balbag was kneeling next to one of the victims trying to get a pulse. “Hey, he’s still alive.” We all looked at him and then looked at each other. Sergeant Kyle Rahn, Specialist. Teveseu and the Air Force Staff Sergeant worked on the dying man.
Again, I pulled security with Sergeant Lawrence, I glanced back every once in a while to see how things were going, and it looked like a scene from the TV show “ER.” The men started to patch the victim up, but his blood and the hair made for a sticky situation. I turned away, almost like I didn’t see anything.
After five minutes, I glanced back just in time to see the medic putting a nasopharyngeal in the victim’s nose. As soon as the medic put it in, blood and brain matter made its way out of the victim’s nose. For the weirdest reason, I felt cold again — distant, not feeling any emotion.
The word came to get the stretcher, so Sergeant Lawrence and I made our way back to the truck to get it. We had a little trouble getting it off because it was zip-tied, so I took my knife out and quickly cut it. We managed to get the one victim on the stretcher. Sadly enough, the younger man who lay close to the victim was dead, shot right in the head. He probably didn’t feel a thing.
The men loaded the victim on our truck. I was in the hatch when they brought the victim in. I managed to get some blood and pieces of brain matter on my weapon. I can deal with bodies and blood, but when it is separate from the body, I don’t care for it.
As we drove fast as hell through the streets of Baghdad, I had to sit up in the hatch. It was not bad actually; I felt like I was in my Jeep going down the highway. I looked at Specialist Murray and said, “Hey, that would suck if we got hit by an IED right now.” He glanced over at me and replied, “At least you would be halfway to the hospital.” We both laughed.
After playing NASCAR, we pulled up to the hospital. We unloaded the victim and waited for the doctors to come. I finally had time to look closely at the victim. He was breathing fast; blood and go came from his nose still, as well as his mouth. I took my helmet off and sat on the ramp and for some odd reason, stared at the man. I think I was trying to find some kind of feeling, but all I felt was just plain cold.
The doctor came and took the wounded man away. We cleaned the blood and got out of the truck as if just another day. Later the men talked about chow and other stuff. This whole thing did not affect a soul, and then again, why would it?
To conclude this, everyone looks at these things differently and processes them the way they see fit. I personally believe that my experience working at the morgue prepared me for this gruesome and somewhat disturbing task of policing up bodies.
I look back at what that funeral director told me, and I now know what he meant — after almost 11 years. It is amazing how one life experience can lead me to deal with death unnervingly and without emotion. Some will say that is a problem, but for now, it will get me through this time in Iraq.