Mortuary Affairs supports COVID response

A 54th Quartermaster Company Soldier ground guides a vehicle at the unit's motor pool Sept. 17, 2018, during preparations for a mission in support of Hurricane Florence relief efforts. Combined, the 54th and its sister unit, the 111th QM Co., have participated in various overseas as well as domestic crisis events over the past 20 years to include 9/11. Currently, the 54th QM Co. is deployed to New York supporting coronavirus relief, and the 111th QM. Co. is pending a deployment for the same reason.

FORT LEE, Va. – One mortuary affairs unit here has been plunged into the midst of the COVID-19 relief effort while another is prepared to immediately deploy.

Soldiers from the 54th Quartermaster Company are in New York City supporting its overwhelmed morgue operations while the 111th QM Co., stands by to lend a hand wherever it is needed. They are the Army’s only two active-duty mortuary affairs units. There are six among the Reserve component. The 54th and 111th are subordinates of the 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary), headquartered at Joint Base Langley-Eustis.

The deployed unit’s senior enlisted leader, 1st. Sgt. Jose Nunez, said his first Soldiers hit the ground March 31 with the bulk of the unit arriving the following day.

“Our mission is to assist the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City,” he said, speaking by phone from Manhattan.

Army mortuary affairs units are trained to perform a number of missions related to handling the deceased. Among them are assisting in the preparation, preservation and shipment of remains with “dignity and respect” – duties now being performed with somber dedication by the 54th QM Co. in New York.

Considered the epicenter of the coronavirus, NYC alone has accounted for more than 9,700 of the country’s 40,000 deaths attributed to the disease as of April 20, a number that still increases daily.  

Nunez – himself a veteran of various domestic and overseas mortuary affairs deployments – said although his Soldiers are trained to operate on the battlefield, unit members are fully committed to employing their skills in support of American citizens at home.

 “It has been a long time since the 54th has been (needed for deployment), and these troops fully understand the importance of what they do and embrace the fact they’re again on the ‘front lines’ making a contribution,” he said.

The company last deployed in 2016 when it andthe111th had been taking turns at six-month rotations to Southwest Asia going back several years. Over the past 48 months, the units have conducted rigorous training programs to provide support under various conditions, including the Army’s latest approach to large-scale combat operations.

“We’ve also been training to assist agencies like FEMA and others,” Nunez confirmed, further noting the mortuary affairs units supported emergency response efforts following the 9/11 attacks.

“We’ve always trained for a broad realm of possibilities and understand when the nation calls, we have to answer regardless of the circumstances,” Nunez said.

No timeline has been set for how long the unit will remain in the New York or when its Soldiers will return to Fort Lee, according to the first sergeant.

The 111th QM Co., the younger of the two MA units, is in a hold status. On April 8, it hosted a visit by Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy who reaffirmed an anticipated movement. 

“I can guarantee you’re going to go,” he said to unit members. “Between now and the time you’ve got to get in that truck and go, get your mind right. Get your families right. Get everything in balance because you’re going to deploy and it could be a while.”

First Sgt. Lauren Flores, the 111th’s enlisted leader, said the expectation is for her unit to undertake a mission similar to the 54th’s in New York. Still, there is a high level of uncertainty and anticipation associated with such an endeavor. Thankfully, a diverse training schedule has been beneficial as unit members have regularly participated in 45-day rotations at a nearby Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

“We’re 100-percent prepared,” she said. “I would say 99-percent of the mortuary affairs specialists in this company have done one or more rotations with the Richmond OCME.”

The mortuary affairs training partnership with the Richmond OCME has endured for 20 years.

Flores further reflected on the matter of Soldiers deploying in support of a domestic event in which thousands of Americans – fathers, mothers, sons and daughters – have lost their lives.

“This is similar to when we go downrange and process casualties,” she said. “But, I do think (a domestic event) makes it more sacred for Soldiers. If I’m from New York City and battling COVID-19, it is very easy to convince me to do my job with the utmost pride and be the most meticulous; just like it would be for people with the same uniform as you downrange.”

Furthermore, Flores said Soldiers have been prepped on how support to federal agencies might play out, cautioning them to not get caught up in procedural differences.

“The bottom line is that you’re in this to help the United States of America … we tell our Soldiers to keep that in mind.”

Sgt. Maj. Darrick Brown, one of the most senior mortuary affairs Soldiers in the Army, said the fact the units are prepared to carry out their missions makes him proud.

“I think it’s outstanding and necessary, and I think they’re providing a great service,” said the Joint Mortuary Affairs Center sergeant major at Fort Lee and former 54th QM Co. member. “I think they need visibility because of the sacrifices they are making – in alignment with everyone else who is participating in the mission.”

The sergeant major said public perception of the mortuary affairs profession, and death in general, do not typically allow for fanfare – and most mortuary affairs Soldiers accept that reality.

“These Soldiers know they are dealing with something bigger than themselves,” he said, noting a family’s appreciation is all that counts and an empathetic heart drives their motivation. “That is, there is a family member waiting on their loved one, and if I do my job properly, when my time comes, someone will do the same for me and get me home to my family.”