When Sgt. Loyd Sawyer was a licensed mortician in Belhaven, N.C., he was accustomed to handling the remains of people who died from disease, old age and accidents.
When he deployed to Iraq in 2006, he saw something different.
“I remember seeing the first dead Soldier in uniform, and it was like the first body I had ever seen,” said Sawyer, 111th Quartermaster Company, 530th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 49th QM Group.
At 33 years of age, and with more than 10 years of practice in mortuary science and embalming as a civilian, Sawyer was learning again how to manage the stress of handling the dead from the battlefield.
“These were people in top physical shape who were taken down at the prime of their life, but they were involved in an attack,” he said. “It tears me up to see young people die horrible deaths. It’s disturbing.”
Yet Sawyer said he admired them because they all volunteered to join the Army.
“And I volunteered to take care of these (young Soldiers),” he said.
Soldiers in the mortuary affairs occupational specialty go through a seven-week course at Fort Lee. Part of their training involves observing morgue operations at Richmond where they witness an autopsy and, what may be for many of them, their first encounter with remains.
It’s not a job for everyone, said Sawyer. But even for him, with his previous experience, deploying to Iraq to conduct mortuary affairs was difficult.
“Initially, it’s a shock, but then you get numb,” he said.
But that isn’t healthy for the Soldiers.
“If you see a dead body, and it doesn’t affect you then something is wrong with you,” he said.
Talking about it helps and that’s why Soldiers at mortuary affairs collection points in theater receive counseling from combat stress team professionals, he said.
That wasn’t the case when he was a civilian embalmer. Back then, his job involved helping families through the grieving process.
He would get a phone call in the middle of the night to go to the hospital requesting his services and make funeral arrangements with the families.
“It’s very emotional to deal with a person with who just lost a family member and has hundreds of decisions to make about the funeral,” he said.
Now as a mortuary affairs Soldier, Sawyer doesn’t focus on the embalming process or making funeral arrangements.
His mission is to recover the remains of America’s heroes and bring them home to their families.
Whereas he used to maintain a Cadillac limousine, hearse and flower van, now he’s responsible for a five-ton truck and Humvee.
First Sgt. Johnny Robertson, 111th QM Co., said Sawyer brings valuable experience and leadership to the unit.
“He teaches a lot of our young Soldiers how to show respect for the deceased,” Robertson said.
“For many new Soldiers the only experience they have working with remains may be from (advanced individual training), but Sgt. Sawyer has both maturity and experience to prepare Soldiers for the shock and reduce the chances of suffering from (post-traumatic stress disorder).”
Sawyer said he is proud of what he does for the Army in spite of the cut he took from his civilian salary.
He traded the prestige of being a well-respected individual in his community for a private first class.
But he joined because he wanted to serve his country.
“I’m here because I want to be here,” he said. “And I didn’t want to think 10 or 15 years from now why I hadn’t stepped up and done my part.”