FORT PICKETT – Soldiers from the 246th Quartermaster Company (Mortuary Affairs), a U.S. Army Reserve unit based in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, approached the simulated wreckage of a UH-1 Huey helicopter with a purpose but also with caution.
They found two survivors and two casualties among the debris field that littered the location.
What normally would be a search and recovery mission now was a rescue operation as the platoon secured the crash site and attended to the wounded all under the watchful eyes of observer controllers and trainers.
Once the survivors were evacuated, they could turn their attention to the fallen, taking all the necessary steps to return them to their loved ones.
This scenario was one of many that have played out in the woods and mock villages across Fort Pickett during Mortuary Affairs Exercise 2016, also known as MAX-16. The three-rotation exercise running from June through August is designed to test the capabilities of U.S. Army Reserve mortuary affairs units from around the globe.
In addition to the 246th, the U.S. Army Reserve has five other Mortuary Affairs units – 311th Quartermaster Company, based in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico; the 387th Quartermaster Company based in Los Angeles; 673rd Quartermaster Company based in Dover, Del., the 1019th Quartermaster Company based in Staten Island, N.Y.; and the 962nd Quartermaster Company based in Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam and Fort Richardson, Alaska.
Exercise planners said MAX-16 trains mortuary affairs collective tasks to include search and recovery missions, and operating both Mortuary Affairs Collection Points, or MACPs, and a Theater Mortuary Evacuation Point, also known as a TMEP.
Collecting simulated human remains, accounting for personal effects, processing paperwork, keeping a chain of custody through the MACP to the TMEP, and preparing the flag-draped transfer case for return to the U.S. are just a few of the many steps to return America’s fallen heroes with dignity, reverence and respect.
Maj. Raymond Harper, an operations officer with the 210th Regional Support Group based in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, said MAX has grown since its inception last year.
“It’s going better (than last year) but there are more complexities this year,” Harper said, adding this year’s rotation was key for the 246th as they are preparing to deploy overseas within the next few months.
The timing of MAX-16 couldn’t have been better for the 246th, said Capt. Armando Pantajo, the unit commander. He said an exercise like MAX-16 is important for individual and unit readiness especially since his unit is deploying.
He said the observer controllers and trainers came from Fort Lee’s 54th and 111th QM companies. They carefully scrutinized individual and unit tasks and pointed out ways they can improve their processes.
“They have the most experience in deploying. They have all the knowledge we need to ensure our Soldiers are well prepared before we get to theater,” Pantajo said.
Frank Rivero, who served as the sergeant major for the Joint Mortuary Affairs Center at Fort Lee and is the operations officer at the center, said it takes a special kind of person to work in mortuary affairs. Rivero should know – he’s worked in the field for 32 years.
“If this doesn’t touch you to the heart – making sure families are taken care of by taking care of their loved ones, their fallen hero – that’s what it’s about,” Rivero said. “The volunteer force we have now in the reserve component, they don’t volunteer just for the benefits. They come on board because they want to be a part of and contribute to mortuary affairs. I applaud them for volunteering for this type of work.”
Harper, who is an U.S. Army Reserve logistician, said he has been impressed working with the mortuary affairs Soldiers the last two years.
“It’s a very honorable job they do for the families,” Harper said. “But it is a mentally taxing job. So, the Soldiers who do this have a very special love in their hearts to do this.
“It’s a challenge – it’s not something that every Soldier can do. It must be done, but it must be done with reverence and respect and it’s a ‘no fail’ mission. You have to return that individual back to his or her family and they expect that – they are owed that,” Harper said.
Many Soldiers in this field also work in similar fields in civilian communities. Funeral homes, forensics and coroner’s offices are some of the similar civilian occupations. And many of them will tell you it’s different when they have to handle the remains of a fallen Soldier.
U.S. Army Reserve Spc. Laila Shaibi, a mortuary affairs specialist with the 387th, knows all too well the importance of the job.
When she is not wearing the uniform, she works as an autopsy assistant in the county coroner’s office in Bakersfield, Calif.
While studying for a criminal justice degree, Shaibi decided to enlist in the U.S. Army Reserve as a mortuary affairs specialist in 2011. That experience helped her qualify for the job in the coroner’s office, she said.
She added her day-to-day duties directly relate to her military duties.
“I think working in the coroner’s office has given me a lot of experience I can give to our Soldiers when processing remains,” Shaibi said. “But working as a mortuary affairs specialist is a lot different than working as an autopsy assistant. In mortuary affairs, not only are you doing search and recovery missions, but you’re working at a collection point or a TMEP.”
She said her friends and others often ask her if she gets emotional when doing either job. For her job at the coroner’s office, she said she does what she needs to do to get it done and not let her emotions get the best of her.
But, as a mortuary affairs specialist, she said it’s hard to not let emotions come into play.
“I can’t help but get emotional when I’m working with Soldiers,” she said. “It’s a big difference.”
Rivero and others in this specialized field said it’s very different when they open a human remains pouch and see another Soldier lying there before them.
Sgt. 1st Class Adan Flores, the senior observer coach/trainer with the 111th QM Co., has been working in the field for 21 years.
“This is not the easiest job, and it’s a job not everyone can do,” Flores said. “I’ve told my Soldiers that, ‘I don’t work for that colonel or that sergeant major. I work for the family, getting their loved one home and closing that chapter of their lives.’”
Flores said all Soldiers in this difficult career field stand for dignity, reverence and respect.
“That is what we stand for. We do not veer off that. We do not step aside, and we stick to that at all times,” Flores said.