Lance Cpl. Christopher M. Tarnue, with the Personnel Retrieval and Processing Detachment, 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward), attends to the last details on a transfer case in July 2011 aboard Camp Dwyer, Afghanistan. The care of fallen service members is now centralized at Camp Bastion. (Lance Cpl. Bruno J. Bego / Marine Corps)
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CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan — On chilly stainless-steel tables, a small group of Marines here performs the meticulous work that begins the long journey home for dozens of U.S. casualties of war each year.
The Personnel Retrieval and Processing unit is best known for conducting "dignified transfers," ceremonies in which the remains of fallen Marines and other U.S. forces are respectfully placed on a plane to begin their voyage home. It's far from the group's only duty, though.
Most casualties arrive by helicopter at Camp Bastion's British-run hospital. The landing zone is named after famous battlefield nurse Florence Nightingale. The Marines place black shrouds over the windows of the processing room where they work, ensuring privacy as they search the remains from head to toe, they said. Jewelry, family photographs and other personal effects are cataloged, and then placed in a plastic bag with a zipper that travels with the fallen service member.
Occasionally, the job is emotionally wrenching.
"Sometimes they say there might be that one processing that might bother you, and you don't really know what it's going to be until it happens," said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Kim Adamson, who led the 14-member unit deployed from March through October. "It could be something as simple as finding a baby bootie in a pocket, and you realize that here's a Marine who never got a chance to see his child."
The Marines work carefully, but quickly. The time of the casualty's arrival is documented, and the unit makes arrangements to begin transportation of the remains back to the U.S. The goal is not only to care for fallen service members, but also to put them into refrigeration as quickly as possible until an aircraft is available to carry them home.
The unit strives to ship the remains within four hours of receiving them, and expects to do so within 12. The fallen service member is zipped into a black bag known as a human-remains pouch, which is kept cold inside the transfer case with ice. A neatly pressed U.S. flag, 5 feet by 9˝ feet, blankets each case as it is flown from Camp Bastion back to the U.S.
"Everyone always sees the dignified transfer, but that's about 10 percent of our job," said Staff Sgt. Albert Santini, an embarkation specialist with the unit deployed this summer. "The actual processing is probably 50 [percent], and the rest is typing in forms so everything is accurate, so we make sure we know what is going on with this hero, and where he goes and what he has."
All fallen U.S. service members in Regional Command Southwest, based at neighboring Camp Leatherneck, go through the processing center at Bastion. They are delivered to Kandahar Airfield, a sprawling base to the east that serves as the common mortuary collection point for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Adamson said. The remains are iced again there and at Ramstein Air Base in Germany before being delivered to the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, Del.
Search and recovery
Every war has its dead, but the Corps' handling of fallen Marines has evolved in the past decade. In 2005, it created the Personnel Retrieval and Processing Company, out of Washington, D.C. Elements of about 100 Reserve Marines each were placed there and in Marietta, Ga. During the height of the Iraq war, they deployed in groups of up to about 80 to handle casualties. Prior to that, a unit out of Dayton, Ohio, sent reservists forward to fill the job.
The mission was busier during the Iraq war. A unit could handle hundreds of casualties, both insurgent and American, during a single deployment, said Gunnery Sgt. Clinton Kinley, who deployed to Iraq with PRP units four times between 2004 and 2009. The units also conducted search-and-recovery missions in which they left the wire to bring back remains, frequently cutting open mangled vehicles to complete the job while other Marines provided security.
"You've got to think about what we're going out there for," said Kinley, who now serves at Manpower and Reserve Affairs in Quantico, Va. "We're not going out there because a bird hit the windshield. We're going out there because a vehicle got blown up, or a mortar round hit, or whatever. Someone died there from direct enemy action, so we're going somewhere where it's bad."
Searches and recoveries also happen in Afghanistan, but not nearly as often. More operations there are dismounted, and casualties declined as mine-resistant vehicles became commonplace. The PRP unit headed by Adamson handled about 30 casualties during its deployment, but performed only one search and recovery, following a helicopter crash in Helmand province.
Still, PRP Marines continue to prepare for various missions and to adapt as needed in the field. In Iraq, for example, the unit oversaw the remains of more than 500 insurgents who were collected at an old potato factory outside Fallujah when fighting was heavy there in 2004 and 2005, Kinley said. Like many other U.S. forces at the time, they needed to improvise to armor their vehicles.
"We had to up-armor our own Humvees with tie-straps and whatever armor we could find," said Sgt. Carl Swenson, a personnel retrieval and processing specialist now based at Quantico. "We had open-back Humvees … no ballistic windows or anything. It was good times."
More recently, the Corps deployed detachments to Bastion and Camp Dwyer, a large forward-operating base in Garmser district, said Staff Sgt. Michael Maldini, who served with the unit at Dwyer in 2011. Commanders have since realigned deployed PRP Marines so they all work out of Bastion, consolidating forces and creating one common facility.
Marines who join PRP have varying backgrounds and rely heavily on training that is passed down within the unit. Some of its personnel also attend the Joint Mortuary Affairs Center at Fort Lee, Va., the military's mortuary school.
Before deploying, the Marines undergo predeployment training that includes not only standard work with weapons and patrolling, but a stop at the Los Angeles coroner's office. The visit was first adopted in 2008 to help Marines adjust to being around human remains.
"It was just to give the Marines some hands-on training," said Maldini, who was part of the first unit to go through the office. "They wanted to give us some visual aspects to what we'd be handling in theater, and now it has evolved into an annual thing. It's pretty much part of our predeployment training at this point."
Marines who do the job said that despite the difficult situations they must face, they're drawn to the work because they're able to take care of fallen fellow Marines, other service members and their families. They also pay attention to each other for signs of stress, and undergo a postdeployment decompression session — focused on encouraging them to open up about their deployment — in Germany on the way back to the U.S.
"All of us live in a tent together, so we stay on top of each other all the time," Santini said of his time deployed at Bastion. "You keep a sense of humor, and when someone is having a bad day, you ask what's bothering them. We're pretty open with each other."