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Fallen Comrades: Mortuary Affairs in the US Army

CPT Arnd Frie CPT Jamie Kiessling CPT Gerard L. McCool
CPT Thomas Moody CPT Benett Sunds CPT Robert Uppena
CPT Garth Yarnall

Quartermaster Professional Bulletin/Winter 1998


During the Civil War in the United States, 42 percent of the casualties were unidentified in the late 1860s. By World War II this percentage was reduced to 3 percent in the late 1940s. Today, the US Army is capable of recovering and identifying virtually 100 percent of all US remains lost during a military operation. The four key elements that led to this success at mortuary affairs are training, search and recovery procedures, identification of remains, and burial procedures. Each element developed during the past 100 years through experience, new doctrine, and force modernization.The key to any military operation is, and always has been, training. The Mortuary Affairs Center at the US Army Quartermaster Center and School, Fort Lee, VA, is the proponent for all United States armed forces mortuary affairs training. The Mortuary Affairs Center meets the Army’s need for mortuary affairs training with several different programs of instruction. Each program is designed to develop the competencies and leadership skills needed at each level of professional development.

Upon completion of basic training or reclassification into the military occupational specialty (MOS) 92M (Mortuary Affairs Specialist), enlisted soldiers attend the Mortuary Affairs Specialist Course at Fort Lee. This six-week, two-day course trains soldiers to perform the Skill Level l tasks of searching for, recovering, evacuating, tentatively identifying, documenting, and conducting proper disposition of remains and personal effects. At the next level of training, soldiers at the sergeant or staff sergeant level attend the Mortuary Affairs Basic Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) Course. This six-week course provides tactical, technical and leader training for an NCO serving in a junior leadership position or working as a mortuary affairs NCO in a mortuary. The tactical and leader training encompass all basic skills required of NCOs throughout the Army. The technical training includes basic supervisory and management skills for search and recovery operations, collection point operations, theater mortuary affairs evacuation point operations, mortuary affairs decontamination collection point operations, and logistical planning for mortuary affairs operations at the battalion staff level or higher.

Advanced Enlisted Training
As mortuary affairs soldiers continue their careers, the Department of the Army selects soldiers in the rank of sergeant first class and above to attend the Mortuary Affairs Advanced NCO Course. This eight-week, four-day course provides advanced tactical and leadership training and specialized technical instruction. The specialized technical instruction involves planning, coordinating and supervising mortuary affairs activities for a theater of operations, operations other than war (OOTW), and peacetime mass disasters. This course focuses on advanced supervisory and managerial skills and implementation of mortuary affairs regulations and policies. Graduates are trained to serve at the platoon sergeant or section chief level, supervise mortuary affairs activities, or serve as operations NCOs at the battalion staff level or higher.

Joint Senior NCO Course
Senior NCOs from all branches of service may attend the two-week Joint Mortuary Affairs Senior NCO Course. This course is designed for personnel presently holding or anticipating assignment to a mortuary affairs position, either as a primary duty or as an additional staff duty. The joint course focuses on planning, coordinating and supervising the care and handling of deceased personnel and their personal effects.

Officer Training
Training is available for officers involved with mortuary affairs operations as well. The Mortuary Affairs Officer Course trains officers from all branches of service in the planning, coordinating, and supervising of all mortuary affairs in a theater to meet the needs of the Total Force. This two-week course trains officers for both staff and command mortuary affairs responsibilities from the battalion staff level up to the Joint Mortuary Affairs Office (JMOA) in a unified command.

In addition to all of the institutional courses, the Mortuary Affairs Center conducts sustainment training for units in the field through video teletraining on request. All courses offered by the Mortuary Affairs Center are designed to fulfill the needs of the military, covering the entire spectrum of military operations. This training is the first step to achieving the 100 percent identification and recovery goal.

Search and Recovery Procedures
According to current doctrine, the remains of all members of the armed forces will be returned for permanent disposition as directed by the person authorized to direct disposition of remains. This policy is the heart of current search and recovery operations. The US citizens will not tolerate leaving behind deceased military personnel. This is a simple statement of fact. There are many examples of search and recovery operations throughout history, as well as examples of current doctrine in operation.

Consider the history of search and recovery. During the US Civil War, hundreds of thousands of soldiers were buried in often unmarked and unremembered grave sites. Despite this fact, almost 295,000 deceased soldiers were recovered and interred in national cemeteries in the five years after that war. In World War I, recovery procedures expanded. Sketches and maps of temporary grave sites were made and kept. This greatly improved the search and recovery operations, as well as the identification process.

Search and recovery during World War II focused on another methodology. Temporary graves accounted for more than 250,000 US soldiers around the world. This greatly improved recovery capabilities, but the disinterment and return of the remains became a logistics nightmare.

By the Korean war, a new strategy was devised. This new strategy involved the concurrent return of remains to the continental US. This effort to return remains became known as Operation Glory.Deceased US soldiers and their effects were evacuated to Japan and then shipped home in refrigerated containers for interment in the US. This method of recovery led to the development of current search and recovery doctrine.

Casualties from past wars still concern the military. Search and recovery of soldiers from earlier conflicts is mainly conducted by the US Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI). CILHI focuses on remains located throughout Southeast Asia from the Vietnam war era of the 1960s and 1970s.

Modern day search and recovery is a vital, sensitive and important part of combat service support. The key to search and recovery on the modern battlefield is not the mortuary affairs team, but rather the responsibility of every unit. Mortuary affairs teams, located in the brigade support area (BSA), support the entire brigade.

Unit leadership is responsible for initial search and recovery. When casualties occur and the tactical situation permits, a unit team should be organized to collect deceased personnel and their effects. The remains and effects are then retrograded to the BSA where a mortuary affairs team will handle the concurrent return of the remains.

Identification of Remains
The Department of the Army and Department of Defense have come a long way in successful identification of soldier remains. Identification remains the key step in the mortuary affairs process. Identification is achieved by pre- and post-death medical and dental records, examining personal effects and, more recently, DNA analysis. These changes and improvements have come through better training, new and improved identification methodology, improving technology, and doctrinal changes. With today’s technology, 100 percent identification of remains is possible.

Technology has had the largest impact on the identification of remains. Soldiers’ records now contain information not available during previous wars and conflicts. Specific locations have been designated in Hawaii and Washington, DC, to assist with the identification process. Finally, joint doctrine has changed to ensure timely return and identification of US service members.

Past history illustrates the successes in the identification process. Of the 81,462 US dead in World War I, the remains of 1,227 were not recovered and identified. The remains of 1,648 (2.11 percent) were unidentified and subsequently interred as “unknowns.”

The figures for World War II list the total US dead as 360,844. The remains of about 79,000 were not recovered and identified, while 8,532 (3 percent) were not identified and also were buried as “unknowns.”

In the Korean war, the total dead numbered 36,923. The remains of 856 (again 3 percent) were interred as “unknowns.” Identification methods at that time consisted of fingerprints and written dental records (not X-rays).

During the Vietnam war in the 1960s and 1970s, about 57,500 US military personnel died in Southeast Asia. Of that total, 2,235 remained unrecovered at the end of hostilities. In September 1998, that figure stood at 2,076. To date, no US service member who died in that conflict has been categorized as “unknown.”

In 1951, during the Korean war, the Department of the Army took a great step in the enhancement of the remains identification process by developing the first central identification laboratory (CIL), in Kokura, Japan. The CIL, the first facility of its type to serve all military services, permitted the evacuation of US dead from Korea to Japan. It was staffed by professionals and added greatly to the US identification rate.

Central Identification Laboratory Moves
The CIL ceased to exist after the Korean war but later was reestablished as the United States Mortuary, Saigon, Vietnam, during the war in Southeast Asia. In March 1973, the laboratory was moved to Thailand and designated as the USACIL. This coincided with the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam. In May 1976, the laboratory was again moved, this time to Hawaii, where it continues to operate today as the US Army CILHI.

Some operations that have involved Army mortuary affairs in the past few decades include CILHI personnel returning to Korea and Vietnam and successfully identifying remains; the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, DC, work on the space shuttle program’s disasters; and soldiers from the 54th Mortuary Affairs Company at Fort Lee traveling to Oklahoma after the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in the late 1990s. Technological improvements have been aided by more detailed information on soldiers today.

The CILHI maintains records of all information about lost personnel. The CILHI’s functions include recording descriptions of remains; performing dental, fluoroscopic and anthropological examinations; making chemical or scientific analysis; and fingerprinting. This central identification laboratory serves as the final processing point for the remains of all military personnel. The CILHI traces its roots to the mortuaries of Vietnam, but it has conducted search, recovery and identification on the remains from many past conflicts. To date, CILHI has handled 131 Cold War remains, more than 2,100 Vietnam war remains, 8,100 Korean war remains, and more than 78,000 World War II remains. It is the largest laboratory of its kind in the world. Identification methods are improving all the time, but good records will remain the key to the identification process.

Burial Procedures
The final step in the mortuary affairs process is burial. Although current doctrine allows for the temporary burial of remains in a theater with the appropriate approval, the goal is 100 percent concurrent return. Throughout history, the US has used temporary interment. As early as the Mexican War, hundreds of soldiers were buried at battle sites in Mexico as the war progressed. Only a small percentage were located after the war ended.

During the US Civil War, remains were often buried in mass graves. This led to the development of the national cemeteries throughout the United States. The most famous national cemetery in Arlington, VA, was actually established just before the Civil War ended. The Quartermaster General requested 210 acres of land from General Robert E. Lee’s estate in 1864. More than 225,000 soldiers are now buried at Arlington.

In World War I, remains were buried throughout Europe, and eight permanent cemeteries were established overseas. Of these remains, 47,000 were returned to the US for interment. Overseas cemeteries are maintained by the American Battlefield Monuments Organization.

During World War II, more than 250,000 US soldiers were buried in temporary cemeteries. Not until the Korean war did the US Army move away from this practice. During the Vietnam war, concurrent return allowed fallen comrades to be returned to the US in about seven days. Future doctrine in mortuary affairs is leaning toward more efficiency in the theater, with full military rites and honors conducted for the deceased upon interment in the US. Every veteran is entitled to a grave site marker and military rites at the funeral. A person may request military rites for a veteran who is retired or no longer an active member of the Active or Reserve Components of the military. Requests can be made through many organizations, such as the Veterans Administration or information officers at any Army National Guard or US Army Reserve unit. All active units, most reserve units, as well as most active Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts have a color guard identified to perform military funeral rites.

Three Programs To Fit Military Needs
Different mortuary affairs programs are used for different circumstances. Under the current death program, remains are shipped to a place designated by the person authorized to direct permanent disposition and are provided with professional mortuary services. The graves registration program provides for search, recovery, tentative identification, and evacuation or temporary burial of deceased personnel. The concurrent return program is the preferred method of handling remains during periods of conflict. Remains are evacuated from the battlefield and shipped to the US for interment. The concurrent return program is used when the current death program capabilities are exceeded but conditions do not require temporary interment.

No More Unknown Soldiers
The importance of mortuary affairs on the modern battlefield is evident. The US citizens expect a fallen soldier to be brought back home. The basis of mortuary affairs is found in the training of soldiers, search and recovery procedures, identification of fallen comrades, and appropriate burial that includes the performance of military rites for the deceased. The bottom line in today’s Army is that soldiers train to find, recover, identify and bring home all fallen comrades. The goal is no more unknown soldiers.

The authors are Quartermaster graduates of the Combined Logistics Officer Advanced Course 97-5/6 at Fort Lee, Virginia.