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Soldiers train on battlefield recovery of human remains

Soldiers from A Troop, 8th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, train as a company level evacuation and recovery team with a simulated casualty. The CLEAR team processes identifying documents for the remains during a training exercise March 20. (Photo by Staff

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. - From behind a tree stump, Pfc. Brandan Bishop peers at the training dummy 20 meters away. He has rope-tied a slipknot onto the body to pull it clear from any possible undetected explosive devices that are sometimes planted onto battle casualties.

His teammates, taking cover even farther away, listen to him shout a countdown before he pulls the rope, dragging the simulated casualty approximately five meters.

With an all-clear signal, the rest of Bishop's team moves in with equipment to begin work on the casualty and to search the surrounding area for other remains.

Soldiers with A Troop, 8th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, went through a course to certify as Company Level Evacuation and Recovery team members, March 18-20.

The primary task of the CLEAR team is to search for and recover human remains from the battlefield.

Sgt. 1st Class Michael Harris, a mortuary affairs specialist from Memphis, Tenn., assigned to 593rd Sustainment Brigade, has been a CLEAR team instructor since December 2011.

"Most companies are supposed to have a five-man team designated for casualty retrievals, so most of the soldiers I train are preparing for a deployment," Harris said. "Downrange, most of the mortuary affairs soldiers will work at the collection point, we do the final stages of processing the remains before they're shipped home to the families."

The first day of the course, soldiers learn the history of mortuary affairs.

"We had some demonstrations as to what we can expect while doing this job," said Spc. Patrick Nezzie, a cavalry scout from Snowflake, Ariz.

"There were presentations on coping with death and we saw slides with photos of the kinds of things we may see."

The class also went over how to fill out the documentation required for processing human remains.

"The documentation is important. The family would want everything that was on the body of the deceased - so the record of personal effects is something we take seriously," Nezzie said.

The first day of instruction also went over procedures for approaching a body on the battlefield.

"You don't know if the body is booby-trapped, if there's unexploded ordnance nearby, so we take precautions," Nezzie said.

The second day, the class visited the morgue at the Pierce County Medical Examiner facility in Tacoma, Wash., to observe how bodies may be handled at a collection point. The students had an opportunity to experience some hands-on procedures similar to those necessary in preparing a body to ship home during deployment.

"The smell coming off those cadavers was very bad, I had to catch myself from getting sick," said Spc. Keith Arthur, a cavalry scout from Lawnside, N.J.

The morgue visit is a standard part of the course. Sharon Johnson, program director for the Pierce County Medical Examiner, regularly hosts the student visits.

"We really enjoy participating, and letting the Soldiers have the hands-on experience with the decedents," Johnson said. "The feedback has been largely positive as it's such an insightful experience."

Many of the deceased come directly from the hospital, some from accident scenes.

"That was a shock to all of us, even though we've been through deployment and seen the ugly side of that," said Nezzie. "But even just seeing a body presented to us wasn't easy."

The class also observed two autopsies from beginning to end.

"That was an eye-opener. I have a lot of respect for people who do that because I could not," Nezzie said.

"It's kind of a desensitizing experience, so that if you do encounter a body, it's not as much of a shock, having seen an autopsy. If I had to deploy in six months, I'd be confident we could do this job," said Pfc. Brandan Bishop, a cavalry scout from Kingsport, Tenn.

The workload is divided among the CLEAR team's personnel so that the process moves faster, once on the battlefield.

"We split up the roles but we each know every aspect of what needs to be done, whether it's sketching, land navigation, marking the spots where we find human remains or filling out the paperwork," said Nezzie, whose role was to pull personal effects from the body on the final practical exercise.

"Downrange, we'll work 48 hours on, 48 hours off. In those 48 hours it's steady," Harris said. "It's a quick process, and the quicker we can do this, the quicker the remains can get back home to their families."

For the final practical exercise, the students took part in a search and recovery scenario using grid coordinates. Upon finding the simulated human remains, students were critiqued on their techniques with making site sketches, sanitation, and using the correct search patterns.

Harris also examined the team's procedures for extracting the remains from the site and the use of CLEAR team kits and form annotations.

"With the personal effects, it is important. Those are going to go to somebody, it's going to mean something to somebody down the road. That's why we go over it in such detail."

Working at the collection points and evacuation points Harris has gone through countless personal effects.

"I've had soldiers read the back of pictures, letters, go through wallets to detail this stuff. It does pull on the heartstrings a lot of times when you see a picture of somebody's kid and on the back of it reads ‘To daddy...' and it's tough," Harris said.

"As long as in your mind you know and think ‘hey, I'm going to make sure this hero's taken care of' and that's part of your job; this is why we do it. We're doing it to take care of our buddies."

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