Walking Among the Dead - Part 3
I had held up pretty well thoughout the week, keeping busy amongst the other team members, but eventually one incident unnerved me completely, piercing right through the protective structure of activity and denial I had built up. During what turned out to be the last morning at Dover, all of our actual work with the remains had been done and the staff actually assigned to the Medical Examiner's Office were doing final paper work and so I wandered away to look at the parts of the mortuary I hadn't seen. Past the autopsy suite, there was a large set of swinging doors and a corridor and I could see an open door. I walked down and looked in. Along the sides of the room there were racks of Army dress green uniforms, there were trays with all the badges of rank and decorations and a set of sewing machines where four women were working.
They were preparing uniforms for each dead soldier, complete with all the proper badges, decorations and name plates. As I watched they laid one uniform jacket out on a table, one person read from the record and the other person checked that every piece was correct and in place. They cracked open a transfer case that sat on a low gurney; inside the body bag had been covered with a muslin cloth, tucked in very carefully completely hiding the bag. Very reverentially, they laid the uniform, jacket pants and hat on the cloth, pinning them so they would stay in place and then closed the case.
Somehow the thought of that uniform, never worn, perfect, perhaps never to be seen, lying on top of that almost-flat body bag just undid me, overwhelming whatever reserve I had maintained through that week. I sat in the hall, my face down, crying, snuffling for quite a while. When I got myself back together, there was someone sitting there across from me. He offered me a wet cloth and a towel and sat wordlessly, except to ask if I needed anything. Eventually I got up and went back to our area to help with packing up our gear.
On the trip home, and for a long time afterward, I tried to dissect how I was feeling; what is it seeing all those remains had changed in me? Somehow seeing the remains had changed me. It was not just that they were dead but that they were destroyed, pulled apart. I could hold a record in my hand that described a person, that had his picture and all of his vital information but all that was left of him was scraps of meat and bone and skin in a dark plastic body bag. They weren't bodies anymore, there was not enough left to be that. They were remains.
I remember that trip home to California, very clearly. I felt strange, light enough to float way, all the pressure that had squeezed me tight me for almost two weeks now gone. I was different and it was strange that no one in the airport noticed it. There was no one to talk to about what I saw and how I felt. After two weeks of unremitting pressure, working next to people, talking with people for 18 hours per day, they were gone and I was alone.
That experience had an enormous effect on my life and visibly on my career. Because of the success of my work, I was famous within the field, I traveled routinely to speak at meetings, to train state disaster teams and, two or three times a year, to the site of a disaster to work. It was exhilarating and I enjoyed it; getting a phone call to say I was going to Ethiopia or Peru or California and to be part of a very skilled team, perhaps the best in the world at what we did.
The code set, methodology and software were even more famous and was adopted virtually world-wide. It was used in every major disaster from the Lockerbie Scotland air crash, the 9/11 disaster and every disaster in between and since with the culmination years later when the FBI adopted it for the NCIC system. It had long since lost its formal identification as my work and had becoming the de facto standard, the received knowledge, in a minor way like the base 10 system of calculating and Arabic numerals replaced the Phoenician base 12 and Roman numerals because it worked better.
On a personal basis, I worked and traveled, noticing only that, after each disaster, my personal recovery time was longer. I would return and tell my wife all the factual matters and then, in the following days, spend long hours sitting in the dark with the television on; I was very short-tempered and emotional, barely keeping myself intact at difficult times. I could not see war movies or anything involving the death of a soldier; I avoided sad movies or books, there were foods I could not eat – and still cannot – because the look and texture brings back unmanageable memories. Polynesian cannibals called human flesh, 'long pig.' because of its similarity in looks when roasted.
I knew that I could not persist like this indefinitely. Charles Bukowski the poet said that it was not the big things that drive men mad but the concatenation of little things:
with each broken shoelace
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