Wednesday, January 25, 2006

AJC: New Marine unit has somber duty

It's hard enough being a Marine in Iraq. Now a new unit has the responsibility to collect the dead and send them home: "Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. --- Family photos are the hardest part. Pictures of smiling spouses, young children and newborn babies.

Marines find them in the pockets of their dead comrades. They are trained to not focus on them. Count them, catalog them and place the pictures facedown, they are told.

But some Marines can't resist. Their curiosity is too strong. They make an emotional connection with the photos. And then the images haunt them.

Lance Cpl. John H. Allen plans to resist them when he arrives in western Iraq next month. He is among about 50 Marine reservists heading there to collect the dead under a new system.

In past wars, most Marine units recovered the remains of their own troops, even the bodies of their enemies. But in September, the Marine Corps formally activated a unit specifically for this mission.

The military predicts this new company, the first of its kind, will allow other Marines to continue fighting and not have to collect the remains of their buddies, an emotionally draining job that can distract them from their missions.

Allen, a 21-year-old waiter and bartender from Alpharetta, is assigned to a Marietta-based detachment of the new company responsible for what the Marines call 'personnel recovery and processing.' The unit recently trained at this sprawling base for its mission in Iraq. Much of that training focused on coping with death."


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