Tools for Tuesday – Inside the Mortuary Affairs Unit

Today’s post is once again thanks to NPR.  On their outstanding Fresh Air program, host Terry Gross interviewed Jess Goodell, the author ofShade it Black: Death and After in Iraq. Her memoir about her time as part of the Marine Corps’ Mortuary Affairs unit in Iraq, Goodell tells of her responsibilities to “sort through the pockets and belongings of troops lost in combat. She found all sorts of things — crumpled up napkins, pictures, spoons, letters, even sonograms of their soon to be born children.”

Goodell also said that one of the most difficult parts of the job was, “diagramming the body outlines of the deceased. On the body diagram, she would document identifying marks such as scars, tattoos and birthmarks. If a body part was missing or not found, Goodell was instructed to shade that part of the diagram black.”

 “I don’t think I ever stopped smelling death when I was in Iraq,” Goodell said. “Part of the reason that the smell seemed to linger was … being a Marine in Iraq at that time, laundry services only occurred every couple of weeks, so even if we were careful and very clean in the bunker, the smell just seemed to cling to us. It seemed to cling to our uniforms. And at least for me, once I smelled that smell of death, I just couldn’t stop smelling it.”

There are many jobs that, because of the confidential or clandestine nature of it, we can’t wrap our arms around. This job is one of those. Having said that, listening to Goodell talk to Terry Gross about her experiences in Iraq, I could only imagine the horrors a person that volunteers for this duty must carry around everyday. How would it affect them? As a mother? A daughter? A friend? How would these experiences of such intense scenes of death and destruction jade her very existence?

Although I don’t have an easy or quick answer to that question, a character based upon Goodell would be an excellent choice to include in a novel. We saw a similar character in The Hurt Locker. I loved the scene when Jeremy Renner’s character was back home from Iraq and, after serving as a bomb tech in the most tense situations, couldn’t handle being in an aisle of cereal with the endless rows of choices. I, for one, would love to peek behind the curtains on these kinds of people’s lives to see what makes them tick.  


Mark Fadden is a freelance writer and author whose latest, award-winning suspense thriller, The Brink, is now available as an eBook for Kindle and Barnes & Noble nook for only $2.99!

The Brink is a hell of a read.” – Bestselling author Sandra Brown

“Mark Fadden is a masterful storyteller.” – Writer’s Digest

“Mark Fadden is the next Dan Brown.” – Triple C Ranch Book Club, Southlake, Texas

Check out The Brink and Mark’s other books at

One Response

  1. I would like to comment on your perspective of the mentality of Mortuary Affairs personnel. I served as an MA officer during my second deployment to Iraq in 2004. Our small group processed both US and Iraqi remains. We conducted the same types of duties as described by Ms. Goodell. You are correct in thinking that MA Soldiers are a special group. However, I would like to offer a different outlook on the mind of Mortuary Affairs personnel. MA personnel think primarily about the families suffering from their loss. Their work is something that is necessary for the families in need of help. The need to help others and initiate the healing process is what drives MA personnel. The focus of processing remains and returning personal effects is all about three words: dignity, reverence, and respect. MA Soldiers personify the US Army Value of selfless service. MA personnel remain transparent to supported families so long as the remains are handled properly and their personal effects are returned in good condition. MA personnel are not looking for glory in what they do. They are in place to do a job that should not be glamorized in a Hollywood film. The majority of MA personnel I have had the privilege to serve with are extremely humble. They are very dedicated to performing their no-fail missions with high degrees of professionalism. I concur that the sensory overload of what needs to be done in processing remains is hard to fathom. Dealing with so much death can lead to other mental health issues. As a result, MA personnel are required to attend counseling as part of their duties. Finding a means to express those feelings is essential to maintain a normal existence. In writing about it, I think Ms. Goodell has found an effective means to work through her own feelings while telling the public about a military job that may otherwise be ignored or forgotten. I appreciate her bringing the Mortuary Affairs community to the public eye.

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