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Mortuary Affairs: Taking Care of People Who Fight for Freedom

By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 21, 2002 – When a hijacked airliner forced the evacuation of the Pentagon Sept. 11, thousands of personal items were left behind in offices that were damaged or destroyed.

Since then, soldiers a long way from home have labored to return those items to people forced out and to the family members of those killed.

Members of the 311th Quartermaster Company, an Army Reserve mortuary affairs unit from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, first arrived at the Pentagon Sept. 15 to care for the remains of victims recovered in the airliner crash site. Ever since, they have been cataloging, cleaning, identifying and returning recovered personal effects out of a former stable on Fort Myer, Va.

Items found in the impact area and adjacent offices were considered evidence in the criminal investigation and were claimed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Items in other offices to which workers couldn't return were delivered to Fort Myer for the 311th to handle, Lt. Col. Cortez Puryear explained.

Puryear, a metro Washington area Army reservist, was activated to run the personnel effects depot. The island unit sent 85 soldiers immediately after the attack, and they served in round-the-clock operations through the height of the personal-effects recovery effort, he said. Currently, he directs the activities of 49 members of the 311th.

Items arrived at the personnel effects depot loose and in all manner of containers -- bags, boxes, cartons, chests. Each container or separate item was assigned a lot number.

From there, items were separated in a certain hierarchy. All items associated with a particular person were grouped into what the soldiers called a "box." Items associated with rooms rather than persons were also grouped into boxes. Like items were grouped to boxes if they couldn't be placed with rooms or persons.

"Even if something was too large to fit in a box, we called it a box for identification purposes," Puryear said. "A box could be one item or 100 items depending on how we associated the item or items."

By early December, the team had processed all the recovered items and was ready to start returning them to Pentagon staff and to family members of victims. So far, about half the items have been returned.

After processing, the soldiers found they couldn't return at least 1,100 items because they no clue who owned them. It wouldn't be practical to have everyone who lost an item during the attack to visit and browse through the depot, Puryear said, the 311th created several copies of a registry with photos and descriptions of unclaimed items.

Spc. Jessica Mendez was one of the troops who walked a book through the Pentagon for survivors to look through. Mendez, just 18 and a few months out of high school when she deployed here last September, said her experiences since have changed her forever.

"It really helped me grow. I came in the Army a little girl," she said. "This was a reality check that you should appreciate the little things that you have because you never know when someone's going to take them away from you."

Mendez said seeing the effects of the attacks was devastating to her, but she prefers to focus on the positive. "You saw a lot of people helping each other," she said.

She also said she is pleased how much more the American flag means to people now. "It's sad that something like this had to happen for people to open their eyes," she said.

Showing the personal effects registry around the Pentagon has allowed Mendez to connect with some of the people whose belongings she'd been handling for so many months. "Some were excited; some were sad they didn't find anything. There were a lot of different feelings," she said. "Some would cry; some would laugh; some would be devastated. It all depended on the person."

Designated casualty assistance officers took copies of the registry to family members of those killed in the attacks. A copy has gone as far as California, said Sgt. Elmer Feliciano, who was in charge of creating the registry.

Feliciano also spent time in the Pentagon soon after the attacks. He said the sights and smells of the destruction will always be with him. But he, too, prefers to focus on the positive.

"It was a whole team effort, and those were long 12-hour shifts," he said, noting that many people worked even longer shifts.

He said working at the personal effects depot has been rewarding for him because the work is done out of respect for family members. Feliciano said he's learned through feedback from casualty assistance officers that many family members believed they'd never recover certain items.

For him, the hardest part of the job has been looking at photographs that had been carried by the deceased victims. Feliciano has four children ages 8, 7, 6, and 1 at home in Puerto Rico.

"If you're a father and you're going through the wallet of a deceased victim and you see photos of little children, that impacts you a little," he said.

Spc. Julio Rosado said handling victims' clothing was the most emotional aspect of the mission for him, but added he wouldn't trade his job for another. He's seen time and again how important his work has been to the families.

"Mortuary affairs is a good job because you're taking care of people who fight for our freedom," he said. "It's noble work."

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