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The Body Baggers of Iraq

By       Message Chris Hedges     Permalink
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It was hardest to look into the faces of the dead. She and the other members of the mortuary unit swiftly covered the faces when they worked on the bodies. They avoided looking at the eyes of the corpses.

Once, the unit had to process seven Marines killed in an explosion. Seven or eight body bags were delivered to the bunker.

"We had clean body bags set up so we could sort the flesh," she said. "Sometimes things come in with name tags. Or sometimes one is Hispanic and you could tell who was Hispanic and who was the white guy. We tried separating flesh. It was ridiculous. We would open a body bag and there was nothing but vaporized flesh. There were not four hands or a whole leg in a bag. We tried to distribute the mush evenly throughout the bags. We were trying to do the best we could sorting it out. We had the last body bag come in. We opened up the body bag and it was filled with the heads. I looked at four before looking away. Not only did we have to look at them, we had to pick them up and figure out who it belonged to. The eyes were looking back at us. We got used to a lot of it. But the heads worked the other way. They affected us more strongly as time passed. We saw on the heads the expressions of fright and horror. It made us wonder what we were doing here."

She processed one Marine whose face was twisted at the moment of death by rage. The face of this Marine began to haunt her.

"I had this feeling that something awful had occurred," she said. "The way he had come in and stiffened he had this look to his face that made my stomach curl. It looked angry. Often expressions on bodies would look fearful and hurt. The faces looked as though they had received death. But this face looked like he had given death." 

She and the other members of the unit became convinced they could feel and hear the souls of the dead Marines they had processed and housed in their reefers.

And then there was a body that was brought in one day that was not stiff.

"He was fully dressed in his cammies and his whole body was intact," she said. "His hands were lying folded across his stomach." 

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She and the others noticed that the Marine on the table was breathing lightly. The chest was going up and down. They frantically called their superiors to find out what to do. They were told to wait.

"Just wait? Wait for what?" she cried.

She remembers the doc saying: "There's nothing we can do. Just wait."

"People don't wait for this sort of thing," she protested. "What are we waiting for? What if this Marine was your brother, would we wait?"

They stood and watched as the man died. Goodell stormed out of the bunker.

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"There was always a heaviness in the air," she said. "It felt like I was being watched. We would feel hands on our shoulders or hands on our heads. Everyone had stories of sounds they heard or things they had felt. I was on watch at the bunker and I heard the back door open. I assumed it was one of the Marines coming in to use the Internet or the phone. I waited for them to come up. They would always come up. But no one came up. I got up and didn't see anyone. I went back to my duty hut and I heard footsteps walk across the bunker. This kind of thing happened often."

Her return to the United States was difficult, filled with retreats into isolation, substance abuse, deep depression and dysfunctional relationships. Slowly she pulled her life back together, finishing college and applying to graduate school so she can counsel trauma victims.

"Every single Marine I know goes to Iraq to help," she said. "While I was there that is what I thought. That is why I volunteered. I thought I was going to help the Iraqis. I know better now. We did the dirty work. We were used by the government. The military knows that young, single men are dangerous. We breed it in Marines. We push the testosterone. We don't want them to be educated. They are deprived of a lot and rewarded with very little. It keeps us at ground level. We cannot question anyone. We do what we are told.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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