Jess Goodell enlisted in the Marines immediately after she graduated from high school in 2001. She volunteered three years later to serve in the Marine Corps' first officially declared Mortuary Affairs unit, at Camp Al Taqaddum in Iraq. Her job, for eight months, was to collect and catalog the bodies and personal effects of dead Marines. She put the remains of young Marines in body bags and placed the bags in metal boxes. Before being shipped to Dover Air Force Base, the boxes were stored, often for days, in a refrigerated unit known as a "reefer." The work she did was called "processing."
"We went through everything," she said when I reached her by phone in Buffalo, N.Y., where she is about to become a student in a Ph.D. program in counseling at the University of Buffalo. "We would get everything that the body had on it when the Marine died. Everyone had a copy of The Rules of Engagement in their left breast pocket. You found notes that people had written to each other. You found lists. Lists were common, the things they wanted to do when they got home or food they wanted to eat. The most difficult was pictures. Everyone had a picture of their wife or their kids or their family. And then you had the younger kids who might be 18 years old and they had prom pictures or pictures next to what I imagine were their first cars. Everyone had a spoon in their flak jacket. There were pens and trash and wrappers and MRE food. All of it would get sent back [to the Marines' homes].
"We all had the idea that at any point this could be us on the table," she said. "I think Marines thought that we went over there to die. And so people wrote letters saying 'If I die I want you to know I love you.' 'I want my car to go to my younger brother.' Things like that. They carried those letters on their bodies. We had a Marine that we processed and going through his wallet he had a picture of a sonogram of a fetus his wife had sent him. And a lot of Marines had tattooed their vital information under an armpit. It was called a meat tag."
The unit processed about half a dozen suicides. The suicide notes, she said, almost always cited hazing. Women, she said, were constantly harassed, especially sexually, but it often did not match the systematic punishment and humiliation meted out to men who were deemed to be inadequate Marines. She said that Marines who were overweight or unable to do the physical training were subjected to withering verbal and physical abuse. They were called "fat nasties" and "sh*t bags." The harassed Marines would be assigned to other individual Marines and became their slaves. They would be sent on punishing runs in which many of them vomited. They would be forced to bear-crawl -- walk on all fours -- the length of a football field and back. This would be followed by sets of monkey f*ckers -- bending down, grabbing the ankles, crouching down like a baseball catcher and then standing up again -- followed by a series of other exercises that went on until the Marines collapsed.
"They make these Marines do what they call 'b*tch' work," Goodell said. "They are assigned to be someone else's 'b*tch' for the day. We had a guy in our platoon, not in Iraq but in California, and he was overweight. He was on remedial PT, which meant he went to extra physical training. When he came to work he was rotated. One day he was with this corporal or this sergeant. One day he was sent to me. I had him for an hour. I remember sending him outside and making him carry things. It was very common for them to dig a hole and fill it back up with sand or carry sandbags up to the top of a hill and then carry them down again."
The unit was sent to collect the bodies of the Marines who killed themselves, usually by putting rifles under their chins and pulling the trigger.
"We had a Marine who was in a port-a-john when he blew his face off," she said. "We had another Marine who shot himself through the neck. Often they would do it in the corner of a bunker or an abandoned building. We had a couple that did it in port-a-johns. We had to go in and peel and pull off chunks of flesh and brain tissue that had sprayed the walls. Those were the most frustrating bodies to get. On those bodies we were also on cleanup crew. It was gross. We sent the suicide notes home with the bodies.
"We had the paperwork to do fingerprinting, but we started getting bodies in which there weren't any hands or we would get bodies that were just meat," said Goodell, who in May will publish a memoir called "Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq." The book title refers to the form that required those in the mortuary unit to shade in black the body parts that were missing from a corpse. "Very quickly it became irrelevant to have a fingerprinting page to fill out. By the time we would get a body it might have been a while and rigor mortis had already set in. Their hands were usually clenched as if they were still holding their rifle. We could not unbend the fingers easily."
The unit was also sent to collect Marines killed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The members would arrive on the scene and don white plastic suits, gloves and face masks.
"One of the first convoys we went to was one where the Army had been traveling over a bridge and an IED had exploded," she said. "It had literally shot a seven-ton truck over the side and down into a ravine. Marines were already going down into the ravine. We were just getting out of our vehicles. We were putting on our gloves and putting coverings over our boots. I was with a Marine named Pineda. I was coming around the Humvee and there was a spot on the ground that was a circle. I looked at it and thought something must have exploded here or near here. I went over to look at it. I looked in and saw a boot. Then I noticed the boot had a foot in it. I almost lost my lunch.
"In the seven-ton truck the [body of the] assistant driver, who was in the passenger seat, was trapped in the vehicle," she said. "All of his body was in the vehicle. We had to crawl in there to get it out. It was charred. Pineda and I pulled the burnt upper torso from the truck. Then we removed a leg. Some of the remains had to be scooped up by putting out hands together as though we were cupping water. That was very common. A lot of the deaths were from IEDs or explosions. You might have an upper torso but you need to scoop the rest of the remains into a body bag. It was very common to have body bags that when you picked them up they would sink in the middle because they were filled with flesh. The contents did not resemble a human body."
The members of the mortuary unit were shunned by the other Marines. The stench of dead flesh clung to their uniforms, hair, skin and fingers. Two members of the mortuary unit began to disintegrate psychologically. One began to take a box of Nyquil tablets every day and drink large quantities of cold medicine. He was eventually medevaced out of Iraq.
"Our cammies would be stained with blood or with brains," she said. "When you scoop up the meat it often would get on the cuffs of our shirts. You could smell it, even after you took off your gloves. We weren't washing our cammies every day. Your cuff comes to your face when you eat. Physically we were stained with remains. We had a constant smell like rotten meat, which I guess is what it was since often the bodies had been in the sun and the heat for a long time. The flesh had gone bad. The skin on a body in the hot sun slides off. The skin detaches itself from the layer beneath and slides around on itself.
"Our platoon was to the Marines what the Marines are to much of America: We did things that had to be done but that no one wanted to know about," she said. "The other Marines knew what we did, but they did not want to think it could happen to them. I had one female Marine in my tent who would talk to me. The rest would not give me the time of day. The Marines in Mortuary Affairs knew that any day could be our day. Other Marines, who have to go out on the convoys, who have to get up the next day, have to get on with life."
Her unit once had to recover two Marines who had drowned in a lake. It appeared one had leapt in to save the other. The bodies, which were recovered after a couple of days by Navy divers, were grotesquely swollen. One of the Marines was so bloated and misshapened that the body was difficult to carry on a litter.
"His neck was as wide as his bloated head, and his stomach jutted out like a barrel," she writes in the book. "His testicles were the size of cantaloupes. His face was white and puffy and thick. Not fat, but thick. It was unreal. He looked like a movie prop, with thick, gray, waxy skin and the thick purple lips. We couldn't stop looking at these bodies because they were so out of proportion and so disfigured and because, still, they looked like us."