A partnership for the fallen
July 3, 2014
Rosa Delia Guerro Lopez never joined the military, but now she wishes she had.
Hollywood depictions of Soldiers cleaning floors with toothbrushes convinced young Guerro Lopez, now 42, and a pathology technician at the Institute of Forensic Sciences, San Juan, Puerto Rico, that the military was not the place for her. She associated the armed forces with conflict and knew nothing of benefits like free education.
That perception changed after she began interacting with Soldiers enrolled in the Mortuary Affairs Specialist Course at 5th Brigade, 94th Training Division.
"From the very beginning, the Soldiers who've come here to train approach us respectfully," said Guerrero Lopez. "They ask a lot of questions and they help in different areas where we're short [staffed]."
The brigade and the institute have an agreement that allows students to do preliminary work on the cadavers of individuals who died of natural causes. For cases that could involve the court system, like homicides or accidents, students learn by observing while staff members process the remains.
Danny Luis Lopez Rivera, the pathology division's manager, said the agreement benefits the students as well as the institute.
"It helps [the students] understand what it's like working with these bodies…and it's helped the staff here extensively because of the number of cadavers coming through," Lopez Rivera said.
Staff Sgt. Jorge Ramos, the senior instructor, coordinated the agreement between the school and the institute.
The classroom experience that instructors provide at the brigade is limited, and the training at the morgue prepares students for circumstances they'll likely face in a combat environment, Ramos said.
"It's not the same when you're working with manikins or dummies compared to real remains," he added. "You can smell decomposed remains...or see actual remains that were involved in an accident with blood all over."
In addition to assisting with autopsies, mortuary affairs specialists perform duties relating to deceased personnel, including recovery, collection, evacuation, and establishment of tentative identification. They also inventory, safeguard, and evacuate the effects of deceased Soldiers.
"There's no greater reward than having the opportunity and privilege to work on the ones that made the ultimate sacrifice," said Ramos who worked as a mortuary affairs specialist while deployed to Iraq in 2003. "The institute is more than willing to work with us. They show interest in what we're doing; we share our knowledge and experiences with the students."
Sgt. Jerrone Joseph, medical supply specialist, 377th Theater Sustainment Command, plans on being a pathology technician as a civilian. He attended the mortuary Affairs Specialist Course in May 2014 and said the 5th Brigade instructors, as well as the staff at the institute, emphasize dignity and respect while processing the remains of fallen heroes.
Staff Sgt. Joseph Heath, 387th Quartermaster Company, who attended the May 2014 course, said Mortuary Affairs Specialists are obligated to consider the sensitivities involved in processing the deceased, because each hero is someone's loved one.
To show gratitude for the institute's efforts in helping to groom future mortuary technician specialists, the 5th brigade leadership awarded certificates of appreciation to staff members.
"It's more than a certificate," Guerrero Lopez said. "It's somebody acknowledging what we do, the hard work we put in, to help these Soldiers."