By Captain Sarah BarnesNovember 7, 2018
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -Soldiers from the 962nd Quartermaster Company (Mortuary Affairs), out of Fort Shafter, Hawaii, arguably have one of the hardest jobs in the Army. They arrived in Afghanistan from all parts of the Pacific: Alaska, American Samoa, Guam, and Hawaii, and they are here for one purpose. The U.S. Army Reserve unit is responsible for receiving, processing, safeguarding and transporting the remains and accompanying personal effects of U.S. and Coalition fallen service members, contractors, and civilians throughout Afghanistan.
The mortuary affairs mission began in the Civil War, though it did not become a formalized process until World War I. Since that time, the Soldiers in mortuary affairs units, known as 92Ms, have had the difficult, but important job of preparing the fallen for their final journey home.
Second Lieutenant Teresa Alokoa is the 962nd Detachment officer in charge; she is responsible for the two Mortuary Affairs Collection Points in Afghanistan. Though her team is split between Bagram and Kandahar, Alokoa does everything she can to ensure all her Soldiers are prepared for a mission few are capable of completing.
"In addition to making sure my team is mentally stable to continue operating, the most important part of my work is keeping everyone informed of Mortuary Affairs procedures and our overall mission here," said Alokoa. "From guiding the losing units on how to recover deceased Soldiers and ensuring each one is treated with the utmost dignity, reverence, and respect as they make their way to our collection point, to pushing updates of evacuation flights and additional courses of actions to my team and my chain of command - there's a purpose to all I do. We support the overall sustainment mission by picking up the pieces and placing them all together. We do the work that others are not openly prepared to do."
The Mortuary Affairs creed, "Dignity, Reverence, Respect," is a constant refrain among the group. It is the guide by which the Soldiers of the 962nd measure all of their actions.
Staff Sergeant Amy Seko, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the detachment, is currently in Kandahar. She stressed the importance of the 92M mission, but acknowledged that it does take a toll sometimes.
"When all is said and done, it is imperative to go back and make sure that I, as an NCOIC, have done everything in my knowledge and power to send the fallen home with dignity, reverence, and respect," Seko said. "The family must have closure and, in the same essence, my Soldiers have closure knowing that they gave their best, not once but many times over. The work we do isn't easy. We do it with heart, with tears, and with respect and reverence to our fallen. It is emotionally draining for my team but their dedication has driven them past that. Mortuary Affairs will give their 110% for the mission no matter what."
Specialist Daryleen Moi works at the Mortuary Affairs Collection Point in Kandahar. She admits she was not quite sure about being a 92M when she joined the Army. Now she has no regrets.
"Mortuary Affairs is a very interesting job because not everyone can perform it. I have always doubted myself in pursuing a career outside of my comfort zone and choosing to become a mortuary affairs specialist changed that," Moi stated. "I've grown to love this and it is definitely something I am proud to consider a lifelong career. Sign me up for the next deployment."
In Bagram, Spc. Betty Wells echoed these sentiments and shared some of the challenges she faces in her job. She said grief is the biggest struggle, even with Soldiers you have never met.
"When preparing our fallen hero for evacuation, you get to witness death at its earliest stage," said Wells. "You feel the loss of life, even though you were not affiliated in any way to the fallen hero. This inevitable attachment is simply derived from the ultimate sacrifice a fallen hero paid in order for freedom to persist."
All members of the team acknowledged the importance of leaning on each other for support. They have created the kind of bond that only comes from sharing difficult experiences.
"Our team is composed of Pacific Islanders who each have their own personalities and traits, which distinguish them from one another but adds to team efficiency," said Wells. "The Samoan culture truly values respect and unity. My cultural background enabled me to execute my duties with the respect this job requires. Respect facilitates honoring and giving our fallen heroes the dignity and respect they greatly deserve."
Although they may come from different cultures back home, here they have become a family.
"I'm extremely blessed to be a part of this team," said Moi. "We've learned to cherish each other and create a lifelong bond. If I had to do my time all over again, I would be grateful to be with the same group of people."
It is not all somber moods for the Soldiers of the 962nd. Alokoa ensures that her team makes the most of their time off of work to relax and have fun.
"Due to the nature of our job, we try to partake in as much recreational activities as possible," said Alokoa. "From playing volleyball, basketball, soccer and BINGO, to creating art work at paint nights and singing in choir groups for religious services, we try to find the life in everything we do."
Alokoa said her team also credits the 101st Resolute Support Sustainment Brigade and Special Troops Battalion for their success.
"They have been great in taking great care of us, we appreciate the outstanding leadership," Alokoa said. "Also big shout-outs to our family and friends in the Pacific. You all are the reasons we push every day."