CAMP HUMPHREYS, Republic of Korea – “Death is always something you can’t predict, that’s why we have each other to rely on,” said Sgt. Carlos Gomez, a Mortuary Affairs noncommissioned officer, assigned to the 339th Quartermaster Company, 19th Expeditionary Sustainment Command. “Essentially, all that really matters is to bring that person back home because that’s someone’s Family we’re helping out.”
The Mortuary Affairs team for Eighth Army at the U.S. Forces Korea Mortuary conveys the necessity of caring for our fallen warriors while serving in South Korea. The job highlights the core tenants of dignity, reverence and respect while maintaining the discipline to overcome challenges faced on the job.
Before 1862, mortuary procedures were limited to each post maintaining its own cemeteries, and Soldiers who died in battle typically were buried in place under primitive conditions. But throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, mortuary conditions improved dramatically.
“The facility here (in South Korea) is strictly for mortuary services, not a funeral home, so we don’t provide funeral services like our state-side counterparts,” said Brooke Gurevich, mortuary director for Eighth Army. “We provide transportation, embalming services and third-party cremation services.”
One of the more important tasks when dealing with untimely deaths is to maintain procedures on how to collect the remains and get them to the mortuary’s display room.
“The recovery process for the human remains starts with receiving a notification which may include a service member, any dependents, and DOD civilians,” said Spc. Samuel Santoyo, Mortuary Affairs Specialist, Alpha Company, 194th Division Sustainment Support Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division Sustainment Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division/ROK-U.S. Combined Division. “After the Army Criminal Investigation Division gives us approval, we then go to the recovery site and collect the human remains and any personal effects belonging to the deceased.”
“I believe this is one of the oldest jobs in the military, and when there's a war, we have to be there to collect those remains and bring them back to their Family members,” said Staff Sgt. Abigail Krawczak, a Mortuary Affairs Noncommissioned officer with Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division. “It’s important for their Family to at least say goodbye.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, medical examiners would come to the facility and perform autopsies before the remains would go to the embalming room. Afterwards, the person who decides on the final disposition of the remains would send the remains to the United States.
The job does not come without its challenges, especially when dealing with children.
“In the funeral industry, our hearts grow more when dealing with children,” said Gurevich. “I have children myself, so when I go home, I hug them a little tighter. I know not everyone can do this job and a lot of people get burnt out with dealing with death and grief.”
The Soldiers are faced with various challenges when dealing with misconceptions about their work and how they are viewed within the population.
“Some of the biggest challenges we face is a lack of understanding because there is not a lot of people that do what we do,” said Gomez. “Because it’s a small career field, there may not be some support.”
Although the difficulties of working in mortuary affairs are self-evident, the team has resources available for maintaining their mental health if needed. Some of those resources include Behavioral Health, Chaplains and their leadership.
“Some of the best ways to overcome tragedy is having an opportunity to talk about it,” said Gurevich. “Utilize the support system around you because people are very empathetic.”
The Army and the unit of the deceased continues to have resources for Family members seeking help after the loss of a loved one.