Mortuary affairs course to undergo significant changes

By Terrance BellSeptember 2, 2022

Mortuary affairs course to undergo significant changes
Initial entry Soldiers and Marines learn to properly carry a human remains transfer case during 92M Mortuary Affairs Specialist Course training at Fort Lee. The seven-week course will soon include digital fingerprinting and dental X-ray instruction as part of an effort to upgrade the training to better fulfill requirements of largescale combat operations. (U.S. Army photo)

(Photo Credit: Dani Johnson)

FORT LEE, Va. – The Joint Mortuary Affairs Center here will soon add digital fingerprinting and dental X-rays to its program of instruction for advanced individual training students.

According to Sgt. Maj. Daniel Davenport, JMAC’s senior enlisted leader, the important new lessons coming to the 92M Mortuary Affairs Specialist Course will bolster the use of current technologies and “bring it into the 22nd century.” Each will markedly improve positive identification capture capabilities in the field.

“These two scientific methods will allow us to assist the Armed Forces Medical Examiner in making positive identification before remains ever leave the (theater of operation),” said Davenport.

Under current procedures, remains are sent to Dover Air Force Base, Del., where medical examiners make final determinations on identification.

The seven-week Mortuary Affairs Course trains Soldiers and Marines to locate, identify and properly handle human remains and personal effects on battlefields and other environments. Students also are trained to assist in arrangements and military honors at burial sites.

JMAC recently received the go-ahead from the Defense Health Agency to proceed with integrating fingerprint and dental X-ray lessons into the 92M program of instruction, although full implementation could take at least three years due to a rigid change process.

The inclusion of digital fingerprinting and dental X-rays represent the most significant change in course content over the past decade, said William M. “Bill” Ellerman, JMAC director.

“Prior to 2015, mortuary affairs specialists did fingerprinting – though not digital fingerprinting – in the operational environment as well as dental charting,” he said. “In 2015, the rules changed whereas those tasks were removed.”

The Armed Forces Medical Examiner assumed responsibilities for fingerprinting and dental X-rays seven years ago, said Ellerman. Today, considering the likelihood of largescale combat operations, and thus, a greater mortuary mission, it makes sense to reintroduce those skills in course instruction so Soldiers and Marines can provide greater functionality in the field.

“Looking at our peer and near-peer adversaries and what’s going on in the world today,” Ellerman said, “the potential for largescale combat is ever-present, so we need to take the necessary steps to bring our skills – for 92M and (Marine Corps) 0472 – up to the capabilities of our civilian counterparts across the U.S.”

In the field, the expeditious capture of information (such as fingerprinting and dental records) leading to positive identification can ease family suffering, said Ellerman.

“Getting that information as fast as we can and putting it into the right hands to attain positive ID moves along the process of issuing death certificates, and thus, issuing death gratuity payments, conducting final burial or funeral rites,” he said. “Everything we do in the theater regarding this is supportive of families.”

In addition to fingerprinting and digital dental X-ray, tasks in forensic photography will be included as well, said Ellerman. All three will be gradually added to lesson plans on a familiarization level.

“We’re actually leaning forward right now and have started to build them into the POI from a basic knowledge standpoint,” said Ellerman. “We are wanting to frontload that as much as possible so the students – even though we don’t have the full range of equipment here to train them on – can easily transition.”

Equipment necessary to support the new lessons include digital fingerprint capture pads, digital bitewing X-Ray machines and 35mm digital SLR cameras, said Ellerman. No equipment can be acquired until the proposed changes are approved.

Leaders in the 92M career field have advocated for fingerprinting instruction since the year it was removed from lesson plans, said Ellerman. Those efforts went nowhere until the arrival of Davenport, who brought unique perspectives to the argument.

“His experience and accomplishments are notable,” the director said. “Very few 92-Mikes get to be in the positions he has served. He was at the right place at the right time during the right operations.”

Davenport, a former infantryman, was a first sergeant with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and was MA program manager for U.S. Central Command and U.S. Pacific Command. Prior to his arrival here, he was the mortuary affairs noncommissioned officer in charge and assistant MA program manager, U.S. European Command.

Upon taking on duties at Fort Lee, Davenport said he talked with JMAC experts, made student and instructional observations, and came up with a plan to best leverage student abilities against operational requirements. Within weeks, he spoke directly with the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, who later directed the training.

“He brings credibility and the strategic and operational knowledge base and can talk the same language as senior leaders,” said Ellerman. “That is what has moved this from what we’ve done since 2015 to actually getting traction and taking off in 2022.”

Davenport said he was persistent.

“I tell Soldiers all the time, if there’s something you’re passionate about and a change needs to be made because it makes sense and improves the force, don’t stop; don’t take no for an answer,” he said.

An effort to add an additional skill identifier to the 92M military occupational specialty and expand the civilian credentialing program is next on Davenport’s agenda.

The Quartermaster School’s JMAC 92M course graduates about 200 students per year. Those individuals either go on to serve in one of the two active duty mortuary affairs units based at Fort Lee or one of several reserve elements located around the country. Mortuary affairs Soldiers are among those still assigned to duties in the Middle East.