FORT LEE, Va. – As the 54th Quartermaster Company commences theater-support operations in Southwest Asia – an overseas mission they haven’t been tasked with since 2016 – the unit will lean heavily on its noncommissioned officers to achieve mission goals.
Three of the unit’s enlisted leaders recently shared thoughts about the impending six-month assignment that will take company personnel to such locales as Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain and Syria among others.
Staff Sgt. Lavell Bartley, 27, Sgt. Marcus Cordero, 29, and SSG Shawn Sargent represent a cross section of NCOs who will support a variety of mortuary affairs missions in the U.S Central Command area of operations.
“I’m excited – a little nervous – but more excited than anything else,” said Cordova, who will experience his first overseas tour.
Cordova spent his first three years in the Army as a cable systems installer-maintainer. He had a two-year break of service before returning in 2019 as a mortuary affairs specialist. The Fontana, Calif., native said the forthcoming mission will broaden his MA skillsets.
“I get to learn the overseas aspect of this job,” he said. “I’m excited about that.”
In field environments, mortuary affairs work includes locating and identifying remains and transporting the deceased to facilities for processing.
Cordova’s previous mortuary affairs experience was supporting the Joint Personal Effects Depot at Dover Air Force Base, Del., which provides for a dignified transfer of remains and personal effects to family members.
Bartley, who has seven years of service, is relatively new to the unit and, like Cordova, has not been deployed. He did, however, gain valuable MA experience while working as a support operations officer during his previous assignment at Joint Base Lewis-McCord, Wash. There, he contributed to the processing efforts of least 29 service members who succumbed to COVID-19.
“If something similar happens in these new countries, I’ll be able to use what I’ve learned in the past to help,” said the Oxnard, Calif., native.
Since Sargent became a Soldier in 2011, he has deployed to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. The southwestern Virginia native has stopped counting the remains he has handled but said his first tour of duty instilled a measure of pride in the profession that lasts to this day.
“I love knowing that my hands were the ones that gave the last rites and the last measure of dignity and respect to that fallen service member,” he said, “and knowing I did everything I could on my end to respectfully return the remains back to the family.”
As NCOs, all three have made contributions to some extent preparing the unit’s troops for deployment. The job is more critical considering few of the 54th’s junior Soldiers have served abroad. Thereby, the usual preparations concerning training, equipment and administrative processing have been balanced with prepping troops to handle the mental aspects of the mission.
“It’s making sure they know what to expect (in the theater of operations) and how the time spent away from family and friends will affect them,” said Sargent, a married father of a 7-year-old.
Bartley said he has spent considerable time on teambuilding, not only to support mission accomplishment but to help Soldiers cope with the difficulties they might experience in the conduct of their duties.
“Since I got here, my focus has been learning these Soldiers,” he said. “I want to know about them, what their work ethic is, and try to make them into a family. I want to make sure everyone comes back safe.”
Bartley also said he has stressed physical and mental well-being to his troops.
“Self-care is the No. 1 thing they need to have under their belts,” he said, referring to those activities providing satisfactory relief from their duties.
“If not them, then they need to know someone who can help them. This is not an easy job. It will cause great amounts of stress on the body and you need an outlet.”
Cordova knows all too well how mental health factors into job performance. While assigned to JPED, he endured bouts of distress as a result of processing remains from the U.S. pullout in Afghanistan last year.
“The biggest thing I stress is taking care of your mind,” he said, “because your mind is everything. ... If you don’t, it can lead to lots of negative things.”
Cordova said he reached out to fellow Soldiers and professionals and received the help he needed.
Trust and confidence in fellow Soldiers, morale outlets and other factors play critical roles in how well Soldiers perform their missions, said Sargent.
“You have to find something you like doing to get your mind off of it,” he remarked. “If not, the work can take you over.”
Aside from ensuring Soldiers are able to effectively function, Bartley said he hopes they learn more about how the Army moves and operates in real-world field environments.
“I want them to know the way things operate in different countries where they don’t have our rules,” he said. “I also want them to get the experience and training that will help them to move to the next level.”
Sargent agreed the deployment will become an important resource in Soldiers’ upward mobility.
“One of the biggest struggles for us is without deployments, we can’t do our job to its fullest extent,” he said. “I want Soldiers to learn as much as they possibly can and set themselves up for success in the future.”
The 54th QM Co. will support U.S. and joint operations throughout Southwest Asia, where roughly 50,000 U.S. troops are assigned. One of two active duty mortuary affairs units, the 54th QM Co. is co-located at the Sustainment Center of Excellence with its sister unit, the 111th QM Co. Both are subordinates of the 10th Transportation Battalion, 7th Trans. Brigade (Expeditionary), headquartered at Joint Base Langley-Eustis.