As the DOD begins analyzing the many challenges associated with the shift in focus from counterinsurgency (COIN) operations to large-scale combat operations (LSCO), an often-understated area of sustainment, mortuary affairs (MA), must be addressed. A projected increase in fatalities during LSCO emphasizes the need for a more comprehensive understanding of the MA program and a faster, more efficient response in managing fatalities. Based on the current structure of the MA program, processing limitations and redundancies, equipment capacity constraints, and wavering public opinion could collectively undermine its effectiveness in a near-peer contested environment.
The Army MA program, recognized as the most established MA program of all the services, consists of seven units. The 54th Quartermaster (QM) Company (Co.) is the only MA unit within the active-duty component, and it is located at Fort Gregg-Adams, Virginia. Its sister MA company, the 111th QM Co., recently deactivated and reassigned its personnel to the 54th QM Co. The remaining six MA units are within the Army Reserve component, located in Costa Mesa, California (387th QM Co.); Dover, Delaware (673rd QM Co.); Honolulu, Hawaii (962nd QM Co.); Staten Island, New York (1019th QM Co.); Aguadilla, Puerto Rico (311th QM Co.); and Mayaguez, Puerto Rico (246th QM Co.). Notably, the 962nd QM Co. also has personnel dispersed to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; Barrigada, Guam; and Pago, Pago, American Samoa.
During peacetime, MA units support missions both within and outside the continental U.S. Missions include responding to mass fatality incidents, conducting training exercises, and gaining invaluable experience serving with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the Dover Port Mortuary, or the Joint Personal Effects Depot at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
During periods of conflict, the primary mission of MA units is to establish and operate facilities in the designated theater of operations to ensure the efficient reception, processing, and evacuation of human remains and personal effects. The three types of MA facilities are mortuary affairs collection points (MACPs), the theater mortuary evacuation point (TMEP), and the theater personal effects depot (TPED), all of which are managed concurrently by MA personnel to support a three-division corps. A minimum of six MA personnel is required for each MACP, while the TMEP and TPED require five collection teams or 28 to 30 MA personnel. In LSCO, the allocation of MA facilities consists of a forward MACP per brigade support area (BSA), a main MACP at each division support area (DSA), and a TMEP and TPED at the joint security area. The expected processing throughput is 20 human remains per MACP and 250 human remains at the TMEP within a 24-hour timeframe.
Currently, estimated fatality rates per day in LSCO exceed throughput and are similar to those observed during World War II, at a baseline of 2.6 percent. This translates to roughly 120 fatalities within each brigade per day. Given the significant incongruities between the processing throughput at MACPs and the anticipated fatality rate, MA personnel will be immediately overwhelmed in LSCO.
The standard solution to alleviate MA facilities in LSCO is integrating MA personnel from sister services into forward MACPs. However, their ability to augment forward MACPs is limited. According to Army Techniques Publication 4-46, Multi-Service Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Mortuary Affairs in Theaters of Operations, Air Force MA personnel can only provide general support at main MACPs, and Navy MA personnel only specialize in operating mortuaries. Fortunately, Marine Corps MA personnel can operate MACPs, but their unit is within the Reserve component, requiring timely mobilization to be effective. If hastily integrated, it could result in inconsistent handling of human remains as no authoritative doctrine mandating standardization across services exists. Sister service MA personnel must undergo comprehensive standardization training with the Army MA personnel to ensure effective integration in LSCO.
A potential solution to alleviate MA facilities in LSCO is to relocate the multiple forward MACPs from each BSA and consolidate them at the DSA. The current flow for evacuating human remains begins once the losing unit recovers them from the battlefield and transports them to the nearest forward MACP for processing. After processing is complete at the forward MACP, the human remains are sent to the main MACP at the DSA for further processing. Next, the TMEP receives the human remains for quality control review and final evacuation out of theater. Human remains may be stored in and out of refrigeration throughout this process and experience repeated processing. Relocating and consolidating the forward MACPs at the DSA can eliminate redundancy at each echelon. It could also improve the efficiency of processing during highly kinetic operations with all MA personnel working together at the DSA toward a shared objective. On the other hand, having multiple forward MACPs in LSCO could become unmanageable for a team of six as each MACP receives varying numbers of human remains depending on their assigned support forward.
Relocating the forward MACPs to the DSA would facilitate more direct personnel management to ensure workloads are not unevenly distributed. Already familiar with each MA Soldier’s needs, relocation to the DSA would give MA platoon leadership command and control of their forces while serving on the division support brigade support operations staff. The forward MACP’s relocation to the DSA would also give the brigade support battalion MA staff at the BSA the bandwidth to focus more on streamlining immediate recovery operations amongst their unit recovery teams and coordinating the timely evacuation of human remains to the DSA for processing.
Although the relocation of forward MACPs may increase demands on the DSA, it would not negatively affect the current evacuation flow, quality control and assurance protocols at the TMEP, delay notifying the next of kin, or impose additional obligations on maneuver units.
Alongside the need for a more efficient approach to reducing those redundancies in processing an influx of human remains, there is a need for equipment that can effectively preserve them in LSCO. Each collection team or MACP is augmented with a Mobile Integrated Remains Collection System (MIRCS) to support the receipt, processing, and preservation of human remains at the MACP. Fielded to MA units during COIN operations, the MIRCS is an expandable container that can accommodate both an administrative and processing team and provides refrigerated storage for up to 15 processed human remains. Each MIRCS includes four temporary holding shelters that can each accommodate six human remains, but lack refrigeration capability. Only able to store or preserve a combined total of 39 human remains, neither the storage capacity of the MIRCS nor its temporary holding shelters will be effective for preservation in LSCO.
A commonly proposed solution to preserve an influx of human remains is to contract refrigerated storage containers. Though a single 53-foot refrigerated truck or container can preserve up to 100 human remains, fatality management in LSCO may require a full complement. The resource requirement of multiple refrigerated trucks or containers may not be reasonable to attach to a forward MACP when considering displacement and other crucial areas of sustainment that may also require additional refrigeration assets (food and medical supplies). However, if forward MACPs were relocated to the DSA as recommended, the need to displace rapidly may not occur as often, and refrigerated trucks could act as reinforcing support to the MIRCS.
If contracting additional refrigerated equipment to supplement the MIRCS is not feasible, temporary interment or burial must be considered in LSCO. Though only the respective geographical combatant commander can authorize temporary interment, leaders should still anticipate this requirement during LSCO and plan for multiple temporary interment sites through their joint MA officer. Temporary interment is an often disregarded but practical solution during high-intensity conflicts when resources used for human remains evacuation are unavailable or prioritized to support the living.
Despite the challenges a new operational environment poses to MA personnel and equipment, it is imperative to maintain a positive public perception throughout. While delays in repatriation or temporary interment may be unsettling to the public, fatality management is a complex and sensitive process that requires understanding and acceptance. Leaders can effectively preserve the public’s understanding and acceptance by minimizing the impact of mass fatality incidents on the fallen and their families.
Commanders can indirectly impact public opinion by promptly designating unit recovery teams and conducting semi-annual training facilitated by MA personnel. Unit recovery teams are responsible for evacuating the fallen to the nearest MACP, fulfilling a vital role on behalf of commanders and grieving families. Training unit recovery teams to conduct immediate recovery procedures in a standardized and compassionate manner demonstrates an unwavering commitment to professionalism beyond mere fulfillment of duties. The diligent efforts of trained unit recovery teams ultimately allow for the eventual return of the fallen to their families, providing solace, closure, and due reverence for the ultimate sacrifice made by the service member.
Commanders must also ensure MA personnel are mentally trained and resilient to fulfill their duties to the fallen and their families. Considering the heightened psychological, physical, and emotional challenges associated with their profession, MA personnel must have consistent access to behavioral health, chaplain support, and sufficient time off for rest and meals. Prioritizing their well-being in a high operational tempo may require additional MA personnel, but it is crucial as the performance and well-being of MA personnel directly influence the public’s trust in their ability to handle catastrophic losses. Recognizing and valuing the efforts of MA personnel in this manner also extend to their families and communities, ultimately helping to foster positive public opinion.
Considering the persistent threat of near-peer conflict, it is imperative to promptly address the potential challenges that could confront the MA program in LSCO. These challenges include managing high fatality rates, inadequate equipment, and, ultimately, public perception. By implementing solutions at all levels to improve personnel management and productivity, procurement of adequate storage equipment, and public support and confidence, the MA program will remain steadfast in its commitment to honor the fallen with utmost reverence, dignity, and respect, even in contested environments.
Editor Note: This article was a selection from the Army Sustainment University President's Writing Competition.
Capt. Brianna E. Griffin is a student in the Logistics Captains Career Course, Army Sustainment University, Fort Gregg-Adams, Virginia. She holds a Bachelor of Science in forensic chemistry from Virginia State University and is pursuing a Master of Science in acquisitions and contract management through the University of Maryland. Her military education includes the Ordnance Basic Officer Leaders Course, Mortuary Affairs Course, Operational Contract Support Course, Common Faculty Development-Instructor Course, and the Equal Opportunity Leaders Course.
This article was published in the Winter 2024 issue of Army Sustainment.