Army mortuary affairs is a solemn duty to honor the fallen
Standing in front of a projector that displays the remains of a deceased man, an Army Reserve instructor is not explaining to his 11 students the gruesomeness of what happened to the man, but the proper way to effectively serve in a unique and honorable job as a mortuary affairs specialist.
"Being in mortuary affairs isn't easy because I know everybody can't deal with remains," said Staff Sgt. Luis Garcia, the lead instructor for the Mortuary Affairs Specialist Course held at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, May 12-28, 2018.
"The thing about our job is take those heroes and do all the preparation and help with the valuable effects," said Garcia, who is assigned to the 5th Multifunctional Battalion, 94th Training Division - Force Sustainment, 80th Training Command (Total Army School System).
The mortuary affairs course falls under the command and control of the 94th Training Division, and the 94th Training Division supports the 80th Training Command's mission of more than 2,700 instructors providing essential training to Army Reserve, National Guard and Active Duty Soldiers.
"When you are dealing with the remains, you are thinking of the families and focused on treating the fallen hero with the utmost respect and dignity," said Garcia. "It's an honor to be here and to instruct because this job is like no other."
Garcia's students will graduate and move on to serve as combat-ready leaders in their units, but a few received first-hand experience shortly after switching to this military occupational specialty in 2017, and helped when Hurricane Maria hit land.
"One day I'm learning at the morgue. Then I graduate from the mortuary affairs reclass course, and one day later I'm at the morgue again. This time I'm helping them because of the hurricane," said Sgt. Pedro Cruz, assigned to the 311th Quartermaster Company. "We were working over there every day. I'm doing things I won't do on deployment because as I hear, 'you don't work with remains every day on deployments.'"
Sgt. Adrian Roman-Perez, also assigned 311th Quartermaster Company, was another student who stepped out of the classroom and put what he learned to use shortly after the class ended.
"I worked alongside our instructor because we had to provide support to the morgue," Roman-Perez said. "It wasn't that the hurricane happened; it was about the aftermath after it happened."
"In the Army, we train as we fight but you can't do that in this job," said Roman. "Most of the time, you are dealing with a mannequin and never have the opportunity to experience remains or have your body have that kind of stress."
"For me it was kind of useful and it will be useful on my deployment because it helped prepare me for what is coming up," Roman-Perez said. "That type of stressful situation helped me and taught me how to cope with it."
According to Staff Sgt. Izander Estrada, a soldier assigned to 5th Battalion and helping Garcia with the mortuary affairs course, said that Hurricane Maria left a lasting impression not only on the students, but the instructors and staff at the organization.
"There were no trees, and it was so quiet," he said. "You didn't hear cars or birds or anything. It was completely quiet. It was a surreal experience."
"It was a lot of stuff that if you're not here, living there it's impossible to understand or to explain," he added. "Seeing people not having water and electricity, you start think about how important things are and that you take them for granted. Like when the air conditioning is always on, that's electricity that you're using."
Despite dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Estrada was one of several individuals tasked with ensuring the future courses at the schoolhouse could still happen.
"This area had buildings actually demolished because of Maria," he said. "This was September and we had to demonstrate that we could conduct the next class in February."
The staff at the 5th Battalion worked with the 94th Training Division, the 80th Training Command and Fort Buchanan to secure a building, equipment, power and so on to ensure the next course could take place.
Eight months later classes are still steadily scheduled through the rest of the year, and staff and students are working hard to show why mortuary affairs is a crucial piece of the Army Reserve.
"One of the things I'm grateful for in the class is that I've been able to know the instructors and know how they work aside from them instructing," said Roman. "I can ensure you, they are people that know their job. They know what they are doing, and they know their material and are experienced instructors."
Both Cruz and Roman-Perez agreed that this job specialty is one that many may not consider, but is worth doing and instructing, if given the opportunity.
"I've thought about being an instructor. It is not an easy task but it's a rewarding one you've got the ability to mold soldiers and help them, tell them the proper way of doing stuff, prevent them from slacking and taking up bad habits," said Roman Perez.
"Mortuary affairs is not for everyone. I will say if new soldiers decide to join mortuary affairs, they will not regret it, ever," said Cruz. "Maybe they'll stay there forever because I don't know if it's just me, but I really love this MOS. It makes me feel like I'm really doing something for my nation."
This article originally appeared on the United States Army. Follow @usarmy on Twitter.