Iraq Diary: Silent, Sweltering Pride

Extract from journal of Mal James: cameraman with Ollie North 
Probably the most moving thing for me so far on this trip was a couple of days ago when we were at the Airbase “TQ” (it has a long Arabic name, but is just referred to as "TQ"). At the end of a long day, we took time to go and visit the mortuary. This is something that you do not often associate with a battlefield.

There is an old Mig Jet hanger, one of those round hanger types you see in so many movies, where the Iraqi Air Force would have parked its fighter planes in days of old. Now it serves as a morgue for the field of operations here.

Entering the mortuary you are struck by how cold it is — how austere, silent, and solemn. You could hear a pin drop. The Marines here are the ones whom seldom seek glory, make the front pages of newspapers, or grace the TV screens with guns blazing. They are here to do the hardest task in the entire Corps: that of identifying and preparing the bodies of fallen comrades for a final journey home.

When the fallen return home, there is no jubilant reunion scenes, just tears for the sons and daughters that have paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country. The Marines who do this job had such dignity and compassion for their fallen brothers and sisters that it seemed to burn in me a great sense of pride.

When someone is killed in action, they are the ones who go out and pick up all the body parts so that the killed soldiers' buddies do not have to relive the horror of collecting the remains of their friends. You cannot ask a soldier to pick up the severed head or limb of someone whom they loved with a bond we cannot understand. These guys have many times gone out whilst the fighting is still going on, and collected remains under enemy fire.

The thing that amazes me is that everyone we talk to - any Marine - is willing to lay down their life if it saves their buddies. It is something we cannot understand, but they will do it without question.

As you walk into the mortuary, the image that strikes you is the flag-covered transport coffin. This is the metal box that the fallen are put in to be taken home. It is the image we see on television too often — an honor guard with dignity and respect walking down the rear ramp of a transport plane — but here it sits alone.

The flag is wrapped around the coffin the way we would wrap a Christmas present, with perfectly folded corners. To me, it seemed to shine a different color, the stars glistened and the stripes had a boldness that I had never seen before.

This coffin did not hold a body, but it sat on two trestles in a place of honor waiting for the next fallen son or daughter. For many, its next inhabitant will be just another statistic. A paragraph in a newspaper will record another military death in Iraq, and a mother will receive the knock on her door that she has dreaded.

I reached out in the semi darkness, touched the flag, turned, and walked out into the heat of the afternoon and cried.