Tales from an Iraq surgical hospital morgue
BY CPL. GRANT MONGE, USMC
Today I helped put another dead U.S. Marine serving in Iraq into the morgue. Part of my job entails taking off whatever gear or clothing they have on, which was rather easy in this case because he was missing everything from the waist down, along with his right arm. In one of his pockets was an unfinished postcard, covered in blood and tucked away ever so neatly into his flack jacket. All it said was, “Hey honey.”
It made me feel strange, angry, sad and helpless. If he could have known he was going to die, what would he have written? He assumed he would finish it after his patrol.
I felt compelled to share this vivid portrayal of what is really happening in Iraq from this soldier’s viewpoint. I’m serving a second tour, this time guarding a surgical hospital not far from the front lines.
We stripped him down and moved him from the bag he was in to the body bag. I had the head section. As I lifted him, his mouth flew open, and all I could smell was mint Listerine. I don’t think I’ll ever use that brand again. After putting what was left of his body into the body bag, we had to scoop up his entrails with our gloved hands and then put on his toe tag, which in this case went on his ring finger. Then we drove the short distance to the morgue.
There are signs here that read, “Stay off the grass.” At first it seems comical. Grass in the desert? And we’re to stay off? OK. Got it. Stay off the grass. But I had an epiphany this day when reading the sign on the way to the morgue. Here’s this grass. It’s there when we wake up. It’s there when we clock out. It’s there when we sleep. The only thing here that’s guaranteed to be there tomorrow is this green grass because we are ordered to stay off. It is said in parts of Africa the soil is stained red from the blood shed from all the people who have died in the wars there. If that’s true, why is this grass green here in Iraq? Oh yeah that’s right, we’re to stay off of the grass. OK. Got it. Stay off of the grass.
We arrived in front of the morgue, opened the door and turned on the lights. What bastards those lights are. Almost taunting — life and death only a switch away. Life only waiting until we decide to flip the switch, and here we are with a man who gave everything for his country, and there is no switch in the world that can turn this brave American on. He is permanently off.
So, in goes the body, normally feet first, but this brave American soldier is missing that half, so we unzip the bag so he can be identified. Then the door is closed and off go those infernal lights.
It’s time for a cigarette, which is more of a brief clemency for us before it’s on to the next patient. “How is your night?” some patients in the hospital ask. I reply with a lie, and I can tell they see it in my eyes, but I grimace a smile anyway to bolster their and my morale.
After a long night, I make the short walk to my room, making sure not to step one foot on the grass, before I attempt to fall asleep. There will be no sleep tonight. Another night of wandering around the hospital, trying to find something good to do to rectify the feelings of hate I have inside. All the patients are already asleep and all the medical supplies neatly restocked and ready for the next emergency. Off in the distance I hear another helicopter, and I get ready for another tragic round to what seems to be a literal and figurative endless war.
Another sleepless night in my conscious nightmare as I collect megabytes of horrific and undigested images of this living hell. I don’t know what I am more afraid of: staying here or coming home and trying to process all that I have seen, endured, ultimately trying to heal all the scar tissue I have accumulated.
Cpl. Grant Monge of Coos Bay serves with the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq. This letter appeared on the blog campusbug.com and is reprinted with permission of the author.