Mortuary Affairs in the U.S. Military

Soldiers carrying a flag-draped casket
••• USAF

Most, when they think about mortuary affairs, think of it in relation to service members lost in war. The images that come to mind are those of caskets being brought off aircraft to the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs at Dover Air Force Base, where the remains of those that are killed in action are processed and returned home. But Mortuary Affairs does more than simply transport our KIA back home.

Mortuary Affairs is for the search, recovery, identification, preparation, and disposition of human remains of persons for whom the Services are responsible by status and executive order (DoD civilians, contractors, and foreign nationals when applicable). The role of the Mortuary Affairs service is legally defined in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, in 10 U.S. Code Chapter 75 – Deceased Personnel under Subchapter 1 – Death Investigations

A Brief (And Incomplete) History

  • The American Civil War: Prior to the American Civil War, American soldiers were buried near where they fell, with no effort made to return and little effort made to identify the dead – the Civil War marked the first time the United States made a concerted effort to identify dead soldiers (General Order No. 33 specified that field commanders were responsible for identification and burial efforts). 
  • The Spanish-American War: During the Spanish-American War, the United States initiated a policy of returning soldiers killed on foreign soil back to next-of-kin in the United States, becoming the first country in the world to do so. The Graves Registration service was established shortly after the US entered World War I, and was disbanded afterward, only to be reactivated at the beginning of World War II. After the end of WWII, Graves Registration was effectively disbanded until – again – another war.
  • The Korean War: The Korean War was a challenge for Graves Registration, with the rugged terrain and difficult lines of communication. At the end of 1950, the “concurrent return” policy was put into effect: rather than burying our fallen in temporary cemeteries for return at a future date after the conclusion of the war, soldiers killed in action were immediately returned to the United States. This policy is still in effect.
  • The 1980s: Jumping forward a few decades or so, in the late 1980s, the Central Joint Mortuary Affairs Office (CJMAO) was established. The mission was to provide guidance to the unified commanders on mortuary operations and mass fatality events during peacetime and wartime.
  • The 1990s: Jumping another decade to the 1990s, new mortuary doctrine was developed for all the services by the Mortuary Affairs Center, Fort Lee, VA, under the guidance of the Quartermaster General, based on lessons learned from Operation Desert Shield/Storm. In 1997, the Disaster Mortuary Affairs Response Team (DMART) was developed, which combined Mortuary Affairs with forensic personnel to support the combatant commander.
  • The 2000s: Then at the end of the millennium, DOD Directive 1300.22, identified the Department of the Army as the Executive Agent for Mortuary Affairs within the Department of Defense, as well as establishing the DoD Casualty Advisory Board (CAB) and a central DoD repository for casualty information (among other items).
  • Mid-2000s: In 2008, Army G-4 directed the Army Quartermaster School at Fort Lee, VA, to create a provisional Joint Mortuary Affairs Center (JMAC) to execute the Army's Executive Agent mission. After the Department of the Army approved the JMAC Concept Plan, JMAC was established at Fort Lee under the Quartermaster School, with Army G4 maintaining oversight of the EA mission. End of the history lesson – and don’t worry, there’s no test following. 
  • Today: JMAC provides world-class Mortuary Affairs training for officer, enlisted, and civilian personnel from all five branches of the armed services, and develops Joint and Army Mortuary Affairs doctrine. Each Service Branch remains responsible for Mortuary Affairs support, to include tentative ID and disposition of human remains and personal effects (PE), for its own personnel unless otherwise directed by the GCC or mutual support agreements between the Services. In all cases, the direct initial contact with family members of deceased personnel is performed by the parent Service.

Recovering From the Battlefield

Recovering our fallen from the battlefield can sometimes be difficult. There are four basic kinds of recovery: combat, post-combat, area (or theater), and historical recovery. Sometimes it’s necessary to sift through ashes and vehicle remains for days to find personal identification, such as dog tags or nametapes, or to search fields of battle for unburied dead, hasty, isolated, or unmarked graves. But Mortuary Affairs also cares for our soldiers fallen in less hostile circumstances, both overseas and in the US, such as accidental deaths, or deaths from disease.

Army and Marine Corps

Currently, the Army and the Marine Corps have the only dedicated Mortuary Affairs units (though prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom the Marine Corps did not have a dedicated mortuary affairs unit) and dedicated enlisted jobs (Army 92M - Mortuary Affairs Specialist & USMC MOS 0472 -- Personnel Retrieval and Processing Technician). 

Air Force and Coast Guard

Air Force Mortuary Affairs' capability is resident in the force support squadron. For the Coast Guard, during peacetime they provide or arrange Mortuary Affairs support for Coast Guard deceased personnel worldwide through other services or civilian providers, and overseas during joint operations, they rely upon the Geographic Combatant Commander (GCC) for support.

Navy

For the Navy, at sea fatalities are handled by the ship’s medical department - on shore, fatalities are handled by the installation medical treatment facility staff. The Navy Mortuary Branch operates from within the Navy Casualty Assistance Division, and Navy Mortuary staff coordinates the Navy's Burial-At-Sea program. Navy Morticians (both military [Navy NEC HM-8496 Mortician] and civilian) are assigned to Navy Casualty with duty locations at BUPERS in Millington, TN, Dover Port Mortuary at Dover AFB, DE and USMC Casualty Branch at Quantico, VA. The Navy is the only service that has enlisted morticians (and at that, only a dozen or so). The other services employ civilian morticians.