I served in the US Army for seven years as a Medical Corpsman in the 1980s. Mostly my Army career was mundane almost to the point of banal. After all, the US didn’t go to war much during that era, except for a couple of minor skirmishes in Granada and Panama, so I have no war stories to relate from personal experience, nor did much happen during my two tours that was worth even recalling some 25 years later.
Looking back, the best I can say about my Army career was that I was just a soldier—no better, no worse—than any other. I did my job and got out after many years of faithful service in uniform. I never talk much about what I did, not because I am embarrassed for not doing much, or for not being a superhero like Rambo, but because, to overcome some of my worst nightmares, mostly I’d like to forget what I witnessed.
While it is true we were not at war during my tenure, because of my unique job in the Army I did bear witness to some appalling tragedies that are probably worth recalling, although I do it with great trepidation because the memories still cause great anxiety within me. For many years after my service I let these memories fade to the darkest recesses of my mind so I could get on with my life. Now, some 20 years later, I feel the need to write about them, if only to honor the brave men who died tragically in service of our country.
In 1987 I was stationed in Landstuhl, Germany and worked as an assistant to the Chief of Forensic Pathology for the 10th Medical Laboratory. In late May of that year, my department was ordered to immediately go to Frankfurt to work on identifying and piecing together the casualties from the USS Stark, a Navy frigate that had been attacked by an Iraqi fighter jet on May 17, 1987 in the Persian Gulf.
Two Exocet missiles had been fired at the ship, one of which struck it directly at the part where many of the ship’s sailors were sleeping in their racks. We were told the damage was catastrophic and that anywhere from 30-50 sailors had been killed in the attack. We were forewarned that the dead bodies we would be receiving were either charred from the heat of the missiles hitting or were in pieces because of the blast; worse was that all the dead had become bloated and gaseous from being immersed in water that flooded the decks where they were recovered. The ship was located in the Persian Gulf, where the heat during the day rose to well over 100 degrees, so this only made the situation much worse for the recovery effort.
It is very difficult to articulate the horror of those five days working in a cramped morgue with all those dead sailors. Imagine the stress and strain of working with so many charred, smelly, bloated, and damaged human remains; not only that, but these were American servicemen, good sailors—our compatriots and brother warriors. Guys who could have been my friends. In Forensic Pathology we worked around dead people a lot, but this was different— this hit home too close for all of us at that morgue in Frankfurt, Germany. These were war casualties in another disaterous1980s foreign policy fiasco by the Reagan government. Worse, however, was that they didn’t die in some glorious battle or defending a great democratic ideal—they died pointlessly in a shitty and regrettable attack that was unprovoked and made absolutely no sense. Yet these men were great heroes for our country.
I will discuss what still haunts me and how it shaped my thinking today. No other event in my life affected me as deeply and profoundly as those five days in that Frankfurt morgue. To this day I am not sure if, deep within me, I can ever move beyond this horrible tragedy or forget the terrible images and memories that still remain so vivid in my mind.
I write this memoir only to honor the brave sailors who gave their lives in that horrible tragedy. My part in all this is insignificant other than I was a faithful witness for those 37 men who passed through that Frankfurt morgue in May 1987.
And here’s what still haunts me:
Some genius colonel or general decided, while we worked in that morgue, to let us watch the Navy’s memorial service for the Stark that was showing on AFN. Here we were, putting these poor bastards back together, trying to figure out what arm belonged to what trunk, and so forth, and there, right before our eyes, were their grieving families. I am standing in two feet of blood and guts, fried body fat, and all the fingers, feet, eyeballs, and decapitated corpses I wish never to see again, and all of a sudden I see on the screen the family of the boy whose decapitated head I am, right at that moment, holding in my hands. I think now, upon recollection, their names flashed on the screen or were mentioned by the commentator. Whatever the case, this was their son. I recall that.
My nightmare: We have just identified him by his dental records, and when I see his mother and father on the television, I look at his dead eyes, he’s looking at me, and I tell him, “Your Mom and Dad are crying and they’re very proud.” I’d seen hundreds of dead bodies in my work at the 10th Med Lab, but this poor sailor was the first I connected to something real and tangible. He was more than just another stiff I had to cut open. And I will never forget him.
I will not lie—everyone in that morgue was bawling. I assure you we will never forget that moment, our moment in military history, and how ugly and cruel an experience it was. Our job that day would have been much easier had we not gotten to know that much about these boys, that we learned they had families and loved ones back home, that they were real people and not just corpses we were working on. It would have been easier not knowing.
This surreal and bizarre moment affected even the strongest and most callous among us. Even my boss, Major Joe Dyer, a forensic pathologist who had made his life’s work working with dead people, was moved to emotions he normally kept in check.
Because these Stark casualties became real human beings to us and not just anonymous “stiffs” on morgue slabs, we were forever changed by this moment.
I will never forget that kid, and I think at that moment I felt I had finally, after six years of service, proven my worthiness as a soldier, humble though my part was in the big picture of defending America and its interests. Like the oil this boy was protecting while serving in the Gulf. This dead kid was probably asleep in his rack, dreaming of getting laid or going home on leave, when the missiles struck. Now his head is in my hands, and there’s his Mom and Dad, who will never get to see him alive, or like this, with no body, just a head, and an expression that still haunts me. I used to say after this incident that these sailors’ families, along with getting their sons’ medals and insurance payments, should have gotten stock options in ARAMCO. Maybe we weren’t technically at war, but this kid was a war hero and a war casualty. I was a casualty, but certainly not a hero, just a college dropout, a screw-up who joined the Army for a job, and who was just doing his Army job. It was time to earn the college benefits, free food and lodging, and all the free dental work the Army provided me.
Maybe for some of my fellow citizens the defense of freedom is a concept not fully understood by their own personal sacrifice or deeds. I certainly don’t feel as if I ever sacrificed much for this lofty ideal. But this kid, whose detached head I was holding in my hands, gave everything he had for all of us. He didn’t storm some hill and take out a machine gun. Or dive on a grenade to protect his buddies. Or parachute into enemy territory and perform some heroic deed worthy of medals or national monuments. He was simply doing his job as a US serviceman and was a victim of a horrible attack that made no sense. And he yet was a hero to me. He will always be a hero to me.
You have no idea how difficult it is to talk about this, even after 20 years. I guess after spending three years doing a job like this—a job I didn’t ask to do, but I was chosen to do because my unit couldn’t find many people who could handle it—that I’d much rather keep the memories buried deep than talk about the experience. I feel that even speaking about this now violates a vow of silence I made to myself a long time ago about discussing a time in my life that was painful at best, creepy, horrifying, and freaky at worst. Remembering brings back the anxiety attacks and the depression, and I have found my life is much better without all that, so forgetting works best.
People will say that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are about defending freedom. I don’t know if that is true or not, but what I do know is that lots of young men and women have been giving their lives in these wars regardless of whether they are necessary or just.
After handling so many casualties back in the late 80s, I had become one myself, so I respectfully asked my superiors to transfer me out of Forensic Pathology. In order to heal I had to let go of the pain and anguish and nightmares. Some people are wired to handle this kind of work; I was not one of them, but I was a good soldier and did what I was ordered to do, and every dead sailor looking up at me during those five days at that Frankfurt morgue made me feel, for the first time in my Army career, like a real soldier. So how could I not do this important job? I had to do this job for them, for their families on that television screen, and for America. However, a year later I was so burned out and anxiety ridden that I could no longer perform this duty. So I walked away from it.
I recovered from that hellish week in Frankfurt by hiding in my apartment, bathing every hour or so to remove the horrible smell that was literally in every pore of my body, and drinking myself into oblivion during every waking moment. Yet the smell remains in my mind, 20 years later, the one aspect of war and death that television and movies can never express to the audience. A charred and rotting human corpse produces some of the worst smells in this universe, perhaps as a reminder to all of us that death should not be something we ever forget. I am sure the rescue workers, police, medical workers, and firefighters from Oklahoma City and 9/11 share that same memory with me, and it reminds them as it reminds me.
Just remember, America, that this head with no body, this poor kid from the USS Stark in 1987, died for you—would you have done the same for him? I don’t mean just beat your chest and boast about your patriotism, I mean put your ass on the front line for America like he did. I wonder.
I’ll be honest: after seeing him, and many other casualties, my survival instinct told me to run and hide as quickly as possible if I am ever faced with that decision. I am probably a coward, but if the chips were down I would do it for this dead sailor whose head was in my hands, I would do it for my family, I would do it for my friends, and I would do it for every American. I would do it for America.
To be honest, I wish some of my experiences had not been real. Lots of men and women who serve our country have been thrown out into the “shit” and performed beautifully. My job was to identify and clean up the ones who didn’t make it back so their parents could bury them with dignity. It’s just history now, and it is hard to believe when I think about it, but we were never at war during those years, yet guys and girls were still dying in droves in training accidents or “incidents” like the Stark or the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983. I guess I had an important job, and my job gave me a unique perspective about what it means to sacrifice for this country. I saw far too many of the people who made the ultimate sacrifice.
I am no expert on war, but I still lie awake some nights, frightened of the images that became so normal and banal to me during those years. They are hard to forget. In a way, I am the faithful witness for all those dead kids who are not around any longer to tell their war stories while serving in the “Peacetime Army.” Peace or no peace, it seemed to me that America was always at war during the Cold War—plenty of casualties passed through my shop in Germany, so I know too well.
I honestly believe my one purpose in my life is to honor that poor sailor from the USS Stark whose head I held in my hands in May 1987. I don’t even remember his name. But I remember his sacrifice. His sacrifice will never be forgotten by me. He is my hero.