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In L.A., Marines get a feel for death

The body was found behind a soccer field in a sunken, weed-choked stream bed. It lay next to a dome tent and a pile of blankets.

Matthew Barlow snapped on a pair of latex gloves and hopped out of the coroner’s van. A flashlight led him through the inky darkness. Barlow hoped he could stand the smell.

Lance Cpl. Barlow, 23, was one of 14 Marines embedded for three weeks last month at the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner. They were on their way to Iraq, where their job would be to collect the dead and start them on their journey back to their families.

But first, the coroner’s office was going to force them to confront death -- its sights, its smells -- day after day.

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When Barlow started training for the specialty job last summer, he hadn’t had any personal experience with death -- no one close to him, not even a pet, had died. In the beginning at the coroner’s office, he would hang back during autopsies. He was tentative when he had to pull on dead people’s arms to help break rigor mortis, the stiffness that develops after death.

“I was wondering if I could handle it,” he said. “People think you’ll go crazy doing it. I think, ‘When am I going to go crazy?’ ”

After tramping about a hundred feet through the weeds, Barlow reached the tent, and the acrid fumes of human waste assaulted him. The smell was bearable.

A man’s body was bundled in a white sheet. Barlow’s task was to tie a rope around it to make the body easier to carry. It took four of them to move the body to the van. A few minutes later, the van backed into the driveway at the coroner’s office. Two other Marines weighed and measured the body. Barlow jotted the height and weight on a green form.

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“That was cake compared to some of the other ones we have to deal with,” Barlow said, looking a little relieved. “He was already wrapped up and you couldn’t see anything.”

Barlow was studying criminal justice at Chattahooche Technical College in Marietta, Ga., and thinking about becoming a cop when an instructor told him that joining the Marine Corps would jump-start that career.

About a year and a half ago, he joined a Marine Reserve unit, which allowed him to continue his studies and his customer service job at a Lowe’s. In the Marines, he started out in motor transport, learning to drive seven-ton trucks and Humvees. When he heard about the personnel retrieval and processing specialty, he switched.

“Motor transport was easy,” Barlow said. “I wanted to do something with more depth.”

Barlow attended training for a few weeks at the Army’s Joint Mortuary Affairs Center in Virginia. It was tough.

At his first autopsy, he turned white as the pathologist made the first cut into a young man who had died of a drug overdose. A friend back home had died days before under similar circumstances. Barlow wondered if his friend looked like this on the gurney, if another doctor had sliced into him this way. “I tried not to look at the face,” he said.

His class spent a week at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where casualties from Iraq land before they are returned to their families. They handled dead people for the first time, learning how to strip them and wash them with soapy water.

Barlow can still visualize some of the battered bodies. “Some of it’s like hamburger meat,” he said quietly.

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Mortuary Affairs school only partially prepared him for his experience at the L.A. County morgue, Barlow said. The bodies he worked on at Dover had been somewhat tidied up, but in Los Angeles he was arriving on the scene within hours of the death. He was stunned by the messiness.

Fred A. Corral, a lieutenant in the coroner’s investigations division and a former Marine, imagined such shock therapy when he came up with the idea of embedding the Marines.

“We want to give them some presence of mind for what they’re dealing with out there,” he said. “They’ll be needed in death in its worst forms.”

Corral, 55, who served in the Vietnam War, said he wished he had gone through a program like this before shipping out.

“The shock value would not have been as great,” he said. “Seeing dead soldiers, you don’t forget things like that.”

Corral believed that some of the things the Marines would see in Los Angeles would be directly applicable in Iraq. Bodies burned in plane crashes, thrown around in motor vehicle accidents and riddled with gunshots were going to look the same.

The bulk of the work for Marines in the specialty unit is similar to that of the forensic attendants in Los Angeles: transporting the remains, taking basic measurements, snapping photographs to document the injuries and cataloging clothing.

But the scale of the trauma in Iraq probably will be greater, Corral said. For one thing, the Marines probably will see more dismembered bodies because insurgents fire rocket-propelled grenades or high-powered rifles as opposed to handguns.

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Corral’s idea reached the Personnel Retrieval and Processing Company, which has about 200 members in Marine Reserve detachments based in Washington, D.C., and Smyrna, Ga. The first group came to Los Angeles for four days last summer. Barlow’s class is the second group.

Although other detachments have spent short stints at coroner’s offices in several states, Barlow’s group went through the longest, most intense training, Marine officials said.

Barlow’s first test came a few days after his arrival at the beginning of February. He had to pick up the body of a man who apparently had shot himself.

When Barlow got to the house, police officers warned him that the scene was macabre. He steeled himself. I hope I can do this, he thought. His heart was racing when he walked over to the body. He was stunned by the damage.

“The head was mutilated, gone,” Barlow recalled.

He examined the wound and thought about the high-powered rifles that Iraqi insurgents would be using. This was definitely from a rifle, he thought. He told himself just to plunge in. You’re just looking at a human body, not a person you know, he thought. These are just remains. He reminded himself of what other, more experienced Marines had told him: This is just a job.

Barlow started picking up pieces of bone and brain. He realized he was OK.

With each body, the fear settled down, Barlow said.

“It’s just exposure,” he said. “Once you do it a couple of times, it just desensitizes you.”

He was relieved to feel numb. It would keep him from breaking down in the middle of an assignment in Iraq.

One day, near the end of their training, Barlow and four other Marines stayed by the coroner’s intake room, waiting for calls. The others gathered down the hall around a metal gurney in Room 24. As forensic pathologist Pedro Ortiz-Colom sliced into the yielding flesh of the body before them, Cpl. Derrek Williams looked up at the ceiling for a second and took a deep breath.

Moments later, Williams was leaning in, nodding in recognition as the doctor pointed out the intestines. The corporal enthusiastically inspected the organs that Ortiz-Colom handed to him, pointing out features to Marines next to him.

The group’s commanding officer, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Chris Nepper, 45, was watching. He said his guys won’t be doing autopsies in Iraq, but he wanted them to see a dissection.

“They may have to deal with picking up pieces of a human being that don’t look like a human being,” Nepper said. “They have to prepare for that.”

By the time these Marines get into theater, they have to be self-starters. They have just 24 hours to collect remains, pack them in ice and send them off to Kuwait. From there, the Air Force takes the remains to Dover.

Williams, 26, has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He works as a security guard when not on active duty and said he chose the specialty mostly because the unit was close to his house. He might have frozen the first time he saw a doctor extract a brain during an autopsy, but now he was over the shock.

Williams said he was thinking about joining a coroner’s office after his deployment. “It seems like a simple job to me,” he said.

Nepper said Williams was one of the best at handling the emotional strain. The chief warrant officer said that if any of the Marines have difficulty with the job, that won’t show up until Iraq.

“When it’s a Marine, when they’re wearing the same uniform as you, you think, ‘It could be me,’ ” Nepper said.

Two days later, Barlow arrived at the coroner’s office clutching a Mojave Rattler energy drink. He and four other Marines were ready to start their night shift. Barlow started playing Scrabble on a cellphone with Lance Cpl. Ruslan Duggins.

Williams went in and out of the room on smoke breaks, soaking in the late afternoon sunshine while he nursed a wine-flavored cigar.

It was more than an hour before the first van pulled up with a body.

Williams was the first out the door. He rolled the body into the intake room and positioned it on the floor scale.

Williams shouted out the man’s eye color to the forensic attendant, who was filling out the paperwork. He helped put the man’s hand on a scanner for fingerprints.

As other bodies rolled in, Barlow looked up from his game. But he didn’t rush to help. He didn’t volunteer when a call came to pick up a natural death at a hospital.

Barlow said he was giving the others a chance to participate because he had worked a number of other calls earlier in the week.

He had processed 14 bodies by this point, including those of three people who died in car accidents and two who died of gunshot wounds.

“Some people like jumping up,” he said. “Usually they only need one person to help. If they need my help, they’ll tell me.”

The call for the body behind the soccer field came about 5 1/2 hours into the shift. Sgt. Robert Lee, the most senior Marine on duty, shouted down the hallway for Barlow.

On the ride over, Barlow wondered who found the body and what the expression on that person’s face was. He shook off the thought as he jumped down into the stream bed and collected the dead man. He hoped the children who were playing soccer at the park would not see what he was doing.

After he had packed the body into the van, Barlow rubbed Purell all over his hands. He planned to take a shower as soon as he returned to his hotel room.

At 10 p.m., after eight bodies in seven hours, the Marines walked out of the brightly lighted coroner’s office into the darkness. They horsed around and checked their cellphones.

Their biggest problem was trying to decide which bar to go to that night.

--

jia-rui.chong@latimes.com


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