DANILOVGRAD, Montenegro --
After a battle, attack or accident takes place in a combat zone, the Marines of Personnel Retrieval and Processing Company, Anacostia, Va., and Detachment PRP, Smyrna, Ga. are called in to collect any dead, process them and get them off of the battlefield.
A half dozen PRP Marines are now in Montenegro for Medical Training Exercise in Central and Eastern Europe 2010, or MEDCEUR 10. The exercise requires over 360 airmen, soldiers and Marines from the U.S., as well as service members from nine central and eastern European nations, to respond to a series of simulated natural disasters by collecting and treating role-player casualties.
The Marines are specifically tasked with training their Montenegrin counter-parts in mortuary affairs operations ahead of the simulated disasters.
When the faux explosions and mudslides begin, the Marines and Montenegrins must run a joint PRP point that will collect and process some of the simulated casualties.
The Continental Marine sat down with Staff Sgt. Troy J. Heitzer, training chief PRP Co., to find out more about him and his Marines’ unique role in the Corps. Heitzer has worked as a PRP Marine for six years, deploying to Iraq three times.
What kind of training do you go through at your school in Fort Lee, Va.?
Heitzer: You learn about search and recovery: how to go out, provide your own security, how to conduct a thorough search and do your paper work. You also learn about the basic operation of a collection point. That’s what we call our area. There are three sections: receiving, processing and evacuation, and you learn how to run those sections.
CM: What attracted you to this job?
H: Mostly the pride and the importance behind it. I take a lot of pride in what I do. It’s something I understood and grasped very quickly. Right now we’re going over the classes we’re going to teach the other forces and even though I don’t have to teach one, I really want to. It’s a really unique mission. Everybody that’s a part of our unit wants to be there.
CM: Much of your job is meticulous, scientific. How do you factor in honor for the dead?
H: When we’re actually doing the processing a great deal of care is taken to preserve the dignity. Even if we’re dealing with the enemy we treat them the same way. We remain tactful.
One of the big things is how we move remains whether it be when we’re just carrying them or in a vehicle, everything has a purpose behind it. When we carry a transfer case we always carry them feet first. It’s a symbolism thing that they’re still walking with us. We have what we call a dignified transfer when we take the remains and put them on a plane. It’s a military movement type thing, not an actual ceremony. It’s something we practice for hours and hours and hours. It’s that important to get it perfect.
CM: Marines are trained to deal with combat and it’s stresses. How do you cope with the unique stresses of dealing with human remains?
H: One of the key things is before and during the actual processing the team leader, not only is it their job to make sure the paper work and the procedure is correct, they’re also constantly observing their Marines looking for signs of stress. If anyone says, “I don’t feel comfortable with this, I need break,” we tell them to go off and do something else for a while. We do regular classes about things like coping with death, coping with stress. I think the biggest thing is you try to disassociate what you’re dealing with, with anything else in your life. There was one kid I dealt with one time who reminded me of a girl I was dating, of her young son. It was tough at first, but it wasn’t something I dwelled on for a long time. At the time though, it was tough. We had a [Marine], she had been coming up to view MCMAP [Marine Corps Martial Arts Program] and we had to process her. She was a lance corporal and some of our junior guys had been practicing with this girl and me as a staff NCO, before we started I said, “you guys need to do something else for this period.” I focus on the fact that there’s a family somewhere waiting, we are the first line of processing to getting these remains back to their family to get them closure.
CM: How many Marines do what you do? How do you fit into the big Marine Corps picture?
H: We’re roughly a little over 200 maybe 240, all reserve. Everybody who is in this MOS volunteers. It’s a strictly reserve MOS and we’re the only unit that does what we do. We’re the most deployed unit in the Marine Corps just because of that fact that we’re always replacing ourselves. It’s a very high tempo of deployments. We’re a completely self-supporting unit. We provide constant support to wherever we need to be. We’re on duty 24 hours a day. We don’t close. We’re a very capable, self -supporting asset to the Marine Corps.