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Army modernizes mortuary services

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2008

PETERSBURG, Va. (AP) | Fort Lee is leading the Army's effort - for the first time in several decades - to modernize how it handles the remains of dead soldiers.

The Army provides mortuary services for the U.S. armed forces through Fort Lee's Mortuary Affairs Office, which specializes in collecting, identifying and returning the remains of dead soldiers and contractors. More than 4,600 sailors, Marines, soldiers and airmen have died in U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The office is focusing on the Army's ability to perform work on remains contaminated in chemical, biological or nuclear incidents, and improving methods to preserve remains while they're being transported home, said Lee Green, who is leading the effort at Fort Lee, about 20 miles south of Richmond. Mrs. Green is responsible for assessing and determining new equipment requirements for the U.S. Army.

"People don't really like to talk about death and think about fatalities," she said. "When the Department of Defense starts experiencing fatalities, it becomes a high priority."

The Army must be able to speed up its deployment capabilities so it can do mortuary-affairs work after an attack with weapons of mass destruction or after a natural disaster that overwhelms civilian authorities' capacity to handle widespread fatalities.

One initiative is to develop a robotic system to recover those killed in military operations.

"We don't want to risk the living to recover the dead," Mrs. Green said. "It's kind of a long-term science project, but it's a pretty interesting one."

The more than $92-million-modernization initiative is focusing on three key systems: a remains-decontamination system; a remains-transfer case; and a mobile remains-collection system, Mrs. Green said.

Roughly $19 million will go toward developing and buying a rugged remains-decontamination system by 2011 or 2012, he also said.

"Probably the biggest funding requirement is in the research needed to help us be able to render all remains safe to give back to the family," which now is not the case, Mrs. Green said.

With mostly off-the-shelf commercial equipment, the system would include pouches designed to keep dangerous contaminants from spreading and a connected series of tents for decontaminating and identifying bodies.

The next-generation remains-transfer case would be heavily insulated and actively cooled to hamper decomposition while bodies are airlifted back to the United States.

The Army wants to keep the cost of the new case, now under development, to less than $2,000 each. More than 5,000 of the current, unlined aluminum cases are now in the service's inventory. If approved, the transfer-case program would have an estimated cost of $13 million, spread over the next five years.

The service expects next year to field a $60 million-plus mobile integrated remains-collection system - a temporary, transportable morgue. The program will provide 117 of the mobile systems, Mrs. Green said, each of which can carry the remains of 16 people in its refrigerated storage area, but still fold up to fit inside a C-130 airplane's cargo bay.