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Right after she graduated from high school in 2001, Jess Goodell enlisted in the Marine Corps as a mechanic. She was stationed in Okinawa, Japan — but she wanted to go to Iraq. "I felt a pressure both from my peers and from within that in order to be a real marine, I needed to go to Iraq," Goodell tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
So in 2004, when the Marine Corps' Mortuary Affairs unit in Iraq was recruiting, she volunteered immediately. Her platoon was tasked with recovering and processing the remains of fallen troops. In her new memoir, Shade it Black: Death and After in Iraq, Goodell shares her experiences in the Mortuary Affairs unit and explains why her job never got easier with time or proficiency.
While she readily volunteered for her post, Goodell says she didn't really understand the reality of what she was getting herself into — and no amount of training could have prepared her for the job. She knew she wanted to go to Iraq — and that the Marines already had all the mechanics they needed there. "[The platoon sergeant in Okinawa] said if you want to go to Iraq, you need to volunteer for a different position," Goodell recalls. When he said the Mortuary Affairs platoon was recruiting, "my hand shot up in the air. A couple of marines kind of casually, nonchalantly said, 'Goodell that's gonna be tough,' but I had no idea."
In the Mortuary Affairs unit, one of Goodell's responsibilities was to sort through the pockets and belongings of troops lost in combat. She found all sorts of things — crumpled up napkins, pictures, spoons, letters, even sonograms of their soon to be born children.
Goodell says that one of the most difficult parts of the job was diagramming the body outlines of the deceased. On the body diagram, she would document identifying marks such as scars, tattoos and birthmarks. If a body part was missing or not found, Goodell was instructed to shade that part of the diagram black.
The job stayed with Goodell day and night during her time in Iraq. "I don't think I ever stopped smelling death when I was in Iraq," she says. "Part of the reason that the smell seemed to linger was ... being a Marine in Iraq at that time, laundry services only occurred every couple of weeks, so even if we were careful and very clean in the bunker, the smell just seemed to cling to us. It seemed to cling to our uniforms. And at least for me, once I smelled that smell of death, I just couldn't stop smelling it."
After she returned home, Goodell faced a new set of problems. Like many soldiers, she struggled to return to civilian life after her time in Iraq. Goodell says she plans to use her experiences to assist veterans with post traumatic stress disorder.
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