How does our government treat dead soldiers?

Why it matters how our nation treats men and women who die in battle

In recent weeks, the nation has been outraged over the treatment of soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The deplorable conditions, red tape and agonizing bureaucracy that soldiers wounded in Iraq face while getting treatment have the general public asking, “Is this how our nation takes care of its soldiers?”

The news about Walter Reed comes as no surprise to Michael Sledge, author of Soldier Dead: How We Recover, Identify, Bury & Honor Our Military Fallen.

While the recent media coverage is meaningful and rightfully places public attention on the care of our soldiers, the questions that still go unasked involve The Soldier Dead, those who die in battle. Who cares for their lifeless bodies? How does handling soldiers’ remains impact caregivers? And why is it important to understand how the military treats not only our Soldier Dead but also the Enemy Dead?

Sledge noted in his book, first published in 2005, that the military is slow to recognize and correct problems, particularly in an area as sensitive as dealing with soldiers’ deaths. Sledge points to what he calls “unconscionable foot-dragging” in conducting studies about stress induced by handling remains of the fallen. “With what we’ve learned about the human psyche in past decades, it’s critical that our government study the impact of handling soldiers’ remains on the caregivers because initial studies show it can be even more traumatic than being in combat.”

Sledge’s tenacious research unearthed other areas of concerns. “Mortuary officials insist on making decisions for the survivors of service members who die while in duty,” says Sledge. “Specifically, the personal effects of the dead are sorted and some are destroyed, purportedly for the purpose of ‘protecting’ the survivors, but with the unintended consequence of losing items that may be of value. Finally, the training offered to those who notify families of death still falls short.”

The general public’s patience with the war in Iraq is wearing thin. In a recent USAToday/Gallup poll (March 2007), 59 percent of Americans say they now believe the war in Iraq was a mistake. Sledge is not surprised. “Many people see that the traumas of the Iraq war aren’t relegated to the streets of Baghdad,” says Sledge. “This war hits home for families in the U.S. every single day. Equally important, this hellish war is home for families in Iraq. I think Americans have empathy for innocent people caught in the crossfire.”

Most of us who aren’t indoctrinated in military policies have no clue about the sequence of events that follow the wartime death of a soldier. Soldier Dead is one of the first books to also carefully research and document the treatment of the enemy’s dead soldiers; a practice that Sledge believes speaks volumes about our nation. “We don’t have a monopoly on the devastation of war,” says Sledge. “The enemy dead also have grieving families. If we can be honest, we’d admit that we would be horrified if we saw pictures of Iraqi forces dumping our troops’ bodies into mass graves with a bulldozer,” as a picture in Soldier Dead shows U.S. forces doing so with Iraqi dead.

With unprecedented access to archival photographs and the military personnel who care for the dead, Sledge crafts a compelling and emotional history of the handling of fallen soldiers. Peppered with personal anecdotes from letters, diaries and conversations with soldiers who’ve seen their comrades die, or who’ve walked through battlefields littered with enemy dead, Soldier Dead illustrates the true cost of war, on a human scale and reminds the reader that behind each fallen soldier is a family who pays a price that can never be measured by the dollars any government spends to feed, house and arm its troops.

Perhaps the horrifying impact of the dead on the living is best explained by syndicated newspaper columnist Ernie Pyle, killed by a sniper’s bullet while covering the battle for Okinawa during World War II. The following excerpt is from a story found in his pocket after his death and which was later published.

And so it is over

“Dead men in mass production… dead men in winter and dead men in summer. Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous. Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you almost come to hate them.”—Syndicated Newspaper Columnist Ernie Pyle

from the Aug 15-21, 2007, issue

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