What happens to soldiers who die far away in battle or whose bodies are never found?

What happens to soldiers who die far away in battle or whose bodies are never found?

There are questions in this Fooxer Reviews that are more modern, e.g.,

  • “What happens if you die on a plane?”
  • “What happens to an astronaut body in space?”

But other questions, like this one, have been questions for thousands of years.

Before the nineteenth century, long-distance transport of fallen soldiers rarely occurred—especially if there were hundreds or thousands of casualties. If you were a grunt—a foot soldier, a dude on the front lines who was stabbed with a spear, sword, or arrow—you would likely be left behind. If you were lucky, you might be given the dignity of a burial in a mass grave or a cremation, rather than being left to rot on the battlefield. The men who were brought all the way back home for burial tended to be the high-mucky-mucks: the generals, the kings, the famous warriors.

Take the British admiral Horatio Nelson. He was killed by a French sniper on the deck of his own ship during the Napoleonic Wars. His fleet won (congrats), but their leader was still dead, and required a hero’s burial back home. So, to preserve him for the journey, his crew stuck Nelson’s body in a barrel filled with brandy and aqua vitae (concentrated alcohol, literally “water of life”—ironic, no?). It took a month to sail back to Britain, and during the voyage Nelson’s gases built up in the tiny barrel, causing the lid to pop off, terrifying the watchman.

Ever since, a rumor has persisted that the ship’s sailors took turns sneaking sips of the alcoholic “embalming fluid” from Lord Nelson’s barrel. Allegedly, they would use pieces of macaroni as tiny straws, and then top off the brandy barrel with less desirable wine to hide their crime. Personally, I would have stuck with drinking the wine that didn’t have a corpse bobbing around in it, but British soldiers at the time were known for going to extremes in their quest for liquor.

What happens to soldiers who die far away in battle or whose bodies are never found?

For most of Western history, wars were fought by hired professional soldiers and men forced into battle. If they won, the credit for their victories would go to kings or, later, great generals. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Americans started to see bringing the bodies of ordinary soldiers home as the “humane” thing to do. President William McKinley even organized teams to bring back soldiers who died fighting Spain in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

That doesn’t mean the procedure has worked-out-no-problem ever since. Far from it. After World War I, America was like, “Okay, France, we’re coming over to excavate the mass graves containing all our dead soldiers, see you soon.” France, working hard to rebuild, didn’t want to be disturbed by these huge excavation projects. Many Americans who lost sons and husbands weren’t so excited about the graves being disturbed, either. President Theodore Roosevelt himself wanted the remains of his son, a military pilot, to remain in Germany, and said, “We know that many good persons feel differently, but to us it is painful and harrowing long after death to move the poor body from which the soul has fled.”

In the end, the U.S. government sent a survey to each family to see what they wanted done for their dead. As a result, 46,000 soldiers were returned to the United States, and 30,000 soldiers’ bodies were buried in military cemeteries in Europe. To this day, there are heartwarming stories of Dutch and Belgian families adopting graves of American soldiers from both world wars, visiting and bringing flowers more than a century later. (Remember that when you don’t want to go to the cemetery on Grandma’s birthday.)

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As your question suggests, however, it’s not always an option to bring home a perfectly intact and identifiable soldier. There are still 73,000 missing bodies of World War II American service members. More than 7,000 service members are still missing from the Korean War, which ended in 1953. The majority of those bodies are likely in North Korea, where diplomatic negotiations are, shall we say, touchy at the moment.

Since 2016, the American agency in charge of tracking down and identifying missing and lost bodies and remains has been the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. The researchers at the agency rely on eyewitness and historical accounts, forensics, and anything that can help them narrow down a geographic area where there might be remains. If they believe a certain location will contain remains, the agency dispatches a recovery team, which carries out the scientific research and retrieval. It sounds sort of glamorous (international body mysteries!), but much like working at a funeral home, the actual labor mostly involves obtaining permits and permissions, then working with the local government and families to make sure things go smoothly.

Let’s talk now about what would happen if a soldier were to die tomorrow. How would the body be handled? I will use the United States military as an example. The U.S. (for better or worse) is a military superpower, meaning we don’t have soldiers fighting and dying on our home soil. Rather, our soldiers often kill and are killed in distant lands. Even if you disagree with military policy, or with war in general, you can probably understand the desire of the dead soldier’s family to see the body brought home, or at least decently buried or cremated.

Here’s what happens now. Almost all the remains of American service members killed in the recent Iraq and Afghan conflicts have come through the Dover Port Mortuary, located at the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The mortuary is overseen by the Air Force and is the world’s largest. Its facilities have the potential to handle one hundred bodies a day, and it has freezer storage for about a thousand more. This amazing capacity made it the first choice to receive dead bodies from the mass suicide at Jonestown, the bombing of Marine headquarters in Beirut, the Challenger and Columbia spaceship disasters, and the September 11 attack on the Pentagon.

When bodies first arrive at the Dover Port Mortuary, they are taken to the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Room, to make sure they’re not holding concealed bombs. The bodies are then officially identified, using full-body X-rays, FBI fingerprint experts, and DNA tests to match blood samples given by service members before deployment.

The goal of the morticians is to make the soldiers’ bodies viewable by their family. About 85 percent of families are able to hold a viewing. But with roadside bombs and other violent ways to die, there are cases where there’s too little of the body left to reconstruct. Those remains are wrapped in gauze, sealed in plastic, and wrapped again in white sheets inside a green blanket. Finally, a full uniform is pinned on top. When families receive the incomplete bodies, they can choose whether they’d like additional remains (if any are found) to be sent to them in the future.

What happens when the body arrives at Dover Port, and when the body is returned to the family, is very ritualistic, very ordered, very . . . military. The mortuary has every uniform on hand for every possible branch and rank of soldier. That’s every set of pants and jacket, but also every bar, stripe, flag, badge, cord, you name it. When the body is flown home, a soldier is assigned to fly with the body and salute as the body is loaded in and out of the plane (even if the body is just being transferred between flights). Then, there is the American flag, draped over the casket. There is a specific way of folding and draping the flag. Funeral directors’ groups online have knock-down-drag-out fights over what they say are improperly draped flags (correct way: blue field of stars over the person’s left shoulder.)

When a body comes into my funeral home, I often know a great deal about the person: how they died, what they did for a living, even their mother’s maiden name. That’s because at a typical mortuary, the same funeral director may file the death certificate and prepare the body for a viewing. This is not the case at Dover Port Mortuary. The mortuary workers there are divided into two groups. One group handles the soldier’s personal effects and identifying information, and the other group handles the physical bodies. The idea here is that no worker should become too personally familiar with any particular dead soldier. On one hand, that seems sad and depersonalized, but on the other, according to Stars and Stripes magazine, in 2010 “one in five mortuary affairs specialists sent to Afghanistan or Iraq returned with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.” That kind of bureaucracy and separation might be needed to deal with the trauma of war.

What happens to soldiers who die far away in battle or whose bodies are never found?

What happens to soldiers who die far away in battle or whose bodies are never found?

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