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Marines learn special skills from Coroner's Office

Battle zone Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES - War is hell and death always comes along for the ride.


By Brandon Ferguson Correspondent
Posted: 07/24/2010 07:12:29 AM PDT

As a former Marine and Vietnam veteran, Pico Rivera native Fred Corral knows both well.

During his tour of Southeast Asia, he was charged with accompanying the body of a friend killed in combat to Travis Air Force Base in Sacramento, where it was processed before being returned to the family.

Wanting to give back to his beloved corps and prepare young warriors for the unglamorous task of retrieving the remains of fallen comrades from the battlefield, Corral enlisted the support of his employer.

He knew, with the grim realities of combat in Afghanistan on their horizon, few classrooms would offer better opportunities for young Marines than the cold corridors of the Department of Coroner.

As an investigator with the department for the past 26 years, Lt. Corral oversees a two-week program which immerses Marines attached to Personnel Retrieval and Recovery Units in the disturbing and unpleasant world of death investigation.

"What they're going to be doing is going out and working with our decedent services units," Corral said. "The whole thing is to expose them to the kind of death they will experience while in theater."

For the past four years, the coroner's office has offered the program at no cost to the Marines. The last group, which numbered 19, completed its training on Friday.

"Everything that's happened over the past two weeks ... trauma victims, gunshot victims. We've had plane crashes ...," Corral said.

During this time, each Marine gained exposure to the same procedures department employees experience on a daily basis, from evidence collection and fingerprinting to observing autopsies and learning how notifications are done. They also rode along with forensic attendants and visited the scenes of homicides, suicides and overdoses.

Speaking from an air-conditioned office in the complex's investigative services wing on North Mission Road, four young Marines from Georgia soon to be deployed in Afghanistan spoke about what it was like experiencing the daily grind of arguably the world's largest coroner's office. They were Lance Cpl. Huy Tran, 21, Lance Cpl. Michael Downs, 23, Lance Cpl. Sean Janda, 21, and the group's only veteran, Staff Sgt. Patrick Kelly, 42. Though none was younger than 20, most could have easily passed for teenagers.

"I didn't know how I would handle it at first. But as soon as I went into the crypts and didn't overreact, I felt more at ease," Janda said. "There's been a lot of suicides and accidental overdoses. It's rough to see people doing that to themselves. And there's quite a few of them."

Kelly, who is about to embark on his second deployment with the recovery unit, said, "I wouldn't choose this as a full-time profession, but it's different when you do it for your fellow Marines and service members."

Just before the shift change at 3 p.m., the group was led by Corral to the main building which houses the department's main crypt - a large refrigerated room packed with corpses. As the elevator descended into the bowels of the structure, the unmistakable stench of death crept through its doors.

Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Spearman quipped, "Drives the ladies wild."

The reception area where bodies are weighed and measured resembles a doctor's waiting room. Covered in tile and bathed in fluorescent light the Marines and employees mingled behind a desk near a large aquarium. Nearby, a bug zapper occasionally emitted the tell-tale buzz indicating a fly's demise.

The Marines donned latex gloves as Corral read off the day's gruesome client list with matter-of fact indifference.

"Four accidents, three homicides, one natural."

Nearby, forensic attendant Aisha Scott told the young warriors what she wanted them to do.

"We need to take the clothes off that John Doe we have and put the body in the crypt."

Scott, who has been with the department five years, described what it was like training her young charges. "I like working with them. They're a lot of help, and we need it."

In the garage, which receives a continuous procession of ubiquitous blue and white vans bearing expired human cargo, the trainees gathered around a gurney carrying a half-naked John Doe - a badly decomposed white homeless man.

Bloated and pale green, layers of skin around his arms were sluffing off. The body emitted a foul stench. Following Scott's instructions, a Marine on each side of the body used a pair of scissors to snip away the man's pants.

Their demeanor was stoic, and they maintained laser-like focus on the task at hand. Once the man's pants were removed, the Marines wheeled the body into the crypt behind the main building which houses the department's "stinkers."

Corral explained that fortunately the trainees wouldn't frequently be exposed to this level of decomposition due to the fact that fallen service members are typically retrieved quickly from the battlfield. Though he added the Marines would be facing their fair share of charred improvised explosive device and helicopter crash victims.

Nearby was a stack of felt-covered caskets bought with money from the Veterans Administration for indigent vets. According to Corral, the coroner's office buries the forgotten service members at no charge. On Wednesday, the Marines and Corral accompanied the remains of four deceased veterans to Riverside National Cemetery for burial.

Describing the Marines' advancement through the program, Corral said, "When they first got here, you could see the (shock) in their face. But after awhile, they get over their anxiety and they realize they have a job and a mission."

Added Spearman, "A lot of these guys take it as an honor to bring home their brothers-in-arms. They're proud of what they do, and Marines don't leave Marines behind."