Digging for Clues: Mortuary Affairs Meets Forensic Science
Bell, T. Anthony, Soldiers Magazine
THEY were barely visible to the personnel on site, but recognizable enough to warrant proceeding with meticulous caution.
"You'll have to dig around it gently," warned the man in charge. "You don't want to disturb anything else that could be buried beside it."
The crew of six had just discovered what resembled human skeletal remains, buried in a makeshift grave just off a dirt road in a wooded area.
"The abductor has said he buried the remains here," said Marine Staff Sgt. Brian Smith, the team's leader, "so we sent out a search and recovery team."
The skeletal remains are not real, and the search and recovery team isn't a crack forensic unit like the ones seen on TV's "CSI." They are mortuary affairs Soldiers and Marines acting as crime scene investigators and technicians in a unique training opportunity dubbed the Unidentified Human Remains Seminar.
"This seminar is designed to give participants the opportunity to learn how to locate clandestine graves, how to identify them, how to map it out and how to proceed in excavating it, all the while maintaining forensic evidence," said Dr. Lisa Leppo, a forensic anthropologist assigned to the Joint Mortuary Affairs Center at Fort Lee, Va.
The seminar, held at Fort Lee's Mortuary Affairs Training Area, lasted four days. It included about 30 Soldiers from the 49 th Quartermaster Group's 111th and 54th Quartermaster companies located at Fort Lee, Reserve Soldiers from the 311th and 246th Quartermaster companies in Puerto Rico, and Marines from various locations.
The Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine in Richmond collaborated with the JMAC for the seminar, providing a number of nationally known experts to support the instruction.
Leppo, also JMAC's chief of training, said the first-of-its-kind training centered on crime scenes and buried remains, which mortuary affairs professionals aren't normally trained to handle.
"They get search and recovery exercises (in advanced individual training), which historically does not include locating clandestine graves," she said, noting that military mortuary affairs personnel normally work with remains found above ground.
"Military personnel typically go out when there's a major incident, like an airplane or helicopter crash. This is kind of preparing them to handle evidence in a medical-legal arena. The Armed Forces medical examiner has declared every battlefield casualty a forensic investigation--so we're trying to give them hands-on training to preserve evidence, understand what forensics is all about and how ... it plays into an identification for the medical examiner."
Training participants were separated into four teams and provided various scenarios relating to the whereabouts of victims. …