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Identifying fallen U.S. soldiers carries a high emotional cost

The transfer cases containing the remains of Army Pfc. Michael C. Olivieri, left, of Chicago; Army Pfc. Christopher B. Fishbeck of Victorville, Calif.; Army Pfc. Michael B. Cook of Middletown, Ohio; and Army Pfc. Emilio J. Campo Jr. of Madelia, Minn., sit inside an Air Force C-5 cargo plane upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base. They died supporting Operation New Dawn in Iraq, the military said.
The transfer cases containing the remains of Army Pfc. Michael C. Olivieri, left, of Chicago; Army Pfc. Christopher B. Fishbeck of Victorville, Calif.; Army Pfc. Michael B. Cook of Middletown, Ohio; and Army Pfc. Emilio J. Campo Jr. of Madelia, Minn., sit inside an Air Force C-5 cargo plane upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base. They died supporting Operation New Dawn in Iraq, the military said.
Published May 30, 2016

The quiet pace of working at Dover Port Mortuary ended for John Harper when hijackers crashed a Boeing 757 passenger jet into the Pentagon on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Memories of the moments that followed remain vivid for Harper, who was an Air Force dental technician. The rush of helicopters. Black body bags stacked everywhere. The stench of death.

"We didn't go into combat," Harper said. "Combat came to us."

Since that day, the remains of those killed at the Pentagon and nearly 7,000 killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere around the globe have arrived at Dover Air Force Base, Del., to be identified and turned over to their families. Harper, now 54 and living in Haines City, said it was an honor reuniting the fallen with their families, but it came at a high cost.

Those who work in the morgue endure the unseen wounds of war, Harper said. Posttraumatic stress disorder. Hypervigilance, a debilitating state of constant alert. In some cases, heavy drinking and marital discord.

For Harper, today's national holiday is far more than time off, grilled food, beach balls and price-slashing.

"Memorial Day is a very sacred, sacred time," he said.

• • •

Harper worked at Dover from 2001 until the end of 2002, when he was transferred to South Korea. He came back in 2004 and stayed through the end of 2005.

Harper didn't work on every body that came in. But during his time at the mortuary, about 1,900 troops came to Dover for identification and autopsies, according to Pentagon records.

The pressure to get things right and handle each body with dignity, he said, was compounded by the nature of the work. He and his team used digital X-ray equipment to record the dental structures of the deceased, which would be used by forensics experts to match dental records taken of everyone in the service.

Sometimes the bodies were intact. Often they weren't.

"They would come in terribly beaten up," he said. "Or burned. Or fragmented. Or squished. Bad stuff."

Seeing his fellow troops like that took its toll, Harper said, adding that while never diagnosed, he has suffered from the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.

"Probably there were times when I was drinking too much," Harper said. "A lot of times, I was exhausted. Not from the drinking, but if we had a big contingency, like after 9/11 when it was 12, 14 hours a day for three weeks in a row."

RELATED: How the U.S. military's fallen are identified for burial

Harper's colleagues suffered, too.

Summer Chamberlain, 36, was at Dover between 2000 and 2004, until the stress became too much.

"I was becoming too emotionally withdrawn," said Chamberlain, now an Air Force technical sergeant and a recruiter in Newburgh, N.Y. "Everything was depressing."

From 2004 to 2006, Heather Barone was a senior airman, working at Dover as a dental technician. Familiar odors can trigger sad memories of that time.

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"Any time I had to deal with burn victims, it was something that cannot be unseen or unsmelled," said Barone, 35, now a technical sergeant with the Air National Guard and living in Monroeville, Pa.

Eating charred meats is difficult, she said, because their texture can also bring back those memories.

Ed Anderson, a retired Air Force technical sergeant who worked on the dental team from 2000 to 2006, said his marriage fell apart and he is overly protective of his children as a result of seeing so many bodies.

"There was no time to mentally process," Anderson said. "You were almost on robot mode the whole time. We could have anywhere from one or two bodies a day to 30 or 40, if it was a long day."

After a while, the shock wore off, said Anderson, 49, who still lives in Dover. "My biggest challenge was trying to avoid the news. Trying to avoid putting a name with the body."

• • •

But the bodies have names.

Army Spc. Corey Kowall was 20 when he was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 20, 2009.

The Humvee he had been riding in rolled over. His right arm was sliced off and his left leg was nearly severed, said his mother, who lives in Apollo Beach. There was also head trauma.

Days after learning about her son's death, Kelly Kowall went to Dover Air Force Base. She arrived for a dignified transfer — when a flag-draped metal case is taken off the airplane. But she wasn't allowed to see her son's body, or, as a safety precaution, to even touch the case.

Kowall asked if the morgue would be able to make a positive ID on her son's arm so it could be reattached for his burial. If not, it would have to be cremated separately. She also asked to have an open casket at her son's funeral.

Dover personnel couldn't initially answer either question. She later learned that officials there, knowing how badly she wanted an open casket, assigned two morticians to the case. Three days before the body was due to be flown to Tennessee for burial, she was told that they had identified her son's arm. They could reattach it for the service.

"We were very grateful," said Kowall, 58, who now runs My Warrior's Place, a Ruskin-based retreat for service members, first-responders and their families.

It was one thing to know that her son would come home intact, Kowall said. But she wanted to see his body just to make sure it was him.

"You hope that there is some miracle and that they got the identification wrong," she said.

A few days after getting the call from Dover, she would get the chance to see for herself.

"I knew my son had been through a lot of trauma," she said. "I steeled myself for the worst."

It was pouring on the morning of Sept. 28, 2009, as people lined up along the roads of Smyrna, Tenn., to pay respects to a young soldier most of them never knew.

Kowall and her ex-husband, C.J. Kowall, waited in the hangar for the airplane that was carrying Corey.

"We didn't know what we were going to see," Kowall said.

When the casket arrived, the funeral director called over the parents. Were they sure they wanted to look inside?

"We both said yes," Kowall said.

And with that, she and her ex, a bassist who plays country music, held their breaths.

The casket was opened.

Corey Kowall was in his dress blues. His mother said he looked like he was sleeping.

"I broke down and started crying," Kowall said. "He looked better than I thought he was going to look. I was so grateful they had done such a good job."

• • •

John Harper remembers the last X-ray.

It came in late 2005, when he examined a young woman killed in action.

He doesn't want to share the details of who she was or what happened, but Harper said she was his last one.

"Here was this young kid who enlisted after the war started," Harper said. "All she wanted to do is serve her country and she was going home in a box."

Harper said he is not sure why the woman had this effect.

"I did the exam, got her taken care of and identified, then I went back to the locker room and just sat there until everyone else was gone and I cleared out my locker and left."

The pain has eased with the passage of time, Harper said.

In July, he starts a doctoral program in organizational leadership at Southeastern University in Lakeland.

"I might want to teach," he said.

But trying to explain what he and his team went through has been a challenge, Harper said.

He and his co-workers didn't dare to seek out the help from counselors and chaplains who were available at the Dover base to provide mental and spiritual help.

"We didn't want to admit we were having untoward thoughts or struggling in any way while on active duty," he said. "There was a stigma of mental health in the military."

Harper didn't even talk about his job with his wife, Mary, or his son, Jeremy, who was 12 on 9/11.

"I thought I was hiding it well," he said. "It's hard to talk to anyone who doesn't know firsthand what happened. I couldn't expect my family to comfort me."

To honor the fallen and those who helped identify and prepare them for burial, Harper wrote Among the Dead: My Years in the Port Mortuary. The self-published book was released on Amazon this month.

"I am hoping it will help somebody whose son or daughter was killed so they at least know we took care of them as well as we could," he said.

Harper said that writing the book, and reaching out to the men and women he worked with for their memories, was also cathartic.

"It was very helpful, talking to them again and knowing I was having feelings similar to theirs," said Harper, who now works as a drug abuse counselor in Lakeland. "I know how bad I feel. The families have to feel a thousand times worse than me."

About four or five months ago, Harper said, he gave his wife and son copies of his manuscript.

Mary, the daughter of a battle-hardened Marine who fought in Korea and Vietnam, had an idea of her husband's struggles, but not the grim details about why. Harper said his son, himself an Army veteran, is still processing what he read.

Harper said he hopes the book will find an audience outside the military so that more people will understand the sacrifice that Memorial Day is supposed to commemorate.

"A whole lot of people don't really understand how important this day is," Harper said. "We should all take time to reflect on it and be thankful for what we have."

Howard Altman can be reached at Haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.