A grim re­minder of Iraq’s hor­rors

The log­book that tal­lied the Iraqi dead from a har­row­ing bat­tle in Fal­lu­jah is sched­uled for an ex­hibit at the Marine mu­seum

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MICHAEL E. RUANE

The green log­book was kept on a ta­ble in the pro­cess­ing room of the potato fac­tory, where the dead were brought in from the bloody streets of Fal­lu­jah. It had blue-lined pages and col­umns that Ch­eryl Ites drew with a ruler.

Usu­ally there was a pen with the book that she or one of her “scribes” used to make the en­tries once each body pouch was opened and the corpse ex­am­ined. Date de­liv­ered. Time. Or­ga­ni­za­tion of dece­dent. Name.

Of­ten there was no iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, so an en­try would say “in­sur­gent uniden­ti­fied” or “civil­ian uniden­ti­fied.” Or if there wasn’t enough left of the per­son, it might say “unas­so­ci­ated por­tion.”

For about six weeks in the fall of 2004, Marine Corps Chief War­rant Of­fi­cer Ites, then 49, kept this plain record of the toll of the war in one cor­ner of Iraq.

It was an or­derly tes­ta­ment to the de­struc­tion of life, limb and iden­tity, as well as to the ef­fort of Ites and a small cadre of Marines to ac­cord some dig­nity to the Iraqi dead.

Now, Ites’s log­book from the Iraq war’s sec­ond bat­tle of Fal­lu­jah has been se­lected for ex­hibit in a ma­jor ex­pan­sion of the Na­tional Mu­seum of the Marine Corps, set

to be­gin next year.

The mu­seum, in Quantico, Va., is sched­uled to close tem­po­rar­ily from Jan­uary through March as the pro­ject gets un­der­way. It will re­open af­ter that, but the work is set to con­tinue through 2020.

For the most part, the ex­pan­sion aims to tell the story of the Marines from the Viet­nam War through the con­flicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The mu­seum, which opened in 2006, cov­ers Marine Corps history through Viet­nam.

“We’re build­ing the next half,” said Charles Grow, the mu­seum’s deputy di­rec­tor, a re­tired Marine cap­tain and com­bat artist. The mu­seum site is a cir­cle, and “we’re com­plet­ing the cir­cle,” he said.

The $104 mil­lion pro­ject, funded by the Marine Corps Her­itage Foun­da­tion and the mu­seum, will al­most dou­ble the size of the fa­cil­ity.

The free mu­seum, noted for its tilted spire vis­i­ble from In­ter­state 95, gets about 500,000 visi­tors a year.

When the pro­ject is fin­ished, Grow said, it will in­clude, among other things, a sim­u­lated, im­mer­sive ver­sion of an Iraqi city such as Fal­lu­jah, where the Marines en­gaged in bit­ter house-to-house fight­ing in the fall of 2004.

It was said to be the most in­tense ur­ban war­fare for Marines since the Bat­tle of Hue dur­ing the Viet­nam War in 1968. (Last year, Fal­lu­jah fell into the hands of Is­lamic State mil­i­tants.)

The mu­seum has sim­i­lar “youare-there” ex­hibits for World War II and the wars in Korea and Viet­nam.

“We are go­ing to cre­ate a twos­tory city through which visi­tors walk,” Grow said in a re­cent in­ter­view at the mu­seum.

“You’ll see . . . build­ings with bullet holes,” he said. “The street will be full of rub­bish and de­bris. There will be [drones] over­head. There will be power lines strung hither and yon, with all the flot­sam and jet­sam of what went on in Fal­lu­jah.”

“It will be . . . [an] over­whelm­ing of the senses,” he said. “You’ll see things. You’ll hear things. You’ll feel things.”

He said the ex­hibit will also have an “ejec­tion hatch,” al­low­ing visi­tors to leave if the ex­pe­ri­ence be­comes too in­tense.

Grow said com­bat film footage will be shown on the walls of the build­ings, and win­dows will be­come ar­ti­fact cases.

“We in no way try to glo­rify war,” he said. “It’s an ugly busi­ness. But we want to tell the gritty truth.”

That truth will be il­lus­trated by ar­ti­facts that in­clude the scarred ri­fle of Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was posthu­mously given the Navy Cross for valor; the shat­tered hel­met of Cpl. Jason Dun­ham, who was posthu­mously awarded the Medal of Honor for us­ing his hel­met to smother a hand grenade blast; and Ites’s mor­tu­ary book.

Lead­ing by ex­am­ple

In Novem­ber 2004, as Marines and other forces fought to wrest Fal­lu­jah from Iraqi in­sur­gents, Ites, a chief war­rant of­fi­cer 4, set up shop out­side the city in the potato fac­tory.

The main build­ing had large rooms, in­clud­ing sev­eral that were re­frig­er­ated, which helped slow de­com­po­si­tion.

The fac­tory was still be­ing used to house re­frig­er­ated potato seedlings, Ites said, but three other such rooms were avail­able.

Ites and “my Marines,” as she called them, had a dan­ger­ous job: They had to go into the city hard on the heels of the com­bat, gather en­emy and civil­ian dead, truck the bod­ies back to the potato fac­tory and process them for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Even­tu­ally, the Iraqi gov­ern­ment asked that Ites, a for­mer mid­dle-school history teacher, han­dle the buri­als as well.

Ites and the Marines with her of­ten had to clear houses first to re­trieve bod­ies in­side. Usu­ally, the build­ings had been marked on the out­side in­di­cat­ing that a body or bod­ies were within.

Ites, who had been a mem­ber of the mil­i­tary po­lice, al­ways went first, armed with a pis­tol or ri­fle.

“I was in charge,” she said. “That’s a Marine thing. You don’t send your troops be­fore you go in. So you go in first.”

She said they were shot at as they trav­eled and twice ran into in­sur­gents, who fled when they showed up. Some of the dead were wear­ing sui­cide ex­plo­sive vests or had hand grenades on them.

It was of­ten her job to re­move such things be­fore the body was taken away. “Sui­cide vests were mainly wired with grenades to have them come off with the pull of some­thing,” she said.

“The grenades were usu­ally in the pock­ets,” she said. “Some of them had pins that were par­tially out or just had been dam­aged. . . . Most of them, it wasn’t set to go off if you did some­thing wrong. They were dam­aged, so you had to be care­ful.”

In some cases, a body was too dan­ger­ous and had to be left be­hind for the ex­plo­sive ordi- nance dis­posal ex­perts to han­dle.

“The re­cov­er­ies were tak­ing place dur­ing com­bat oper­a­tions,” she said. She and her group, fully armed, rode in seven-ton trucks, es­corted by ar­mored Humvees.

“It was in­ter­est­ing,” Ites said in a re­cent in­ter­view at the Pen­tagon, where she works as a ca­su­alty and mor­tu­ary af­fairs pro­gram an­a­lyst. She re­tired from the Marine Corps in 2009.

Ites had not been on ac­tive duty when the Iraq war broke out. She was liv­ing in Beth­le­hem, Pa., teach­ing math and history at St. Anne School. She has three chil­dren, and her hus­band is a col­lege pro­fes­sor.

But she was still in the re­serves, had prior mor­tu­ary af­fairs ex­pe­ri­ence in the Marines and was sum­moned to duty in 2003. She re­sponded ea­gerly, she said.

Han­dling the dead

Her ini­tial foray into Fal­lu­jah was dif­fi­cult. Fight­ing was still un­der­way nearby.

“The Marines were very com­posed af­ter the first day,” she said. “The first day was a lit­tle har­row­ing,” she said. “Be­cause you would come into the city, and you would see a re­main in the street . . . and we would stop.”

“The first time, they were all look­ing up . . . but they were also mov­ing too fast,” she said. “And so you had to tell them to slow down and look at what was on the ground. There was un­ex­ploded ord­nance. . . . You had to be care­ful of where you were step­ping.”

The bod­ies were in var­i­ous con­di­tions, she said. Many had been dead in the broil­ing heat for more than a week and had suf­fered griev­ous com­bat in­juries.

She cau­tioned her Marines not to use any fra­grant oint­ments to mask the odor be­cause that fra­grance would af­ter­ward be as­so­ci­ated with the grisly work.

When a body was found, it was ex­am­ined and placed in a body bag, which was then zipped closed. Two Marines then car­ried it feet first, ac­cord­ing to mil­i­tary tra­di­tion, to the truck.

The bod­ies were placed side by side. “There was no stack­ing,” she said. Most of the dead were male. There were a few women and chil­dren, who were killed when a build­ing col­lapsed. She saw no chil­dren who had been shot.

Some of those with her won­dered why they were go­ing to such haz­ardous lengths to re­cover en­emy dead. Whynot just leave them? “I said, ‘ Would you want that to hap­pen to ours?’ ” she said.

Many of her Marines were 19 or 20. “My big­gest fear was that I was go­ing to break one of my Marines, that I was go­ing to cause men­tal duress in them,” she said. “We took proper care of them.”

She did not worry about her­self.

Ites said she was as­sisted by eight mor­tu­ary-af­fairs Marines, who made up a “per­son­nel retrieval and pro­cess­ing” de­tach­ment, and a Navy doc­tor back at the fac­tory who also acted as an in­ter­preter.

She also had trans­porta­tion, se­cu­rity, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and in­tel­li­gence per­son­nel to help out.

“All to­taled, there were about 200 of us,” she said

Ites said she and her mor­tu­ary Marines slept in the fac­tory with the dead to main­tain se­cu­rity. No one else was al­lowed in­side.

Once back at the fac­tory, the bod­ies were un­loaded.

In­side, there were lit­ter stands and lit­ters, a cou­ple of ta­bles, cam­era equip­ment and the green log­book.

The data in the book was also pre­served elec­tron­i­cally, she said.

The bod­ies were placed on lit­ters and re­moved from the body bags. Ites set up four work sta­tions, with two Marines at each sta­tion where there was a body.

“We would start look­ing for any iden­ti­fi­ca­tion . . . a wal­let, a piece of pa­per with their name on it,” she said.

“There would be a clean-hand in­di­vid­ual . . . a scribe, and there would be a dirty-hand in­di­vid­ual,” she said. “The dirty hand would be the one that would be ma­nip­u­lat­ing the re­mains and re­cov­er­ing items.”

“The clean hand would be the one that would be writ­ing . . . and do­ing all the forms,” she said.

The team wore yel­low hos­pi­tal gowns, blue sur­gi­cal masks and gloves as they worked. They had a sup­ply of 900 black body bags, more than half of which they used, she said.

Each ex­am­i­na­tion took 20 to 30 min­utes, af­ter which the re­mains were placed back in the body bag.

“It’s not ex­actly the most san­i­tary, ster­ile en­vi­ron­ment,” she said. “It’s not with­out odors, sights . . . all that.”

At night, she said, you could hear the bat­tle in the dis­tance. To­ward the end, with hun­dreds of bod­ies in stor­age, the odor in the build­ing was strong, and Ites had to call in ex­ter­mi­na­tors to rid the area of flies.

Even­tu­ally, all the bod­ies were re­moved and buried near a lo­cal ceme­tery.

When Ites closed down the op­er­a­tion that De­cem­ber, she and her de­tach­ment scoured the rooms with dis­in­fec­tant and bleach.

“Mopped ev­ery floor, and ev­ery sur­face was wiped down,” she said. They re­moved all their equip­ment and trash and “packed up our bags and left,” she said. She was home by Christ­mas. Ites said the mu­seum heard about her work in Fal­lu­jah, for which she was given a Bronze Star Medal, and asked if she would do­nate ar­ti­facts. She also do­nated the small pewter cross she wore in Iraq.

Asked if the work in Fal­lu­jah ever got to her, she said: “No. I’m a Marine. We do our job.”

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASHINGTON POST

NIKKI KAHN/THE WASHINGTON POST

TOP: Ch­eryl Ites, who was a chief war­rant of­fi­cer with theMarines in 2004, was in charge of the morgue dur­ing the Iraq war’s sec­ond bat­tle of Fal­lu­jah. LEFT: Marines con­trol a main en­trance into Fal­lu­jah in April 2004. RIGHT: Ites’s log­book will go on dis­play in an up­com­ing ex­hibit at the Na­tion­alMu­seum of theMarine Corps.

MU­RAD SEZER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

MU­RAD SEZER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

NIKKI KAHN/THE WASHINGTON POST

TOP: Marines with the 2nd Bat­tal­ion 1stMarine Reg­i­ment take cover dur­ing a gun bat­tle with in­sur­gents on the out­skirts of Fal­lu­jah, Iraq, in April 2004. ABOVE: Owen Con­ner, the uni­forms cu­ra­tor with the Na­tion­alMu­seum of the Marine Corps, dis­plays the shat­tered hel­met of Cpl. Jason Dun­ham. With him is Jen­nifer L. Cas­tro, cu­ra­tor of the cul­tural and mil­i­tary history col­lec­tion. The mu­seum will al­most dou­ble in size as an ex­pan­sion in com­ing years seeks to tell the story of theMarines from the Viet­namWar through the con­flicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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