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 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.”
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.
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.