'Death And After In Iraq': Memoir Of A Mortuary
Right after she graduated from high school in 2001, Jess Goodell enlisted in the Marine Corps as a mechanic. She was stationed in Okinawa, Japan — but she wanted to go to Iraq. "I felt a pressure both from my peers and from within that in order to be a real marine, I needed to go to Iraq," Goodell tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
So in 2004, when the Marine Corps' Mortuary Affairs unit in Iraq was recruiting, she volunteered immediately. Her platoon was tasked with recovering and processing the remains of fallen troops. In her new memoir, Shade it Black: Death and After in Iraq, Goodell shares her experiences in the Mortuary Affairs unit and explains why her job never got easier with time or proficiency.
While she readily volunteered for her post, Goodell says she didn't really understand the reality of what she was getting herself into — and no amount of training could have prepared her for the job. She knew she wanted to go to Iraq — and that the Marines already had all the mechanics they needed there. "[The platoon sergeant in Okinawa] said if you want to go to Iraq, you need to volunteer for a different position," Goodell recalls. When he said the Mortuary Affairs platoon was recruiting, "my hand shot up in the air. A couple of marines kind of casually, nonchalantly said, 'Goodell that's gonna be tough,' but I had no idea."
In the Mortuary Affairs unit, one of Goodell's responsibilities was to sort through the pockets and belongings of troops lost in combat. She found all sorts of things — crumpled up napkins, pictures, spoons, letters, even sonograms of their soon to be born children.
Goodell says that one of the most difficult parts of the job was diagramming the body outlines of the deceased. On the body diagram, she would document identifying marks such as scars, tattoos and birthmarks. If a body part was missing or not found, Goodell was instructed to shade that part of the diagram black.
The job stayed with Goodell day and night during her time in Iraq. "I don't think I ever stopped smelling death when I was in Iraq," she says. "Part of the reason that the smell seemed to linger was ... being a Marine in Iraq at that time, laundry services only occurred every couple of weeks, so even if we were careful and very clean in the bunker, the smell just seemed to cling to us. It seemed to cling to our uniforms. And at least for me, once I smelled that smell of death, I just couldn't stop smelling it."
After she returned home, Goodell faced a new set of problems. Like many soldiers, she struggled to return to civilian life after her time in Iraq. Goodell says she plans to use her experiences to assist veterans with post traumatic stress disorder.
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Everybody knows the expression no Marine left behind, but do you ever think about who does the work of retrieving the remains of fallen Marines, identifying the bodies and preparing them to be sent home to their families?
During the war in Iraq, the Marines created their own Mortuary Affairs Unit to do that work. My guest, Jess Goodell, served in the Marines Mortuary Affairs Unit in al-Anbar Province in 2004. She was constantly surrounded by exactly what you can't let yourself obsess on when you're at war: death, bodies mutilated by IEDs.
The work was saddening, sickening, necessary and important. It took a toll on her then and still weighs heavy on her. She has written a new memoir about her work in Mortuary Affairs, her experiences as a woman in the Marines and the difficulty of adjusting to life back home after what she witnessed. It's called "Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq."
Because we will be talking about her work in Mortuary Affairs, this interview is not appropriate for young children, and even some adults may find it difficult to listen to. So use your judgment.
Jess Goodell, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thanks so much for coming. Let's talk about the work of the Mortuary Unit. First of all, you had to wear a HazMat suit when you went on the scene of an IED attack. Why did you need a HazMat suit?
Ms. JESS GOODELL (Former Mortuary Affairs Marine, Author, "Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq"): Well, we often wouldn't know what we were getting ourselves into. So we would be at the bunker, and we would get a call that would say a Marine was down. And they would give us the location. And that was pretty much all the information that we had.
And so we came prepared for whatever the case might be. So sometimes we would put on suits. Because of the nature of death in the Iraq War, often bodies that die are as a result of an explosion. So it isn't, you know, a clean body on the ground. Sometimes it's a little more messy.
GROSS: And the HazMat suit was to protect you from infection?
Ms. GOODELL: I suppose also, I think, you know, blood splatters or insides. Sometimes the remains, because they had exploded, we would have to scoop them with our hands.
GROSS: Why was it important to collect all the remains, even the remains that you had to scoop with your hands?
Ms. GOODELL: well, about that time, it was 2004 when I was in Iraq, there had recently been showings of extremists who had taken body parts of Americans and had paraded them either in town or down the streets. And we wanted to prevent that from happening.
The second reason is because we knew how important it would be to the family members to know that they had all of their loved ones' remains.
GROSS: And then you'd have to sort and catalogue all the remains that you found. How do you do that?
Ms. GOODELL: Well, when remains would come in, we had some paperwork that we would fill out. So an example, one sheet was an inventory of everything that was on the Marine when they came into our bunker, so everything, such as their T-shirt, their cover, their boots, their wallet, everything inside their wallet, everything inside their pockets, and we did that so that the family would know what the Marine had on them, so that nothing would get lost from the Marine to when the Marine gets sent home.
We had a diagram of a body, and we would mark on the diagram any identifying marks, such as scars or tattoos, anything that could help further identify the Marine.
GROSS: And you also had to shade in the parts of the body that were missing.
Ms. GOODELL: Yes, often bodies that would - that we would process would not be whole bodies. So they may be missing an arm or a leg, and those parts that they were missing on the diagram we would shade in black.
GROSS: Let's step back a second. So you're called in - say you're called in to the aftermath of an IED explosion that several Marines were killed in. What's the first thing you do when you get there?
Ms. GOODELL: The first thing that we would do would be survey the site. Sometimes a firefight was still occurring, and we would have to wait for the air to clear. If we got there, and everything had settled, we would set up a perimeter so that the Mortuary Affair Marines could go in and retrieve the remains.
But once we got to a scene, it was a lot of surveillance, you know, seeing what's happening at the scene, is it safe for us to go in, and then we would survey where we needed to pick up remains, where are the remains located.
Sometimes remains were contained in a vehicle. Other times, they were dispersed along a roadside. If that was the case, we would flag the remains before we collected them so we could make sure that we collected all of them.
GROSS: How could you tell what remains belonged to what body? Was it your job to figure that out?
Ms. GOODELL: Yes, all of the Marines in Mortuary Affairs, all of us would process and sort remains. There's a couple clues that help us to do that. So if a Marine comes in, sometimes they may have a blouse on, and the blouse will have their name on it, or if we have a leg with the boot still on it, in the boot is their dog tag, and we can identify them with their dog tag. Other times, they have a wallet on them that has their ID in it. So we can tell by that.
There was one instance where several Marines had died, and we tried sorting them racially.
GROSS: Right now, you're about to talk about this with the dispassion of somebody who's filing papers in a doctor's office. I'm sure that the reality of being there and sorting through the remains was much different from the detached way that you're capable of describing it now.
Ms. GOODELL: Yes. Well, I guess in some ways it's different; in some ways, it's the same. In a way, the detached manner that I'm speaking right now is similar to how life was in Iraq because as a Mortuary Affairs Marine, you have to get up in the morning. At some point, you have to go to the chow hall to eat, and in order to do that, you have to detach yourself from the task at hand.
GROSS: And let me explain what I think you mean there. You talk about in your book how because so many of the bodies that you had to sort through were burned in explosions that you smelled burned flesh all the time, and burned flesh smells a little bit like burned meat. So meat started to smell to you like death, and it became really hard to eat.
Ms. GOODELL: Yes, sometimes we would be processing remains for hours on end. It may even go into, you know, two days of processing nonstop, and there comes a point in time when you have to stop because you have to eat, because you haven't eaten yet that day. And you have to go to the chow hall and sit down for a meal so that you can get back to processing.
And, you know, cooked meat is just that. So it made it very difficult to eat and to hold food down.
GROSS: It sounds like you spent a lot of time in Iraq in a state of nausea, both physical and existential.
Ms. GOODELL: Yes. It's hard to eat when you have visions of, you know, what's going on in the war and knowing that we're participating in it and knowing that we're there in Iraq, and we can't leave and having firsthand experience with the death that's a result.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Jess Goodell, who was a Marine in Iraq, and she's written a memoir called "Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq" that describes her experiences as a member of the Marines Mortuary Unit, where it was her job to deal with the remains of Marines, to sort through them and identify them. Let's take a short break here, okay, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Jess Goodell. Her new memoir, "Shade It Black," is about her work in the Marines Mortuary Affairs Unit in Iraq's al-Anbar Province in 2004. She retrieved and processed the remains of fallen Marines and prepared them to be sent home to their families. The work was sickening but necessary and important.
Our interview is not appropriate for young children, and even some adults might find it difficult to listen to. So use your judgment.
In sorting through the remains, one of your jobs was to go through the pockets of the uniforms. What were some of the things you would typically find in the pockets of the dead Marines?
Ms. GOODELL: Pockets would contain items such as, you know, trash, a crumpled-up napkin or a piece of paper; items that hadn't been thrown away yet. It was very common to find a spoon to eat with, and often people might have letters or pictures in their pockets, as well.
GROSS: And you also mention in your book that you'd sometimes find sonograms of fetuses. I assume that these were Marines whose wives were pregnant.
Ms. GOODELL: Yes, one time we were inventorying a Marine's wallet, and we would write down every item that was in the wallet - every picture, every piece of money, any identification. And one of the pictures in the Marine's wallet was a picture of a sonogram.
GROSS: You write that the smell of death started to permeate your clothes, your hair, your skin. When you washed it off, and when you washed your clothes, was that smell of death still in your nose?
Ms. GOODELL: Yes, I don't think I ever stopped smelling death when I was in Iraq. Part of the reason that the smell seemed to linger was - being a Marine in Iraq at that time, laundry services only occurred every couple of weeks. So even if we were careful and very clean in the bunker, the smell just seemed to cling to us. You know, it seemed to cling to our uniform.
And I - at least for me, once I smelled that smell of death, you know, I just couldn't stop smelling it while I was there.
GROSS: Did you fear that other Marines who weren't in the Mortuary Affairs Unit smelled it on you and would want to avoid you because of that, because of that smell of death?
Ms. GOODELL: The Marines of Mortuary Affairs sort of kept to ourselves. The male Marines had a tent, their own tent, that wasn't even part of the general population, and where we were staying, that population is called Tent City. Their tent was outside of Tent City.
I stayed in a tent with other females that had various jobs, and I really kept to myself in my own tent. I think it may have been difficult for other Marines to hang out with us or talk with us because I think we represented a very real possibility. You know, at any day, their convoy could be hit, or our base could be hit.
And, you know, they still have a job to do. So they still need to get up in the morning and function and go to their job. And so I think probably as a way of protecting themselves, they seemed to stay at a distance from us.
GROSS: I guess to some extent, you have to feel just a little bit invulnerable if you're going to do the kind of job that Marines are asked to do. But you were a Marine, and you had to deal with remains all the time. So the kinds of things that you tried to protect other Marines from and that other Marines tried to protect themselves from, that was your daily work. Did you start to feel more vulnerable witnessing the worst kind of death day after day after day?
Ms. GOODELL: Yes, working in Mortuary Affairs made me realize how real of a possibility death was. And because we were processing remains and going through pockets and going through wallets, inventorying and documenting personal belongings, I found myself, you know, making sure that all of my belongings were clean and folded and in order and that I didn't have anything in my pockets that would add to the work of the Mortuary Affairs Marines.
GROSS: So you started to think of yourself as a potential corpse.
Ms. GOODELL: You start to think that any day you might be on the litter, yeah.
GROSS: Did you ever come close?
Ms. GOODELL: We had a couple close calls. There was one time that our convoy was leaving the base, and we had reached the gate, the exit point of the base at the same time another convoy did, and we were sort of stalled at that entrance point.
And discussing it with the other convoy, the other convoy ended up leaving before we did, and that convoy ended up getting hit.
There was another time where I would work out on our base, and I was waiting for a female Marine to come to my tent so that we could both go for a run. And she was running late, and I was getting really anxious because I really wanted to run, and I was ready to go.
And she came back to the tent and was taking her time. And so I was waiting with her. And meanwhile, another girl had left, and she had gone running, and the female Marine that had left before us ended up getting hit by a mortar while she was running.
GROSS: Was she killed?
Ms. GOODELL: Yes.
GROSS: Did you have to deal with the remains of the woman who was running or the convoy that left before yours?
Ms. GOODELL: If we did, I was unaware of it, or I can't remember.
GROSS: You write in your book that after doing this a while, you say we all started hearing and feeling the souls of the dead we had processed and housed, as well as all of the dead killed in the Middle East since the beginning of religion, if not since the dawn of time. Would you describe a little bit that feeling that you're talking about there?
Ms. GOODELL: I think that several of us were Christians and were familiar with Iraq in - as mentioned in the Bible. And so we knew that there had been inhabitants of this land for a very long time. The way that that would kind of manifest in our lives was several of us had reported hearing noises or feeling things that we attributed to the souls of the dead.
GROSS: You write in your book: I could see the living as dead, as remains I was processing, and the dead were alive all around us, especially in our bunker, the bunker where you were processing remains. There was one body you were processing that literally walked the line between life and death. As you were processing the body, you noticed this Marine was still breathing. Was there any protocol for what to do in a situation like that?
Ms. GOODELL: I don't think anyone anticipated that situation occurring, but what had happened was we had a platoon bring in remains, and they came to the station that I was working at with another Marine, and we needed to move the body. We checked the bodies for tattoos, and we attempt to turn them on their sides so that we can see if they have any tattoos or scars on their back or wounds that we need to mark down.
And the body just seemed to move very fluidly and very easily, which was normally not the case for the remains that came into our bunker. And so right away we knew something wasn't quite right.
And I looked to the remains, I looked at his chest, and I saw slowly, very slowly, rise and fall. And I said to the Marine that I was with, I said: You know, this isn't right. We need to call the sir, which was our officer.
And so our officer came over with the doc, and we asked him, you know, what are we supposed to do right now, what should we be doing. And the doc had checked out the Marine, and he had said that there was nothing that could be done at this point and that we needed to wait.
GROSS: And what did it feel like to wait?
Ms. GOODELL: It hurt. I was really angry and frustrated, and I even said, you know, wait for what? You know, what are we waiting for? And I imagined that every mother and every wife or every spouse would have wanted to fight for this Marine's life. So I can only imagine that there really was nothing that we could have done. But it was just really heartbreaking to see that.
GROSS: Jess Goodell will be back in the second half of the show. Her new memoir is called "Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jess Goodell. Her new memoir, "Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq," is about her experiences serving in the Marine's Mortuary Affairs unit in al-Anbar province back in 2004. Her job was to retrieve and identify the remains of fallen Marines and prepare them to be sent home to their families. Her book is also about being a woman in the macho culture of the Marines and the difficulty of returning to civilian life after what she witnessed.
Did you have any idea what you were getting into when you volunteered for Mortuary Affairs duty?
Ms. GOODELL: I didn't have - I didn't know the reality of it. In 2003, when the Marine Corps was involved with the initial invasion of Iraq, I was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. And when I returned stateside, the platoon that I entered in had just gotten back from Iraq and I had not yet been. And I felt a pressure both from my peers and from within that in order to be a real Marine I needed to go to Iraq.
Our platoon sergeant had us in formation and he said that they already had all the mechanics that they needed and I was a mechanic. And he said if you want to go to Iraq you need to volunteer for a different position. So a couple of days later, we were in formation again and the platoon sergeant said they need Marines for the Mortuary Affairs platoon. And so, you know, my hand shot up in the air. A couple of Marines kind of casually, nonchalantly said oh, you know, Goodell, that's going to be tough. But I had no idea.
GROSS: Did they explain to you what you were volunteering for?
Ms. GOODELL: At the time I only knew the title, Mortuary Affairs platoon. Eventually, I was pulled with several other volunteers and we trained at Camp Pendleton for a couple weeks. And it was there where we had classes and they would teach us how to go over the paperwork and how to process the remains. And I think even at that point it still hadn't fully hit me yet. You know, I started to see what it would be like but there's nothing that quite prepared me for the actual thing.
GROSS: Well, the training was done with plastic body parts and with meat, which is - it's not like a real body.
Ms. GOODELL: Right. It's different in that when remains would come into our bunker, they're wearing our uniform. You know, they've trained in the same places that we've trained. A lot of them had the same watch or the same wallet because we all purchased them from the same place. And so, you know, they resemble us.
GROSS: Did the job in the Mortuary Affairs platoon get any easier or any more difficult with time? And how much time were you doing that work?
Ms. GOODELL: We deployed February of 2004 and we came back sometime in October. I don't think that the job ever got any easier. Certainly, we became more proficient. But I think it was difficult every moment. There comes a time, you know, where you have to try to, you know, put on a strong face, because the family members need you to collect the remains to send him home.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jess Goodell and her new memoir, "Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq," is about her experiences in the Marines in Iraq when she was a member of the Mortuary Affairs platoon, which is the platoon that had to get the remains of dead Marines, sort through them, identify them.
Another side of Marine life that you write about in your memoir is being a woman in the Marines. And in a culture that is all about not only being a man but being, you know, in a group of the manliest of men, some of the ways that bothered you included even just like the chants that Marines do when they're marching or in formation. Give us an example of what you mean and why it really got to you.
Ms. GOODELL: OK. One example was a cadence that was sung when we would be running. And it was Mama and Papa are lying in bed. Papa rolls over and this is what he says, give me some PT. PT is physical training but it also has other connotations. So that was a running cadence. This next one is vulgar. This was a cadence that I heard when we would be marching. And it was if you like your (bleep) tight, stomp your left and drag your right. Obviously very offensive.
GROSS: Were you expected to be chanting this too?
Ms. GOODELL: Yes.
GROSS: How can you? I mean how can you chant that?
Ms. GOODELL: Well, I wasn't called out to call cadences often. But when I was I would switch up the words, which I suppose isn't any better than what the men were doing, but I guess to make a point. And they found it very offensive. Actually there were several times that I was, you know, taken aside and talked to and told that my lyrics were not appropriate, and that I needed to stick to the traditional ones.
GROSS: Were there assumptions, stereotypes that you felt many of the Marines had about women in the Marines?
Ms. GOODELL: Yes. I think that many Marines, many of the male Marines, think that the female Marines are weaker and that they can't perform the job as well or that they just don't belong in the Marine Corps at all. And so those are stereotypes that as a female Marine you really have to work, you know, twice as hard as your counterparts to prove that you are as strong or that you are as good of a shot, or that you, you know, that you are worthy of being an equal.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jess Goodell, and she wrote a new memoir called "Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq." And it's about serving in Iraq in a Marine Mortuary Affairs platoon, where her job was to sort through the remains of dead Marines and identify them so that they could be sent on back to families.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jess Goodell. And her new memoir, "Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq," is about being a Marine in Iraq where she served in the Mortuary Affairs platoon, where her job was to sort through the remains and identify the remains of dead Marines.
So you write that you carried around a picture of your boyfriend who was also a Marine, a Marine that you met before you were deployed to Iraq and he was not in Iraq. And in this picture you say he was sporting his straight-from-the-barrio thug facial expression. And you carried this around so you could show it to men who suggested that you have an affair or a night of sex. Was there a lot of pressure from other Marines to have sex?
Ms. GOODELL: I felt that there was a constant pressure. And the way that I responded to that pressure was that I would not speak to male Marines. Certainly I had my close friends or my platoon members that I would talk to. But there was even a time in Iraq when my officer called me into his office and, you know, was worried about me and said that I wasn't talking to anyone and he just wanted to make sure that I was doing OK. And I said I'm doing fine. It's just - I just don't want to socialize with the male Marines. And so in not giving into the sex pressure leads to a very lonely existence in the Marine Corps as a woman.
GROSS: That sounds so difficult to me because I mean one of the premises of the Marines is that it's this band of brothers, you know, and that there's this camaraderie, this support. And if you're afraid to talk with fellow Marines because they're going to come on to you, how does that undercut the sense of support that you're supposed to have?
Ms. GOODELL: Right. It's very difficult to understand. And so I quickly learned who I can trust and who I would distance myself from. Being a Marine, I think that we all made the commitment right from the get-go in our careers that we would die for any other Marine. And so in that sense I knew that the male Marines would protect me from an enemy or being at war. But there was definitely struggles within the Marine Corps.
GROSS: So do you think this is an argument for not having men and women together in the Marines or is this just an argument for more gender education within the Marines, for more reform within the Marines?
Ms. GOODELL: Yes. I think that it shows that we need more education and we need more training in the Marine Corps. Because I think that an easy fix would be to not have women in the Marine Corps. But that's not the problem, at least from my perspective, because I don't think it's OK for males to objectify women. And so the solution is not to remove women, but rather to teach both the men and the women about our roles that we play.
GROSS: And did you feel like there had not really been a serious attempt to do that yet?
Ms. GOODELL: There was some training and some acknowledgment. But at least during my experiences when those situations arose, they seemed to be not taken seriously.
GROSS: And just to put this in perspective, we should say, that was in 2004. I...
Ms. GOODELL: Right.
GROSS: I certainly can't speak for what's happened since then and I'm not sure if you feel you can.
Ms. GOODELL: Right. And I can only speak from my limited experiences as well.
GROSS: Right. OK. You write about what happened when you got home after being in the Marines, after serving in the Mortuary Affairs platoon. And you reconnected with somebody who - with the man who was also a Marine who you had a relationship with before you went to Iraq. The name give him in the book, you don't use his real name is Miguel.
And soon after Iraq you moved in together and started a serious relationship. You describe him as 230 pounds of solid ox muscle. After you started living together you saw a side of him you had never seen before. He became violent. He threatened you. You sometimes had to hide from him in the house.
Did you attribute that to PTSD on his part? Or did you just think that was part of who he was, that he had just never shown you before a part you hadn't seen before?
Ms. GOODELL: At the time I didn't know where it was coming from. I was struggling with myself, you know, with my experiences. I think I had a flicker of a thought that it was about Iraq. When I returned from Iraq and I told him I would try to tell him about my experience in Iraq. He would tell me that I needed to be quiet because I wasn't there during the initial invasion like he had been in 2003, and that I didn't know what the real war was about. And so he wouldn't let me talk about it and he didn't talk to me about his experiences at length. So I knew, you know, I knew something wasn't quite right.
GROSS: One of the things that really saddens me about hearing this story is that you felt when you were in the Marines that you weren't taken as seriously as male Marines because you were a woman. And then you get home, you're finally not doing Mortuary Affairs work anymore. You're with a man who you think you really care for, and he's not taking you seriously. He's not validating the hell that you went through in Iraq. He's saying, well, you weren't in the invasion there for - what you experienced doesn't count. And so, like, all of the worst parts of how other Marines treated you is happening in your own home now, when you're out of the war zone.
Ms. GOODELL: Mm-hmm. Yeah. It was difficult.
GROSS: And plus, not only isn't he a Marine who has your back, I mean, he's threatening you.
Ms. GOODELL: Yes.
GROSS: This is a probably a horrible question to ask, but why did you stay with him the amount of time that you did?
Ms. GOODELL: I think I stayed with him in part because he was a Marine and he knew me before I went to Iraq, and he shared a lot of the same values that I did that the Marine Corps instills in us. So I think that that was part of it, was just trying to stay connected to another Marine.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. So there was a period where you were afraid to leave the house. You just kind of got agoraphobia. Is it fair to call it that?
Ms. GOODELL: Yeah. I suppose.
GROSS: You started drinking. Did you know anything about post-traumatic stress disorder?
Ms. GOODELL: Only what was very briefly mentioned to us. At the end of our training before, we went over to Iraq, they had warned us about, you know, PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. They said it's a real thing like the flu and that was all I knew about it.
GROSS: Did you think, I have that, that's my problem?
Ms. GOODELL: No. No I never thought that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jess Goodell, and she wrote a new memoir called "Shade it Black: Death and After in Iraq," and it's about serving in Iraq in a Marine Mortuary Affairs platoon where her job was to sort through the remains of dead Marines and identify them so that they could be sent on back to families.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jess Goodell, and her new memoir "Shade it Black: Death and After in Iraq," is about being a Marine in Iraq where she served in the Mortuary Affairs platoon, where her job was to sort through the remains and identify the remains of dead Marines.
There where a period where you thought that your friends who had re-upped for a second tour in the Marines were actually doing better than you and your fellow Marines who didn't sign up for a second tour. When you made those comparisons, why did the people who were back doing a second tour seem like they had done better?
Ms. GOODELL: It seems that the Marines who re-enlisted were doing better. And I think that's for a couple of reasons. I think that, number one, they were able to stay connected to other Marines and stay in that lifestyle which is very structured and it's something you can count on. And being surrounded by all those Marines, it's just like family. And so I think that really helps people who have experienced trauma, to stay connected to other people.
And secondly, I think that by reenlisting, you know, it allows them to - they don't have to reflect on what's happened or try to make sense of it because they're still a Marine and they still need to get up the next day and they still have to go to work.
GROSS: You eventually went to community college and decided to study psychology. And then you went to college after that, you know, to a four-year college. And now you're on your way to graduate school to continue studying psychology?
Ms. GOODELL: Yes.
GROSS: So do you want to work with people who had been in the military, people who experienced post-traumatic stress disorder in the way that you did?
Ms. GOODELL: Well, my hope is to continue healing from this experience and to continue counseling, receiving counseling, so that I can make better sense of my experience, but ultimately, I would like to work with veterans.
When I first started going to counseling, I was having a difficult time telling about my experience because the other counselors - I felt that it was because they were civilians. I felt as though if only a veteran had been on the other side, how much easier maybe some of the issues would have come out. Now, they did do a terrific job of helping me. But I feel that there's a need for veterans to also be counselors.
GROSS: One of your teachers, when you were at Jamestown Community College, encouraged you to confront what you had experienced instead of being quiet about it and keep a journal. And that journal, with his help, developed into your memoir. He wrote the postscript to your book "Shade it Black." And I'd like to read the opening paragraph of his postscript, which is about you. He writes...
(Reading) Jessica Goodell enrolled in one of my classes in the fall of 20006. She appeared a bit older than most of her classmates. She was also very thin. When I picture her in that classroom, it's her posture I see most clearly. While others had a tendency to slouch down into their plastic chairs or to lean forward to rest their arms on a shared table before them, Jess sat with a perfectly straight spine. She didn't whisper to classmates, play with her phone or appear disinterested. She finished the course with one of a few A's I assigned. I remember, too, that she did not say a single word throughout the 15-week semester.
She took another course with me in the spring, again, a straight back, respectful demeanor, excellent work and not a single word. When she graduated in May of that year, she was named co-recipient of an award that is given annually to the best student in the college's Social Sciences division.
I thought that was a very interesting description of you. And I thought it was interesting, too, that you didn't say a word in class. You know, you describe how you didn't say a word to many of the male Marines that you served with because you thought things were so sexually charged, you just wanted to stay away from that. Had you been that quiet before going into the Marines?
Ms. GOODELL: I've always been on the shy side. But coming back from Iraq, I had been told by other Marines that my experience in Iraq was mine to bear, and that Marines who go to war go to protect civilians, and that we weren't to share with the civilians what we had experienced, you know, that we needed to be tough and strong and keep that to ourselves. And so when I had returned from Iraq, you know, that was also in the back of my mind and one of the reasons why I didn't tell anyone about what I had done.
GROSS: And was that supposed to be for your sake or for the sake of protecting them from what you'd witnessed - protecting civilians what you'd witnessed?
Ms. GOODELL: I think the idea is to protect civilians from the images of war. I have since come to a different understanding, where now I believe that I have an obligation to share what I've seen and what I've done so that we can learn from it.
GROSS: So having dealt with the remains of so many Marines, when you think about your own eventual death - which let's hope is many, many, many years in the future - do you think you'd like to be buried or cremated? Do you think about what you would like done with your body when you depart?
Ms. GOODELL: I've told my parents that I would like to be cremated. But they have said that that might be too difficult for them to do that. And that's also given me an appreciation for what we did in Iraq, because we collected every single piece of remains that we could. And it's really shown me how the surviving family members really have a need to say goodbye and to have that closure. Yeah.
GROSS: Well, Jess Goodell, I really want to thank you so much for speaking about things that must be very, very difficult to speak about. I'm very grateful that you spoke to us about your experiences in Iraq and after your return. I wish you good luck and good health and success in your career when you embark on it after graduate school.
Thank you very, very much.
Ms. GOODELL: Well, thank you very much.
GROSS: Jess Goodell is the author of the new memoir "Shade it Black: Death and After in Iraq."
You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.