The scene plays in Staff Sgt. Gerald Peckham’s head over and over again: Two young military police officers, burned beyond recognition, lay on cold metal tables while he went through what was left of their uniforms. He was looking for any personal effects and leftover ammunition — anything that might have survived the inferno that engulfed their Humvee after it was hit by an explosively formed projectile.
The image is as clear today as it was that day in early 2005 in Taji, Iraq, when Peckham, then brand-new to mortuary affairs, took responsibility for the fallen MPs. They were his first casualties and have haunted him ever since, sending him on a long, painful journey through depression, insomnia and post-traumatic stress — a journey that eventually led to healing.
“These Soldiers – it was devastating,” Peckham remembered. “It kind of really gave me a shock. This is not training. It was reality, and seeing these Soldiers –I wear the same uniform as them, and they were just going back to their unit.”
Peckham originally enlisted in 1982, when he realized the technical training the Army offered could help him make something of himself. He’s served with the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea; the 9th Inf. Div. at what was then Fort Lewis, Wash.; the 25th Inf. Div. at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; in the Reserve and as a drill sergeant. He even got out of the Army for a while, but realized there was more that he could do as a Soldier. An old stress injury meant he couldn’t go back to the infantry, though, so he decided to look for a career field where he could really contribute.
Casualty and mortuary affairs was his first choice. He knew the job would he hard – most Soldiers can only handle it for a few years, he said – but it was important, an honor he felt he owed fallen Soldiers. In April of 2004, after just six weeks of training, he was on his way to the 125th Forward Support Battalion at Fort Riley, Kan. The unit deployed in support of elements of the 1st Armored Div., attached to the 3rd Inf. Div., the following February. Over the next 12 months, he took care of 130 casualties.
Peckham was on call 24 hours a day. After a unit radioed in, he would meet whoever was escorting the remains. Because of the heat in Iraq, the casualty collection point had a large, 40-degree refrigeration room. Peckham would bring a fallen Soldier into the viewing room and look for any unexploded ordinance that might still be on the remains, such as ammunition or hand grenades. Then he would inventory the Soldiers’ personal effects.
“Soldiers will have very sentimental things on them like a rosary or a cross or a wedding ring,” he said. “A lot … of them go out there on missions and they have that stuff as good luck. I know that the survivors — especially if they’re married — they want their husband’s wedding ring or rosary or whatever, credit cards, things like that. All that needs to be taken care of.”
Peckham added that casualty and mortuary affairs Soldiers do not otherwise disturb Soldiers’ remains. They don’t clean them. They don’t remove uniforms or body armor. That’s the job of the armed forces medical examiner at Dover Air Force Base, Del., who performs an investigation and determines the cause of death. Even if the Soldier has identification, or his or her unit members identify the remains, the identification is unofficial until the medical examiner can officially confirm it.
The two MPs were burned so badly, Peckham said, that dental records or DNA would be the only viable identification options. Casualty evacuation flights had priority in theater, and Peckham volunteered to help escort the two Soldiers to the central casualty collection point in Baghdad, spending the Blackhawk flight thinking about what they must have gone through before they died, wondering if they were killed instantly, or if they suffered.
He didn’t sleep well that night, or any night after. “Your mind automatically takes a picture of that and it goes over it in your head over and over and over again, and you go to sleep with that and you wake up with it.” He was so exhausted that at one point he even started to hallucinate.
And the bodies kept coming – 13 in July alone. During one 24-hour period, Peckham processed seven Iraqi soldiers who had been ambushed and executed while they were at prayer. Then, after working all night, he learned a Soldier from his own unit had been killed in an IED explosion. Leaders sent the Soldier’s remains to another CCP to make things a little easier on the unit, but Peckham still had to inventory all of the Soldier’s personal effects.
Then just before Christmas, four Soldiers were killed in a single attack. Peckham escorted their bodies to Baghdad too, and later at the memorial service, he learned one, a combat medic who was brought in with tourniquets on all four limbs, had eight children.
“I always went to every memorial service, because I was responsible for taking care of the remains, I just felt like it was my duty,” he said.
“It obviously hit hard, because here we were, four weeks or so from going to Kuwait. I went back to my office and sat there. I’m thinking, I’m actually picturing in my mind, that in 24 hours or less, his family’s going to be notified,” Peckham added. “I picture all these kids at home back at Fort Riley and the Christmas tree up. That was even going through my mind when I escorted him: ‘This is going to change their lives forever. … It’s going to be devastating.’”
The only way Peckham could cope with the sights, sounds and smells of death was to try and shut off his emotions. “You’re doing something that is very important. You have to be levelheaded. You have to compose yourself. You can’t fall apart. If I go down, and someone else is going to have to come in, they’re not going to know what to do.”
He even distanced himself from his family, going weeks without calling his wife and skipping a birthday phone call to his son. He was busy, but he also didn’t want to upset his family by talking about his job. “It’s the last thing a spouse wants to hear: A guy got blown up by an IED today.” He would usually say that it was hot outside, and then ask about what was going on at home.
He tried to internally process everything after he returned to Fort Riley in January 2006, but a second deployment to Iraq with the 601st Aviation Battalion in September 2007 brought everything back. As a brigade casualty and mortuary affairs Soldier, he worked more as an advisor, and didn’t have to confront violent, gruesome deaths on a daily basis. This deployment was much easier than the first, until a young chaplain assistant, unable to cope with problems at home, committed suicide. “That was very hard,” Peckham remembered. “He was a good Soldier, he really was. One of the things that really hit me was that this Soldier should have been alive.
“I was with the chaplain and the other chaplain assistant on the back of this C-130, looking down at this Soldier in his transfer case, and it was sad. It was really sad,” Peckham said. “In the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘If this Soldier had any idea of what we are experiencing right now, the pain and the emotions that we were going through, I’m almost sure that if there was another option other than suicide, he would have taken that option.’ We don’t look on the other side. We can’t see the effect it’s going to have on other people.”
Peckham remembered that Soldier later when he transferred to the 54th Quartermaster Company at Fort Lee, Va. To keep from disrupting their lives, he left his family at Fort Riley, and reported to his new assignment.
Peckham had little time to decompress between his deployment and relocation. “I just didn’t feel like I was ready to go to another place after coming off a 15-month deployment.” He became depressed and his sleeping problems got worse. Before he knew it, the now-platoon sergeant was sleeping through formations.
After he missed an especially important company formation to send off a deploying unit, he called his wife in a panic. “I’ve always done the right thing. I have a spotless career. I’ve never been in trouble. … Basically, she called my first sergeant, and that raises the red flags and then I called the first sergeant.
“It was a Sunday, and he said, ‘Just come into formation tomorrow and then go to mental health right after that.’ You don’t know how good that felt. He understood. … Hearing that coming from a senior noncommissioned officer is something you want to hear. … NCOs are the backbone of the Army. One NCO can make a difference.”
A counselor at Fort Lee gave him some medication and suggested that he spend four or five days at a residential program for servicemembers suffering from combat-related trauma at a nearby hospital — Peckham stayed nine days. Simply getting seven or eight hours of uninterrupted sleep helped, as did art and music therapy and journaling.
“About halfway through, I kind of sat back and was taking everything in and I was really inspired by a lot of things that I had already experienced. Now I’m learning about how I’m going to have to make an adjustment and a change in my life. You have to be able to control your emotions and anger and everything,” said Peckham.
Although he was diagnosed with PTSD and was considered a high risk for suicide, he said it was never an option. He could never put his family and friends and fellow Soldiers through the agony he experienced when the chaplain assistant committed suicide.
“It doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t ease the pain,” he said. “All it does is leave a question in people’s minds. It brings on more pain.”
In fact, Peckham wishes he could show other Soldiers someone who’s taken his own life and let them experience the aftermath. He decided to share his own story instead and wrote a memoir, “Zip Tied Boots,” about his experiences, hoping to inspire at least one Soldier to reach out for help. Through writing, he was able to find healing. By the time he was done, 90 percent of his PTSD symptoms disappeared.
“My social worker told me, ‘This is a remarkable thing you’ve done. Being able to express it and write it has actually helped you. You’ve self-healed.’ She called it narrative writing and I thought, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know that,’” he said. “But then I noticed a big change in me and so did she and some of the other therapists.”
Today, Peckham is back at Fort Riley with his family, waiting to complete the physical evaluation board process so he can medically retire. He then wants to volunteer with the Army’s suicide prevention program, talking to not only Soldiers, but also their spouses.
“After getting treatment, I know there’s more people out there who need help,” he said. “There are some who aren’t asking for it because they’re afraid of being looked at as a weaker link and ruining their careers. With the number of years I’ve been in the Army, and as many leadership positions I’ve had and difficult jobs that I’ve had, I can say that’s false.
“I had a lot more respect for Soldiers when I got out of the hospital. I didn’t lose that respect. I think they even respected me more too. I’ve always been told that it’s your career, you have to look out for yourself. But you also have to take care of yourself, because if you don’t, no one else will. I’m just so glad that I did. Things are so much better.”