In 2008, CBS' Chief Foreign Correspondent, Lara Logan, candidly speculated about the human side of the war in Iraq: "Tell me the last time you saw the body of a dead American soldier. What does that look like? Who in America knows what that looks like? Because I know what that looks like, and I feel responsible for the fact that no one else does..." Logan's query raised some important yet ignored questions: How did the remains of American service men and women get from the dusty roads of Fallujah to the flag-covered coffins at Dover Air Force Base? And what does the gathering of those remains tell us about the nature of modern warfare and about ourselves? These questions are the focus of Jess Goodell's story, Shade it Black: Death and After in Iraq.
Jess enlisted in the Marines immediately after graduating from high school in 2001, and in 2004 she volunteered to serve in the Marine Corps' first officially declared Mortuary Affairs unit in Iraq. Her platoon was tasked with recovering and processing the remains of fallen soldiers.
With sensitivity and insight, Jess describes her job retrieving and examining the remains of fellow soldiers lost in combat in Iraq, and the psychological intricacy of coping with their fates, as well as her own. Death assumed many forms during the war, and the challenge of maintaining one's own humanity could be difficult. Responsible for diagramming the outlines of the fallen, if a part was missing she was instructed to "shade it black." This insightful memoir also describes the difficulties faced by these Marines when they transition from a life characterized by self-sacrifice to a civilian existence marked very often by self-absorption. In sharing with us the story of her own journey, Goodell also helps us to better understand how PTSD affects female veterans. With the assistance of John Hearn, she has written one of the most unique accounts of America's current wars overseas yet seen.
One of my earliest memories, I swear, is of seeing large, black bags being slung by American GIs into helicopters in Vietnam. I remember asking my mother what on earth was being taken out of Vietnam? I mean, shouldn't there be things brought into the country? Supplies, etc? She told me, young as I was, "Those aren't supplies. Those are the bodies of the boys who were just killed. It's the dead young men."
I was floored. Death was… inconceivable. As I watched the TV, I wondered what was going on. How could we, as a country, as human beings just let this go on?
Through the rest of the war, and all the following wars, I've kept myself aware of that one fact: people are dying, and it's ugly, and it's permanent. I thought I knew what was going on.
"Shade It Black" taught me how little I've known about the godawful, horrific truth. The title is based on the protocol for those working in Mortuary Affairs: A paper is used with the drawing of a person on it. For wounds, points of bullet entry, put a dot or an x on the drawing. If an arm, a leg, some body part is missing from an IED or other explosion, shade it black.
And in the war, there's a lot of that. This is a woman's unflinching account of what it's like to work in Mortuary Affairs. The endless scooping up of as much of what used to be human beings as they can, all in an effort to send as much of that soldier back to loved ones as is possible. It's about trying to eat when you realize that much of your food smells like the roasted flesh of dead soldiers. The dawning realization that you're looking at living soldiers, seeing them as dead, and wondering what's in their pockets, what will be sent back home as part of personal possessions. That napkin that Marine just stuffed in his pocket? What will the people back home make of that? In their grief, loved ones will give it special significance.
Things like that broke my heart. But it doesn't stop there. Because not only does this set her apart from the rest of the Marines, who shun MA people like a jinx or the plague, she's an outcast because she's a female Marine. And when she gets home, she's an outcast because nobody can possibly, in a million years, truly understand what her PTSD is like. Even other soldiers, fellow MA workers, are out of reach because the unity one feels when one is at war doesn't quite carry over to civilian life where everybody is just trying to get along. Though the war has been survived, the carnage lived through, she comes home to find that everything, hope especially, has been shaded black.
This is barely over five hours, but I definitely don't regret spending a credit on it. It was mind-blowing, gut-wrenching, and ultimately, hopeful. Before listening to this, I'd gone through "On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery," and I was touched by that book. It made me cry, and it made me proud. I'm glad I listened to it. But I'm glad I listened to it first. Because after listening to "Shade It Black"? All I can think about is: touching, yes. But oh what horrors there are in war...
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
as a vet its painful reading about the demise of our military women and men
it was kind of hard to listen to what this Maine went through in sending our msrines home after giving the ultimate sacrifice. I enjoyed hearing it all from a woman's prospective.
This was a very straight-forward, almost clinical, description of one Marine's experience in Iraq, a Marine who is also a woman. While listening to the audiobook, I felt like I could see through her eyes, and in so doing, I could better understand what it was like for a woman to be in a combat zone. It brought back memories of my time in the Corps, but it also enlightened me concerning the side I never experienced. Well done, Marine. Thank you.