There's nothing like a good war story, says Lt. Col. Andrew DeKever, a Mishawaka native and 17-year veteran of the military currently serving in Alaska.
And his duty three years ago in Afghanistan, indeed, was nothing like a good war story. A major at the time, DeKever was support operations officer for the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, giving him a front-row seat to some of the country’s beautiful mountain scenery.
He had a good view as well, too close as it turned out, of the activities at the base’s M. A. tent. It stands for mortuary affairs, and, yes, wrote DeKever in a recent e-mail to The Tribune, the duty there was as grim as the name implies.
“While an aura of glory surrounds combat ... with mortuary affairs ... there is no excitement or adventure, no special medals or badges, and no glory,’’ he wrote. “Combat is an adrenaline rush, but dead bodies are a sobering, emotionally disturbing, gut-wrenching reminder of what war is really all about.’’
In a telephone interview last week, DeKever, 39, touched on his
observations during his six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan. A 1991
Mishawaka High School graduate who’s back in Mishawaka this week to
visit with his parents, Joe and Mary Ann DeKever, and to serve as
commencement speaker for the Mishawaka High School Class of 2012,
DeKever painted a picture of war few get to see.
Or want to see. Although support operations officers who had served
before him at the base rarely visited the MA tent, DeKever felt it was
part of his job to lend a hand to the soldiers he oversaw there.
Can’t deal with it
It didn’t take him long to realize, however, that the consequences of
war are such that few other people want to deal with it.
“Enlisted soldiers understood but my leaders didn’t. ... My battalion
commander went there (the MA tent) once. Our brigadier commander went
there once and never came back,’’ he said.
The job of soldiers in the tent was to process the remains not only of
U. S. soldiers but Afghan police officers and soldiers, enemy
combatants and Afghan civilians including children. The latter, he
said, were the most difficult to deal with, largely because those
charged with processing the bodies and performing inventories of their
personal effects had children of their own.
The father of a 6-year-old boy, DeKever recalled one occasion when he
broke down in tears after assisting in the processing of the body of
an 8-month-old Afghan girl. She had been caught in a crossfire, he
said, when U. S. Special Forces stormed a house suspected of
sheltering enemy fighters.
“She was beautiful,’’ he wrote in his e-mail regarding the
“brown-skinned girl with a mop of black hair.’’
As for U. S. soldiers processed in the tent, DeKever recalled four who
had been riding in an armored Humvee that struck an I.E.D. (Improvised
“The attack was so traumatic that the artillerymen originally couldn’t
find any pieces of two of the four men in the Humvee, (with) parts of
the other two only surfacing after an extensive search of the blast
site. Bahrman (Specialist Roger Bahrman, a cook from Michigan’s Upper
Peninsula who assisted in the tent) and his buddies even had to remove
tree branches that were embedded in some of the bodies from the force
of the explosion,’’ DeKever wrote.
‘Couldn’t recognize him anymore’
“These same four guys had passed through our FOB (Forward Operating
Base) just two days earlier, Bahrman in particular remembering how he
was kidding one of the casualties ... about something during that
visit. Now, (the deceased soldier) had nothing left of him from the
waist down, and Bahrman couldn’t even recognize him anymore.’’
DeKever said a background check revealed one of the casualties, a
21-year-old, had turned down a basketball scholarship so he could join
the Army and support his pregnant wife. Another, 24, had swapped
mid-tour leave dates to surprise his father on his birthday. The
oldest, 34, was called “the old man’’ and ended every phone call home
by saying, “I’ve got your back. You can sleep in peace.’’
As a coping mechanism, DeKever said most of the personnel in the tent
avoided knowing anything about the casualties, in an attempt to remain
emotionally detached. DeKever, however, said he wasn’t able to
disconnect that way and went so far as to visit two of the victims’
By the end of his deployment, DeKever’s MA team had processed 105
remains, including 63 on DeKever’s watch. He personally handled 18 of
the bodies, he said.
Therapy, medication helped him cope
It came with a price. He spent most of the following year in therapy,
he said, adding he kept those sessions a secret from the military. He
still takes medication to get past the trauma but at this point, he
said, he believes he’s gotten past the experience.
“I’m fine now,’’ he said.
In Anchorage, DeKever, who also has served in Iraq and has published
the book “Here Rests in Honored Glory: Life Stories of Our Country’s
Medal of Honor Recipients,’’ commands a battalion that provides
support to 13,000 soldiers stationed in Alaska. Unlike Afghanistan,
his wife and son live with him, he said, as does a cat and dog.
Also unlike Afghanistan, there’s no MA tent.
Staff writer Lou Mumford: