Medical Examiner System Personnel Train in Operation Joint Recovery

March 16, 2018

More than 200 active duty and reserve service members and personnel from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System participated in Operation Joint Recovery at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, March 7-10.

The Defense Department mortuary affairs exercise involved search and recovery missions in tactical and nontactical environments, operating a mortuary affairs contaminated remains mitigation site, and establishing and operating a mortuary affairs collection point and a theater mortuary evacuation point.

AFMES’ primary role in the exercise was to familiarize participants in contaminated remains recovery, processing and procedural guidance and to provide an operational assessment.

Army Col. Louis N. Finelli, the AFMES director, said the exercise was “a great opportunity” for his staff to share their knowledge with different services and with local and national agencies, explaining that the mortuary affairs contaminated remains mitigation site was developed to act as a stopgap to recovery of contaminated remains, which he called “a relatively new scenario.”

Contaminated remains are casualities from an attack of a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive nature.

Evolving Idea

Finelli said that being unable to return contaminated remains first was recognized as a gap during the first years of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but the idea of a mortuary affairs contaminated remains mitigation site has evolved over the past two to three years, as technology and procedures are constantly evolving.

“In the past two years, we have made tremendous strides in the MACRMS process, but we are always examining for ways to improve the mission of bringing our troops home,” Finelli said.

Participants had to put these strides to the test during the exercise, as members were subjected to a simulated CBRNE attack and had to use techniques, tactics and procedures developed by the Joint Mortuary Affairs Center.

Application of protective suits, gloves, breathing filtration gear, wireless cameras and the use of drones were all used for safety and security during the simulated recovery of service members.

A Teaching Experience

“It was definitely a teaching experience — for most, it was their first time seeing a MACRMS in the field,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Bryan Platt, AFMES forensic pathologist. “I tried to demonstrate what they would encounter during a real-world scenario.”

AFMES also provided medical examiners, investigators and mortuary affairs specialists to the exercise.

“Most people don’t know how U.S. service member causalities are recovered in foreign conflicts overseas or stateside,” said Jairo E. Portalatin, AFMES medicolegal death investigator. “It can be a very sensitive process, but we owe it to our service members to train and get it right.”

Mike Leone, AFMES safety, environmental and occupational health manager, acted as the exercise incident commander. He said that in addition to the MACRMS, scenarios also included a downed aircraft, a tornado disaster, and combat search and recovery missions.

In each case, he said, participants had to locate, recover and process simulated human remains, sometimes weighing more than 200 pounds.

“These exercises and training scenarios are extremely beneficial for us,” said Marine Corps Sgt. Keith A. Norman, logistics chief for Detachment Personnel Retrieval and Processing Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 45. “For some of our younger Marines, it’s the first time they’ve worked in a joint environment.”

Finelli said integration of multiple organizations in a joint environment is a key focus of these types of exercises.

“By conducting these exercises,” he said, “we hope to introduce to our service members the experience and training needed to support worldwide contingency operations and disaster response operations.”