Sunday, April 20, 2003

A grim duty: recovering war's fallen

Reservist brings dignity to job

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A Butler County man is among a small group of U.S. Marines who have the unpleasant but necessary task of removing the war dead from the battlefields of Iraq.

"My heart bleeds for him, because he sees things that I know must make his heart quiver," said Mark Weber of Hamilton, whose son, Justin, is a Marine reservist serving in the Mortuary Affairs unit. "He sees the results of war - every little detail - and what he does is something nobody ever thinks about."

Justin Weber, a jovial 24-year-old newlywed whose wife is expecting their first child, landed in this grim line of work via an unusual and painful journey. It started with the 1998 murder of his mother, Lisa, 39, of Fairfield, which put him in contact with the Butler County Coroner's Office. Weber found the coroner's work intriguing. Two years later, Weber showed up at the office, looking for a job after he had finished basic training in the Marines.

"I was really hesitant, because I didn't know how he would handle things because of what had happened to his mom," said Patricia Randolph, the coroner's chief investigator.

But Randolph and the coroner, Dr. Richard P. Burkhardt, remembered Weber's calm strength at the time of his mother's slaying - a crime he had valiantly tried to prevent. "So I went ahead and took the chance and hired him - and it was the best thing I have ever done," Randolph said.

After hiring Weber as a transporter for coroner's cases in 2000, the coroner's staff has grown to depend on Weber for his competence, reliability and compassion; they have grown to love him for his exuberance.

When Weber prepares bodies for transport from death scenes to the county morgue, "he has to do this with gentleness and delicacy and empathy; eyes are watching," said Sally Poynter, the coroner's longtime medical secretary. "He doesn't say a word."

But when he is around the coroner's staff, his demeanor shifts.

"Sometimes if we're heavy-hearted about a situation, you just feel better if he's in the room. He can turn on and off very quickly, from the happy Justin to the professional Justin - and that is just an unbelievable asset around here," Poynter said.

"He's a pretty valuable asset to the Marines as well," said Capt. John Bradbury, who oversees the unit to which Weber is attached, Military Police Company C, based in Dayton, Ohio.

Among about 75,000 Marines "in theater," Weber belongs to a platoon of 30-some members trained in recovering, identifying and preparing bodies for transport. "That's the only unit in the Marine Corps tasked with that mission," Bradbury said. Further, Weber is among a few platoon members with "real-life experience, hands-on, dealing with these sorts of issues," Bradbury said.

Before being sent to Kuwait, then Iraq, Weber spent several weeks sharing his skills with fellow Marines in Marietta, Ga., Anacostia, Md., and Aurora, Colo.

The specialty is more complex than it might seem - and there is some risk involved. Weber's unit is armed and deploys with ground combat units, though not on the front lines.

Weber and his fellow specialists are under orders to gather remains of Iraqi soldiers and civilians as well as U.S. troops and allies, Bradbury said.

"For human dignity and just humanity, we're going to render appropriate care and services" to any casualties in the Marines' assigned area, Bradbury said.

Weber's wife, Christi, 23, said she had little knowledge of what her husband has been doing. Mail delivery has been spotty, and he hasn't had access to e-mail for some time.

It would be fantastic if her husband could make it home for their baby's birth, due June 20, "but he has active duty orders for a year, so I'm not going to get my hopes up," Christi Weber said. He could remain on duty until January 2004.

Besides his duties with the Marines and the coroner's office, Weber also works for Time Warner Cable and, with a partner, runs his own business: Crime Scene Cleaning Services. "He's just an amazing guy all around," his wife said.

Justin Weber is on Burkhardt's mind often, especially while Burkhardt, a devout Catholic, is in prayer.

"When I pray for our soldiers over in Iraq, my prayers have the face of Justin in them," Burkhardt said. "I pray for him, as I do for all our troops, to come back safely - and he has something to look forward to when he comes home: not death, but birth - and a new life."


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