Shade it black
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The mortuary affairs unit did tremendously important work that helped give families closure
The story of a soldier from a Mortuary Affairs unit
Hardcover. 192 pp.
2011. Casemate Publishers.
When Jessica Goodell and her Marine Corps unit was deployed to Iraq in 2004, she was already attempting to overcome the obstacles placed in front of her by her male counterparts who frequently showed less respect for female Marines. The men often labeled the women as "Marine-ettes" and disrespected them as if they were inferior; as if they weren't sacrificing as much as the men; as if they weren't actually Marines.
While that alone would have likely compounded the stress of a soldier being deployed into an active war zone such as Iraq, Goodell volunteered for one of the most important yet heart-wrenching jobs in the American military -- being a member of the Mortuary Affairs team. In Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq (2011, Casemate), Jess Goodell pulls back the curtain and attempts to share her experiences in the Mortuary Affairs unit at Camp Taqaddum, a forward operating base in one of the most dangerous areas at that point of the war -- 50 miles west of Baghdad, between Fallujah and Ramadi.
The responsibility of Goodell and her fellow Marines in the Mortuary Affairs unit was the grisly task of recovering the bodies of American soldiers killed in action and attempting to identify the deceased soldier, prepare the body for repatriation to the United States, and to do so with the dignity and reverence that Americans would hope dead soldiers would receive. Shade It Black attempts to give some insight on the solemn and important work done by the Mortuary Affairs unit.
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...
---CBS' Chief Foreign Correspondent, Lara Logan
Unfortunately, the narrative of Shade It Black is so disjointed that it is tremendously difficult to follow. I was very interested in the work that Goodell and her team members did -- work that must be emotionally-draining and that I'm convinced Goodell and her fellow Marines did with the utmost respect and honor. I can tell that the Mortuary Affairs unit felt strongly about carefully collecting the remains of deceased soldiers -- often when there is very little to collect -- finding out who the soldier is, gathering their belongings, and attempting to return as much as possible to the family of the fallen warriors so that they could receive a dignified burial and the honors due to them.
There are parts of Shade It Black that shine and it's not the story that I had trouble with; it was the storytelling. Goodell attempts to weave the duties of the Mortuary Affairs unit in with the challenges that female Marines faced in the testosterone-driven world of the American military and then laces in another story towards the end about her personal problems once she returned from Iraq. All three of these threads of stories could be interesting if told thoroughly, but Shade It Black is structured as chaotic as the dangerous battlefield retrievals of fallen soldiers must have felt. Each chapter felt as if I was jumping into a new story that was missing the first five paragraphs.
I don't mean to discount any of the divergent stories that Lance Corporal Goodell is trying to tell in Shade It Black. I just wish she would have finished telling them. What Goodell and the Mortuary Affairs unit did is tremendously important work that gives shattered families closure when they've lost a loved one. I have a ton of respect for what she and her fellow Marines did, and there is some fascinating information in the book, but something is missing.
The title, Shade It Black, refers to how members of the Mortuary Affairs unit fill out a diagram of a fallen soldier. If there is a body part or section of the deceased soldier missing, they shade that area black on the diagram. Jessica Goodell also refers to parts of her life after leaving the Marines that left her troubled and made her feel as if she was shading some part of herself black. Unfortunately, after reading this book there are some important links and aspects of what could have been a very interesting story that I would have to shade black because they're simply missing.
Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq by Jess Goodell (with John Hearn) is available now from Casemate Publishers. You can order the book from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle.
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.