The last post: Inside a military morgue in Helmand

In a military morgue in Helmand, a small team of soldiers cares for comrades making the final journey home. Report by Terri Judd
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The Independent Online

Tucked away amid the maze of makeshift buildings and tents that constitute the giant British base of Camp Bastion in the Helmand desert are a couple of small white rooms. They are known as "Rose Cottage".

In the bustle of the camp, where dust invades even the most protected crevice, the anonymous doors next to the field hospital lead into a uncommonly cool, pristine space, sparsely decorated with a couple of gurneys and a row of cold stores.

Staff Sgts Andy Nutt and Tom Brennan – a pair of down-to-earth soldiers with four decades of military experience between them – have been in charge of the army's morgue at Bastion through what has been by far the deadliest summer of the British forces' time in Afghanistan. In the words of one medic, they have the hardest, most unglamorous and least appreciated job in the camp.

Almost 60 British soldiers have passed through their care and they know they will have to deal with more before they finish their tour.

Only a name tag on one of the cabinets offers a hint of the human tragedy that has unfolded – and the ramifications for a family back home. The name Rose Cottage was adopted so that announcements concerning the morgue can be made over the tannoy without upsetting anyone.

The task has fallen to Staff Sgts Nutt and Brennan because – as hospital sergeant major and staff quarter-master sergeant – they are among the most senior soldiers in the hospital, men with years of experience behind them, who rose from the same ranks as the youngsters now in their care. They wait, just like the surgeons and doctors, for the stretchers to come off the emergency rescue helicopters.

If the ambulance turns off its blue lights, they know that it is their job to step forward, painfully aware that their charge may have lost his or her battle for life just hours, even minutes earlier.

Both admit that the sight of often painfully young servicemen, disfigured and clad in the same uniforms as themselves, has often been hard to bear. A wedding ring or a small personal memento reminds them that somewhere a family is about to receive shattering news.

From the moment a dead soldier arrives, explained Staff Sgt Brennan, 38, they never leave their side.

"I don't know if they have died alone, but they are not going to be alone at that point. Some are so young. We had some just months out of training. My younger sister is 23, and I think: 'You are five years younger than her'. It wrenches me.

"Sometimes you might have seen them about, or in the cookhouse. I have lots of friends here. My biggest fear is that I will see someone from my unit. It would rip me in two, but I would not leave that coffin."

The two men talk to their charges, referring to them by name, explaining each procedure as they prepare them for their final journey home.

Staff Sgt Brennan, a highly experienced combat medic, explained bashfully that their training means they would talk to an unconscious soldier and this merely seems a natural extension.

It is also their duty to look after the living, the fellow soldiers whose task it is to come to identify the body. "I remember this sergeant major, you could see this bloke was a tough individual who would not lose control, but there was a flash across his eyes that brought a lump to my throat," said Staff Sgt Brennan.

Staff Sgt Nutt, 43, continued: "The worst was one fella who had shared a house with four mates and he was the last one alive. He was just sobbing, the poor bastard."

Col Tim Hodgetts, medical director of the military field hospital, added: "It makes you emotionally numb, but you deal with it on a daily basis. To see people in our own uniform – it never gets any easier." The staff at Rose Cottage deal with anyone who has perished within the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) remit in this province, including British, US, Afghan soldiers and even local civilians. The children and babies are heart-wrenching, the two soldiers admit.

A small girl, the same age as Staff Sgt Nutt's five-year-old daughter, still haunts him. She was brought in with barely a scratch on her, just a small mark to her face and a cut to her stomach, still clutching the teddy bear the nurses had given her.

"I put my hand behind her head. She was still soft and warm; her hair was clean, just like my daughter. I got her some new clothes so at least she wasn't naked," he recalled, adding with understatement: "That was a long day. That night we had just had enough. It would have been a night for a pint, just one pint."

In an area where high explosives have become the Taliban weapon of choice, the two men have seen sights daily that most people would hope to go a lifetime without witnessing. Their task is incomprehensibly gruesome at times.

Many of the worst, Staff Sgt Nutt explains, are Afghan soldiers whose unarmoured vehicles fall prey to improvised explosive devices.

Some are brought in body bags, others are not. The pair explained that they do their best to shield the "unsung heroes", the ambulance workers – often junior soldiers with the Royal Army Medical Corps and Royal Logistics Corps – from the most horrific sights.

"The first moment you open the body bag is always the hardest. The worst day was when the ANA [Afghan National Army] brought in four soldiers. I opened the doors and it was just bits. One stretcher had a head and a torso, another had two heads, another limbs."

As they arrive, every victim is first checked by ATOs (Ammunition Technical Officers) for any explosives on them. One soldier still had a grenade, the pin perilously snapped. Soldiers of the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police gather evidence to ascertain the cause of death and examine details of the weapon used.

The two men then prepare the body and care for it until – in the case of the British – the Union flag is draped over the coffin for the final trip home.

In the spartan enclosure of the morgue, the incongruous sight of bottles of cheap Tea Rose eau de toilette line up beside the fridges. The Afghans insist that their countrymen's bodies are liberally sprayed with the sweet scent. It is one that neither man will be able to forget.

For their pains they have been receiving a daily "unpleasant working allowance" of £2. It will be going to the forces' charities Help for Heroes and BLESMA (British Limbless Ex-Service Men's Association), they said.

A jovial Ulsterman with 19 years in the Territorial Army, Staff Sgt Nutt was heading up a BT sales team until recently. The banter and bond between him and Staff Sgt Brennan, a no-nonsense Essex soldier with 22 years' experience, has obviously kept the two men sane.

But they concede that returning home will be difficult. There will be memories and emotions, Staff Sgt Brennan explained, that they have "put in a box for another day".

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