Her work provided an unlikely gift for the families of those who fought and died for America in Iraq.
The work was not for the faint of heart.
But when Jessica L. Goodell and members of the Marine Corps’ Mortuary Affairs platoon completed their job, loved ones back home could be certain those who had made the ultimate sacrifice had been gathered up and treated with the utmost dignity.
Yet the work took its toll.
The platoon was officially tasked with “recovering and processing” military personnel and, as well, Iraqi civilians who had been killed, often by insurgents’ roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices.
Seven years have passed since Goodell returned to civilian life, and in that time she has devised a strategy to escape the darkness brought on by the memories of war.
It is, in a sense, a gift to herself.
Goodell is a second-year counseling psychology doctoral student at the University at Buffalo.
“I chose this field because I did not want to live my life plagued with post-traumatic stress disorder,” the 29-year-old said.
Her strategy to live in the light is working.
But every day, she says, she thinks about her service in Iraq during 2004.
“We would get a call that a Marine was down. Then we’d go out on a convoy to the site. We would gather every single piece of remains. From there, we’d bring the remains back to our bunker, where we would document and sort the remains before placing them in an aluminum transfer case. We tied an American flag onto the coffin and send them home.”
Because Marines live by the promise that no Marine, alive or dead, gets left behind, Goodell said, it was imperative to be thorough. “It’s ingrained in us, and now that I am back, I have really come to understand and gain a perspective in what we did.”
That brings her a sense of comfort, knowing that the dead were returned home to the best of the platoon’s ability.
Even in the most trying of circumstances when there were multiple deaths, she said, she and her platoon members never lost sight of the fact that they were handling “sons, fathers, husbands – somebody’s loved ones.”
In August 2001, just weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she had enlisted with a goal of working as a tank crew member.
“I was told that women were not allowed on tanks. So I picked the most masculine job I was allowed to take, and that was working as a diesel mechanic. I was 18 and with an attitude and graduated at the top of my diesel engineering class.”
In 2003, when she returned from a two-year tour in Okinawa, she said, other members of her mechanics platoon had already served in Iraq, and that bothered her.
“Real Marines go to war. That’s what I thought. I put pressure on myself, but I wasn’t going to be able to go as a mechanic. The Marines already had as many mechanics there as they needed. So the only way to go to Iraq was to volunteer for a different position. The Mortuary Affairs platoon presented the first opportunity I had to volunteer.”
In retrospect, Goodell says she had no idea what she was in for. “They train you, but nothing can prepare you.”
After she returned from Iraq at the end of 2004, Goodell spent her final year at Twentynine Palms Marine Base in Southern California. With her contract up, she decided it was time to return to civilian life.
“Iraq had been challenging.”
And the memories would be even more challenging.
“I was living in a dark place,” she said.
But in time, she would co-author a book on her war experiences with John Hearn, her sociology professor at Jamestown Community College.
The book, she said, actually started out as a journal to help her sort through her war experiences. “John had told me that sometimes if you can arrange your memories in a coherent narrative, it is easier for the brain to process that information,” she said.
That experience, Goodell said, catapulted her into a healing journey.
The book, “Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq,” was published by Casemate Publishers and is available at some area bookstores. It can also be purchased online at Amazon.com.
Goodell’s story is also part of another book, “Portraits of Service: Looking Into the Faces of Veterans,” produced by Patton Publishing.
These days, Goodell says, she lives in Bemus Point, not far from the tranquil shores of Chautauqua Lake in her childhood home, which she recently purchased from her father.
She commutes to UB’s North Campus in Amherst and says her journey to becoming a doctor in counseling psychology has been “a process.”
What does that mean?
“It’s hard work, and I know I am in the right place,” she said.
Someday, she says, she hopes to counsel veterans and their families, so that they too can move from darkness into the light.
And what a gift that will be.
Jessica L. Goodell, 29
• Hometown: Fairfax, Va.
• Residence: Bemus Point
• Branch: Marine Corps
• Rank: Lance corporal
• War zone: Iraq
• Years of service:
August 2001–August 2005
• Most prominent honors:
Army Commendation Medal, Navy Unit Commendation Medal and Global War on Terrorism Medal
• Specialties: Heavy-equipment diesel mechanic and mortuary affairs