EDITOR’S NOTE: CBS 6 reporter Greg McQuade is telling the stories of veterans who have returned to Central Virginia after serving their country in Iraq or Afghanistan. Look for Greg’s reports each Wednesday on the CBS 6 News at 11 or click here to view them on WTVR.com. If you know a veteran whose story Greg should tell, let Greg know on his Facebook page.
RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - She is just 20 years old, but Specialist Jennifer Martinez can say her job is one of the most challenging in the armed forces. Martinez just returned to Virginia after serving her second tour in battle. During her six month deployment, Martinez missed a great deal while serving overseas.
“This deployment was in Afghanistan and my first one was Iraq,” she said. “I just got back maybe two weeks ago. I missed food! Food! Driving my car things like that.”
Jennifer is exhaling at Fort Lee after spending a long six months in a war zone. Her five foot one frame had many questioning her ability in a theatre of war.
“Because I’m so short and small they say oh you can lift that.. ‘Yes I can lift that,’” she said.
As a member of the 54th Quartermaster Company, this 20-year-old soldier was tasked with one of the toughest jobs in the military.
“We have infantry people come in special forces come in and say I couldn’t do the job you’re doing. I guess it takes a special person. We basically process the soldiers so they can come home to their families with respect and honor,” she explained.
Not just process any soldier, but those who gave their lives serving their country.
“It’s pictures. Pictures is the hardest thing for me,” Martinez said softly. “Seeing the soldiers with their spouses and children that is probably the hardest.”
It is Jennifer’s job to handle soldiers remains and return them to Dover Air Force Base.
"It’s about not being attached for every remain for whoever, U.S. or coalition, that comes in you don’t get attached,” she said.
Jennifer also gathers, inventory and packs the personal items of the fallen.
“If they came in with a ring we want to make sure they go home with a ring. So we take everything they had so the family can feel some closure,” she said.
Her most challenging moment?
The day when 14 fallen soldiers passed through the morgue.
“When you see them in their driver’s license you realize this was somebody and they got hurt that is how I look at it,” she said.
Members of mortuary affairs have some of the highest percentages of PTSD in the military. Jennifer said she has the right mental and physical makeup for a most difficult mission.
“If we didn’t enjoy our job if we had issues, we’d switch to another job,” she said.
Deployments for mortuary affairs last half a year. The bond she shares with her fellow soldiers remains strong.
"When you get deployed with people for six months in close quarters you become like a family,” she explained.
Jennifer decided to become a medical examiner at an early age. Her parents quickly realized how serious she was.
“They asked if this was the career choice I wanted to make and since that this was a war time I was going to see things that weren’t normal and I told them that this is the job I wanted to do so they supported me,” she said.
She doesn’t know if she’ll be deployed again. But Jennifer will be ready. Knowing she is providing a small measure of comfort to families in mourning. A job she does with pride.
“I can’t even explain it because these people don’t know who I am, but I was there in the final moments of their loved one and it’s a feeling you can’t describe,” Martinez explained.
Specialist Martinez has one more year in the service. After her time in the U.S. military she plans on returning to her home in Houston, Texas and land a job in the Medical Examiner’s office.