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One of my earliest memories, I swear, is of seeing large, black bags being slung by American GIs into helicopters in Vietnam. I remember asking my mother what on earth was being taken out of Vietnam? I mean, shouldn't there be things brought into the country? Supplies, etc? She told me, young as I was, "Those aren't supplies. Those are the bodies of the boys who were just killed. It's the dead young men."
I was floored. Death was… inconceivable. As I watched the TV, I wondered what was going on. How could we, as a country, as human beings just let this go on?
Through the rest of the war, and all the following wars, I've kept myself aware of that one fact: people are dying, and it's ugly, and it's permanent. I thought I knew what was going on.
"Shade It Black" taught me how little I've known about the godawful, horrific truth. The title is based on the protocol for those working in Mortuary Affairs: A paper is used with the drawing of a person on it. For wounds, points of bullet entry, put a dot or an x on the drawing. If an arm, a leg, some body part is missing from an IED or other explosion, shade it black.
And in the war, there's a lot of that. This is a woman's unflinching account of what it's like to work in Mortuary Affairs. The endless scooping up of as much of what used to be human beings as they can, all in an effort to send as much of that soldier back to loved ones as is possible. It's about trying to eat when you realize that much of your food smells like the roasted flesh of dead soldiers. The dawning realization that you're looking at living soldiers, seeing them as dead, and wondering what's in their pockets, what will be sent back home as part of personal possessions. That napkin that Marine just stuffed in his pocket? What will the people back home make of that? In their grief, loved ones will give it special significance.
Things like that broke my heart. But it doesn't stop there. Because not only does this set her apart from the rest of the Marines, who shun MA people like a jinx or the plague, she's an outcast because she's a female Marine. And when she gets home, she's an outcast because nobody can possibly, in a million years, truly understand what her PTSD is like. Even other soldiers, fellow MA workers, are out of reach because the unity one feels when one is at war doesn't quite carry over to civilian life where everybody is just trying to get along. Though the war has been survived, the carnage lived through, she comes home to find that everything, hope especially, has been shaded black.
This is barely over five hours, but I definitely don't regret spending a credit on it. It was mind-blowing, gut-wrenching, and ultimately, hopeful. Before listening to this, I'd gone through "On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery," and I was touched by that book. It made me cry, and it made me proud. I'm glad I listened to it. But I'm glad I listened to it first. Because after listening to "Shade It Black"? All I can think about is: touching, yes. But oh what horrors there are in war...
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