On the roof of an old airplane hangar outside Fallujah, spelled out in sandbags arranged as crude letters, is the Marine Corps credo, NO ONE LEFT BEHIND. In all wars, U.S. Marines take extraordinary risks to get their dead and wounded off the battlefield. Inside the hangar, the mortuary unit tries to honor that spirit as they carefully reassemble the bodies of dead Marines ripped apart by roadside bombs or shot up in fire fights.
It is grim work. Before they do their best to clean up the dead, they must find them, or what’s left of them. Traveling into combat zones, the Marines of the mortuary unit must crawl along, sifting through the dirt and blood-soaked debris of blast areas to find every piece of their fallen comrades. It takes a strong man or woman to do this work night and day. By many accounts, among the steadiest, most conscientious and duty-bound was Sgt. Daniel Cotnoir.
The senior enlisted man in the unit through most of 2004, Cotnoir, 33, visited more than 20 battle scenes, and his unit brought back the remains of 184 dead Marines, as well as numerous Iraqi civilians, policemen and some independent contractors killed in action. Last month he was named Marine of the Year by the Marine Corps Times.
But last week Cotnoir stood in a Massachusetts courtroom accused of attempted murder. He was charged with firing a shotgun out his apartment window at some unruly late-night partyers, wounding two of them. After pleading not guilty to armed assault with intent to murder, he is undergoing a psychiatric evaluation.
Why did Cotnoir snap? According to his lawyer, he was defending himself and his family. One of the revelers threw a bottle at him, and his home (just across a gas-station parking lot from a nightclub) has been shot at before. But his lawyer says Cotnoir is considering claiming that he is suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that may affect up to a quarter of recent combat veterans, maybe more. As more veterans return from Iraq, PTSD is sure to bring the war home in some tragic ways. Few stories could be sadder than Cotnoir’s.
Enlisting in the Reserves in 1999, Cotnoir’s specialty was fixing weapons. But when the Marine death toll began spiking up in Iraq in 2003, Cotnoir—a mortician in civilian life—was tapped for the Corps’s first mortuary unit. Marines can request to decline mortuary duty, but Cotnoir accepted. “Nobody wants to be doing that kind of job,” Cotnoir’s brother, John, told NEWSWEEK. “But at the same time, Dan always said there’s honor in it. You’re taking care of a brother.”
From their base at Taqaddum in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, Cotnoir and his team would respond—often within 20 minutes—to shoot-outs and bomb blasts, arriving on the scene in Humvees and a refrigerator truck before the sun and rigor mortis could have their effect. The Marines would carefully sift though the wreckage, placing colored flags: orange for equipment, yellow for personal effects, red for body parts. Human remains would be placed in pouches (never stacked) and taken back to the make-shift mortuary in the old hangar to be cleaned up (they are embalmed, dressed and positively ID’d by DNA tests back at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware).
The Marine morticians are advised to keep their emotional distance: to cover the faces of the dead, to avoid perusing old letters or photos found in wallets, to not chatter about “what a great guy or girl” the dead man or woman was. There is no joking around: the unit’s motto, also written on the hangar roof with sandbags, is HONOR, REVERENCE, RESPECT. Cpl. Garth Troescher, a buddy of Cotnoir’s in the unit, told NEWSWEEK that Troescher always referred to dead Marines as “remains.” “There’s no soul there. That’s all there was,” says Troescher. But other Marines call the dead “angels.”
A gruff martial-arts expert, but a softy on the inside, Cotnoir had trouble letting go, according to his brother, John. The father of two girls, he was hit hard by finding the sonogram of an unborn child on the torso of a Marine who had been torn into many pieces. He saw some horrific sights: according to his brother, Cotnoir helped cut down the charred bodies of the four contractors who were murdered and hung from lampposts in Fallujah in March 2004. (Cotnoir’s e-mail to his brother began, “You’ll never guess what I did today …”) He brooded over the unrecognizable remains of a Marine killed in a bomb blast. “He was telling me he was looking at it and thinking, This is a Marine, this could be somebody I know … this is one of our guys and it looks like hamburger on the floor,” recalled John Cotnoir.
Cotnoir was edgy and tense when he returned home to work at his father’s funeral parlor in Lawrence, Mass. He had taken some medication, what he called “goofy pills” for his anxiety, but “they really clouded him,” said John. He would call his brother at all hours of the night, “just to take the edge off,” said John, who is a policeman in a nearby town. Without telling his family, Cotnoir sought psychological help at a local Veterans Affairs hospital.
Lawrence is a struggling old mill town with a changing population. The Franco-American VFW post across the street from the family funeral parlor closed down. A Latino nightclub moved in. Every weekend, noise throbs outside the bar and prostitutes work the street. For months, Cotnoir complained of the noise and commotion. “He’s not one to give up,” says his brother, John. “You put him into something and he’ll plug away. He can be a pain in the a–.” Cotnoir believed that the local police ignored him or harassed him, stopping him for minor traffic violations. Juan Pascual, owner of the nightclub, Punto Final, blocked off an entrance facing the funeral home and replaced windows with block glass to cut down the noise, but Cotnoir was not satisfied.
In the early hours of Saturday, Aug. 13, Cotnoir had a few beers and squabbled with his wife over the TV. “Why don’t you go to bed?” she said, according to John Cotnoir. He tried to sleep, but the noise kept him up. Opening his curtains, he brandished a shotgun at the partyers in the parking lot. They apparently jeered at him, and somebody threw a juice bottle, shattering Cotnoir’s window and cutting his hand, according to the police report. Cotnoir fired two blasts in front of the crowd, and the shrapnel wounded two people, a 20-year-old and a 15-year-old, in the legs (they were treated and released from the hospital).
When the police arrived, Cotnoir came out with his hands up. “I want to be like you, a police officer,” he told the cops, explaining that he’s considering joining the force. The policemen asked him why he fired his shotgun. Cotnoir explained that in 2004 someone fired several bullets into the side of his building. “I have a wife and two kids in there,” Dan said, according to the police report. “If people are firing rounds into your house, where do you go?” Asked whether anyone was shooting at him on this night, Cotnoir began to sob and say that he was afraid someone would break into his house. “Do you think I was wrong?” he asked. “Yes,” a policeman replied.
Local prosecutors are tight-lipped. “It’s a serious case,” says John Dawley of the Essex County District Attorney’s Office. “People were shot at, and it’s a serious case when you consider [Cotnoir’s] background and history.” Whatever happens in court, Cotnoir is the object of considerable local sympathy. Newspaper columnists have backed him and a support rally has been scheduled. But war has a way of making casualties far from the battlefield. Last week a NEWSWEEK reporter knocked on the funeral-home door, and a neatly dressed man answered. It was Dan’s father, David. His eyes watered and his hand shook as he held a cigarette. “I can’t bring myself to talk about it,” he said, and politely closed the door.