You personalize it by actually seeing, touching, or hearing the event and by smelling the surroundings. As a coroner, many times those of us who have to deal with trauma up close have to wear a mask due to the odors being so strong. The event penetrates your mind and it stays with you forever.
War veterans experience multiple traumas, day after day; we deal with PTSD to its fullest. I thought when I came back to the world (home) that trauma would leave me, but it followed me in my duffle bag, I opened it one day and the demons found their owner and latched on, tormenting me for years to come.
Little did I know I would add more trauma when I was elected Jasper County Coroner. Being a coroner, you see trauma first hand, up close and in person. You examine the body head to toe, front and back to record all wounds and bruises or any deformities. You then write it on your coroner report. You collect blood and other fluids for lab toxicology reports. In other words, you do a thorough investigation of the corpse. Many of these cases bring on PTSD, and that stays with us for life. “Trauma, Trauma, Everywhere Trauma.”
My first trauma case as a coroner was a car wreck. The call came in around 7 a.m. I was very nervous and anxious and my adrenaline and stress level went up significantly. The dispatcher told me that the accident happened on west bound of I-44, just east of Joplin. I live close to that area, so I arrived within 15 minutes.
When I arrived at the scene, there was a lot of black smoke covering the area; it was actually burning our eyes. There was no breeze and the smoke was laying low. One of the vehicles was totally burned. Firemen were spraying water on the vehicle and tires; the smell of the rubber burning was very pungent. Two other cars were involved and the occupants were all injured. Fireman had pulled the injured out of the vehicles, and paramedics were working feverishly to care for them. In the distance I could hear the siren of another ambulance approaching the scene. The driver of the burned vehicle was burned to a crisp; he was still sitting behind the steering wheel. The fireman had to extricate the body from the vehicle; we had to be extra careful because crispy bones break very easily. We placed the corpse in a black body bag and sealed it. I then wrote his last name on the bag for identification; this helps in the chain of custody. Working with burned bodies instantly reminded me of Vietcong being bombed and the human remains.
After a while I heard the whop, whop, whop sound of a medical helicopter coming in for a medevac to air lift one of the victims; the others were transported by ambulance. The chopper sound alone increased my adrenalin. Subconsciously, I was back in Vietnam. The highway patrol, local sheriff’s deputies and city police were also completing their investigation and picking up the litter on the highway. Chaos was everywhere. Traffic was backed up for miles. I did my investigation, wrote my coroner’s report and took a lot of pictures. I then transported the body to a local morgue and placed it in a cooler. The next day I transported the body to a Springfield, Missouri, hospital for an autopsy. The smell of the burned body was no different than those in Vietnam. I was already asking myself, do I really want to do this for a living? “Trauma, Trauma, Everywhere Trauma”
The job of a corpsman and that of a coroner are in some ways alike and some ways completely different. On the battlefield I tried to save lives. As a coroner I only dealt with the deceased. I did coroner reports mostly on deaths happening outside of a medical facility, except for hospice cases. However, if the victim received his or her condition outside of a medical facility and was transported to a hospital and died there, coroners were then notified and a coroner’s report had to be recorded. For seven years I dealt with homicides, suicides, drownings, natural deaths, car wrecks, and accidents of all sorts. The causes of death were endless. Some cases we couldn’t determine the cause of death and listed it as such on the death certificate. A coroner’s job was to report all unattended deaths in our county, with the exceptions previously mentioned.
Many cases were very traumatic for me; they caused nightmares just like the ones from Vietnam. I don’t want to mention any one of those cases because many local people read my stories. I will say, though, that the cases that bothered me the most were those of young boys and girls committing suicide. This was so traumatic to the families. I felt for them. In every case that I worked the decision to commit suicide was over the loss of a boyfriend or girlfriend! It was always so tragic.
I probably worked over a hundred suicides due to a shot to the head or heart, overdoses, or cuts to the wrist or jugular. You name it, they did it. I also worked many car wrecks, and many of them were suicide. I could not write that the death was due to suicide unless they told someone they were going to kill themselves or left a written note. Many of these guys were Vietnam veterans and wanted to end their lives. I had to list their deaths as accidents.
Did you know that over 170,000 Vietnam veterans have committed suicide? That figure is about 120,000 more than the number of patriots we lost in Vietnam. One day alone, in a 24-hour period, I worked three suicides.
I am not going to get descriptive with you, but some of the cases I worked were very traumatic—like bodies that had been lying for weeks before they were found. The flies, maggots, cockroaches and rot from the decomposition and deterioration were frightening. You could smell the odor from the corpse at a long distance. The smell of a body being pulled out of a burning house or a body being pulled out from a drowning after several days is beyond belief. I also worked several hangings. Many had hung for days before they were located, and the smell and decomposition were horrific. “Trauma, Trauma, Everywhere Trauma.”
One of the jobs I hated was to notify the family that their son or daughter or other family member was deceased. For many, it was the worst day of their life. The emotions were strong and heartfelt. For me, it brought on low self-esteem and depression. They wanted answers and closure, and in most cases I couldn’t give them that. I had a problem taking my job home with me; at times it was hard to deal with. Sometimes I would come home after working a teenage suicide, and I would hug my children a little tighter and pray that what I’d seen that day would never happen in my household.
During the seven years I served as county coroner I did not know I had PTSD. I knew I had issues but I didn’t know they were attributed to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was only adding to the demons I was carrying: low self-esteem, depression, anxiety attacks, flashbacks, loss of interest, difficulty sleeping and the list goes on. I wanted to keep the war and coroner trauma away from my family, but I brought this all home with me every time I opened the door.
You might ask yourself why I am writing this. My objective is to let you know that you don’t have to be in a war to experience trauma. PTSD comes in many forms, be it one episode or many. We still suffer mental problems and we must deal with it.
I will admit that I got hit with a double whammy, being a corpsman and a coroner was a lot to deal with. I witnessed killings, and other sites that are unimaginable. In the end, you take each day one at a time and expect the unexpected. I could write many coroner stories but choose not to pursue this. I will end by stating that most of my life has been, “Trauma, Trauma, Everywhere Trauma.”
HMCM Ronald C. Mosbaugh
Retired Naval Reserve 31 years