SHINDAND, Afghanistan (Feb. 12, 2013) — When Staff Sgt. Cesar Rodriguez left Moca, Puerto Rico, to deploy with the 393rd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, U.S. Army Reserve, he knew he had an important job to do. As a mortuary affairs specialist, Rodriguez doesn’t just handle human remains—the families of fallen soldiers entrust him to care for their loved ones and treat them with dignity and respect as they transition home from combat.
After arriving to Shindand, Afghanistan, Rodriguez saw he had an even greater mission on his hands.
“There was just a tent,” he said. “I know how a transfer and collection point should look like, and I just had to make this honorable.”
Rodriguez—who was previously stationed at Dover Air Force Base, Del., where he was the case manager for more than 130 families of fallen service members and participated in more than 160 dignified transfers—said he knew what right looked like.
“After two years there, I saw how to honorably process and transfer our fallen,” he said. “Now, coming here (to Afghanistan), I realize just how important that is.”
Rodriguez immediately began to renovate the tent. The summers he spent at a construction site with his uncle as a teenager came in handy, and combined with his passion for perfection, Rodriguez transformed a tent into a noteworthy facility.
“I had a $2,200 budget for a $10,000 project,” he said, “but, when you have a personal interest in something, there’s nothing you can’t do.”
Rodriguez said that the ideas he had in mind for remodeling the mortuary collection point would require the support of others to complete.
“I couldn’t just sit around and wait,” he said. “Every time I had an opportunity to speak with someone I talked about how we could make this better—together.”
Rodriguez rallied the support of fellow soldiers, contractors and civilians on Forward Operating Base Shindand. Many of whom, he said, were retired military personnel who were more than willing to help.
“When I have a project, I can’t sleep. I just keep working until the mission is finished. I focus on my mission, and (in this case), I focus on the families, and that gives me the strength.”
Four months later, the mortuary collection point now has a ramp that leads up to the entryway and the door was widened so the remains could be transported more efficiently. Rodriguez also installed a supply room and built a processing room adjacent to the tent.
“We added a medical sink, installed plumbing with hot and cold water and exterior electricity. I had to make this honorable,” he said.
Rodriguez said he takes his job as an American soldier seriously.
“The most important thing here is taking care of our own and their families,” he said. “This is the fallen soldiers’ last mission, so it has to be done with respect.”
Rodriguez is now nearing the end of his deployment and looking back he says it was time well spent for a job that was much-needed. But though he is headed home, he said his mission is not quite complete.
“There’s always room for improvement,” he said.
At night, Rodriguez works on an 86-page continuity book, detailing the proper way to handle and process remains, and offers his insight on ways to continue improvements on the facility.
“I just want to make sure that whoever replaces me here has an understanding of how to do this,” he said. “I hope that I can help set them up for success. Honoring the Soldiers and their families—it’s just my duty to do this.”