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Confronting ‘worst of humanity’ in Iraq War, Army veteran from Buffalo overcomes grim challenges

Michelle J. Velez, 33

Hometown and residence: Buffalo

Branch: Army

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: Iraq

Years of service: 2002–06

Most prominent honors: Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal

Specialty: Mortuary affairs

By Jack Howland

News Staff Reporter

She never knew who would be inside the black body bag or how the person had died.

Michelle J. Velez’s wartime role was the bleak work that often goes unnoticed – transporting the bodies of fallen comrades and civilians. In her two tours of duty in the Army – to Iraq in 2003 and Kuwait in 2004 – she saw it all: uniformed mothers, fathers, sons and daughters; a news reporter who had been covering the war; in some cases, children.

On the worst day she can remember, she unzipped a pair of body bags to find young Iraqi girls who had been shot while sitting in the back seat of a car. They were sisters. “What we saw over there was the worst of humanity,” Velez says of her time in Iraq.

She doesn’t mince words in describing what she saw:

“Think of the worst mutilated body you could ever see. Everyone who died, we saw.”

Velez, 33, of Buffalo, acknowledges that the job is “not for everyone.”

She said she picked mortuary affairs on a whim, thinking that it would be like forensic science, a field that she always had wanted to study in high school. Somewhere deep down, she also believes that she was driven by her lifelong respect those who serve.

Her father, Art Beaudoin Jr., was an Army artilleryman during the Vietnam War. He followed in the footsteps of his own father, a World War II veteran.

Growing up, Velez found inspiration in the war stories that her dad shared. He told her of long hours spent crouching in bunkers, waiting through the night for the sound of enemy gunfire.

That wasn’t all.

Her father’s stories were more than about blood and guts. He taught his daughter about loyalty, honor, patriotism and sacrifice.

So when she decided to enlist in April 2002 at age 19, her father was right by her side at the recruiting office. His support offered a counterbalance to her mother’s protests that the military was not for her youngest daughter.

Kathy Beaudoin’s chief concern was that her daughter would be unable to handle a war, which was a common reaction among those close to Velez.

A polished dancer and ballerina, educated at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, she had often been described as graceful, swift and light on her toes – attributes that might seem an odd fit for a war zone.

But she was determined to serve, and her father was the only one unfazed by the arguments that war was not for her. He remembered the way her eyes lit up when he shared his stories.

“Once her mind is set on something, she’s going to follow through on it,” the father says. “I just wanted to make sure nothing happened to her, but I think I always knew she could do it.”

And while nothing could have prepared her for the morbid work of the Mortuary Affairs Division, Velez’s resolve served her well, and she accomplished her mission.

It began each morning when the bodies arrived – the victims of gunfire or typically mutilated from an improvised explosive device, or IED. First, she placed the bodies on 70 pounds of ice before preparing the “transfer case” – an aluminum coffin then covered by an American flag. The bodies were then transferred to a larger processing center in Kuwait.

For Iraqis who were killed, she contacted their families to make arrangements for them to take possession of their loved ones. If no next of kin was found, Velez and her colleagues prepared a grave and honored the burial traditions of the deceased’s religion.

And how did she cope with the work?

“You kind of have to shut off your brain,” she says. “Otherwise, you’re going to get too upset.”

But over time, the work slowly ate away at her – the endless succession of bodies seeping into her subconscious.

“I had really bad nightmares for a while,” she says. “I would feel like dead people were coming to get me and would wake up really scared.”

After finishing both tours – and a humanitarian trip to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina – her post-traumatic stress disorder persisted back home in Buffalo. She says feelings of horror still come back during scary movies or television shows such as “The Walking Dead.” It’s the same feeling she gets when she sees discarded cans on the side of the road, where the enemy often hid IEDs.

But there was a bright spot to her service, too. She met her future husband, Edward Velez, in Mortuary Affairs. They married in Buffalo City Hall in 2006, and he helped her make the transition to civilian life easier. She said it’s important to have somebody to talk with who understands what she went through.

Currently stationed in Fort Lee, Va., the Velezes have two children – Emma, 10, and Noah, 6.

Sometimes, Velez ponders what she would do or say if one of her children decides to enlist. She said she would first offer a stern warning, and so would her husband. But ultimately, she says, she would accept and understand the need to serve.

“I used to just be in awe of my dad and my grandfather,” Velez says.

“There’s just something really special about putting yourself on the line.”

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