2005 Marine of the Year
Sergeant Daniel Cotnoir
Age 32. He lives in Lawrence, Mass., with his wife Kate and two daughters, Ashley, 11, and Morgan, 6.
DEVENS, Mass. - Shortly after Sgt. Daniel Cotnoir was mobilized for a deployment to Iraq, the Reserve small-arms repairman was instead assigned to do a job no Marine would ever want - collecting the remains of fellow Marines killed in action.
The job of a mortuary affairs specialist can be gruesome and emotionally traumatic, involving searching for body parts after an explosion or combing through a young Marine's wallet and finding photos of the family he left behind.
For his work, Cotnoir was selected as the 2005 Marine Corps Times Marine of the Year, an annual award recognizing an "everyday hero" who exemplifies outstanding professionalism, concern for other service members and community service.
Cotnoir is an armorer by trade; his assignment to mortuary affairs stems from his civilian occupation - he's a funeral home director in Lawrence, Mass., a hardscrabble, working- class town 30 minutes north of Boston. Cotnoir has been recognized by his superiors as an outstanding Marine who treated with the utmost respect and sensitivity the job of getting deceased Marines home. But even for a funeral home director, the memories of the job still weigh heavy on the heart.
"Because I do it in the civilian world, everyone says it's easy," he said. "It's not. It's hard. The stories I've gained from my deployment aren't the kind of stories you share. No one gets to die peacefully in their sleep over there."
Upstairs from the Racicot Funeral Home, Cotnoir sits in the kitchen of his apartment . There, in a thick Massachusetts accent, he recalls his deployment to Camp Taqaddum, Iraq, where he and his unit of 20 men, most of them junior Marines, handled the bodies of 180 fallen Marines.
"It's a lot harder to talk about the job now than it was at the time to actually do it," he said, pausing occasionally to choke back emotion. Caring for the bodies of fellow Marines is much tougher than civilians, he said, because of the camaraderie and brotherhood of the Marine Corps.
As hard as it was to see so many young Marines killed, the job brought Cotnoir pride in knowing that the dead were not being left behind and that families would have closure.
Cotnoir regularly cleaned and recompose the bloodied bodies and facial features of Marines killed in combat so that their buddies could say goodbye. It's important that the last bloody image on the battlefield not be their last, he said. Cotnoir's journey began at Camp Pendleton, Calif., where he was assigned to help train Marines in mortuary affairs. Previously, the Corps typically relied on Army units for this work. Cotnoir helped pioneer a new mortuary affairs military occupational specialty for the Marine Corps by training 40 Marines in mortuary and remains-recovery skills.
After arriving in Iraq, Cotnoir's unit was on constant call to retrieve fallen Marines. This often required combing large blast areas with multiple deaths for personal affects.
Back home, Cotnoir's involvement in the Corps and in his local community is evident when you walk past the pool table in his family's cavernous living room, where cue balls give way to piles of papers and manila folders filed with information about various philanthropies.
"You've got to do your part," he said. "You just can't live in the community and not give back to it."
The table has grown into Cotnoir's organizing area for his work on a yearly Marine Corps golf tournament that he and a fellow Marine started a few years ago. The tournament raises thousands of dollars each year for the Toys for Tots program and other unit activities.
Cotnoir also volunteers for military funeral details around Massachusetts a couple of times a month and is on the board of directors for Holy Family Hospital's Men's Guild, which raises money for a local hospital.
Back in Devens, Mass., where Cotnoir drills, his superiors say he is a dedicated Marine with an outstanding work ethic. He's a natural leader who motivates junior Marines to get things done, said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Edward Williamsc.
"They respect him," he said "He's just an all-around example of an excellent Marine."