Diatribes of a Knucklehead 160119

More than once I have had an American civilian ask me about my ability to barbeque? Yes, BBQ? Apparently there are combat vets that cannot BBQ, because it makes them think of war – the smell of burning flesh. I am not sure what type of meat they BBQ, but when I smell BBQ I feel hungry, in contrast, when I smell death I do not get hungry and I absolutely do not think of a BBQ.

The first time I ever-smelled death I was only about 12 years old. It was cool Autumn night in Up-State New York and I was out on my bicycle collecting money from my paper route customers. I heard sirens coming from a few blocks away so road my bike toward the sounds. When I got the accident scene I rode right up to an old ladies mangled body.

She had been hit by an 18-wheeler and it had hit her so hard it knocked some of her internal organs out onto road. To this day I can vividly remember seeing her liver in the road; it does not haunt me, it is just a memory. I just stood there and took in the scene; which I can easily recall 40 years later. BUT, the thing I remember the most is the smells of death; which were actually the smell of blood and guts mixed and with burning tires from the truck locking it’s brakes. I remember the smells and I have tried, but could not come up with an adequate articulation of what death smells like.

When I was in my mid 20s I had my next experience with the smell of death. This time it was from US Marine who was evaporated by a grenade. I watched him blown to pieces and immediately went to his aid; there was no aid needed – his torso was a skeleton. BUT, what I remember the most is the smells, not watching him die. The mixture of composition B (explosives), blood, organs, burned skin, the smell of burned blood can be nauseating and I still could not articulate the smells of death.

Unfortunately I have smelled death multiple times, but the worst, by far, was after a VBIED (Vehicle Borne Improved Explosive Device) attack on a Shia Mosque in An Najaf, Iraq. On this day a handful of US Marines and one Navy Corpsman were thrown into a chaotic situation.

While assisting patient unloading at the ER we were splattered with the blood of the injured, the dying and the dead. By the end of this day I would have my uniform and body armor splattered with the blood of dozens of Iraqis. Blood was in my hair, if my mouth, in my nose, in my ears; it was everywhere.

We watched as the medical staff would exit the ER with a gurney stop, take off a dead body, throw it over a wall in to the sand and grab the next casualty from an ambulance; over and over. BUT, even worse was when three of my Marines and I escorted a doctor to remove anyone in the hospital that was not injured (family members). The smells in those hallways were indescribable.

Dave Devaney

On the first floor there were dozens of gurneys filled with the dead and dying, leaking blood and other bodily fluids onto the floor. However, that was nothing compared to seeing a small girl who was burned so badly that her skin had melted and rolled down her legs, like a pair of loose socks; it was horrifying, but the smell of her wounds are even worse.

I have concluded that I do not have the ability to articulate “The Smell of Death.” BUT, I have found that if I am talking with another person who has experienced “The Smell of Death” we are able to agree on the sensations that attacked our “olfactory sensors” during these events.

BUT, there is something that is even worse.

What is even worse, to me, is when you ad ”The Taste of Death” to “The Smell of Death.” If you are close enough to death, the smell can be so intense that you actually taste it; to me it tastes like I have a bunch Nickels on my tongue. It seems like nothing gets rid of the taste, but time. Even chewing gum did not help me; immediately anyway.

In sum, I lack the ability to articulate the smell of death. Visual trauma can be devastating, but the smelling and tasting death makes for lasting memories. I do not dwell on visual or any other traumas; I except them for what they are, memories; simply memories. I absolutely believe in Post Traumatic Growth; I know most warriors are psychologically stronger after many types of trauma, ie war.



By David Devaney

David K. Devaney SgtMaj USMC Retired 2009 City of Hit Iraq with PTTDavid was born in Geneva New York and graduated from Geneva High School in 1980. He joined the Marine Corps on a guaranteed Infantry contract in April of 1983. After graduating boot camp he was stationed in Hawaii with 3rdBattalion 3rd Marines (3/3). While assigned to 3/3 he held billets as a rifleman, fire team leader, and squad leader. During 1986 Corporal (Cpl) Devaney was selected as a member of Surveillance and Target Acquisition (STA) Platoon, 3rd Battalion 3rd Marine. Upon graduation of Scout Sniper School he was assigned to the Scout Sniper Section of 3/3 STA Platoon. During his second deployment as a Scout Sniper with 3/3 he was promoted to Sergeant (Sgt). After a tour on the drill field from 1989-1991 Sgt Devaney returned to STA 3/3 were he deployed two more times. During 1994 Sgt Devaney was selected to the rank of Staff Sergeant (SSgt) and ordered to III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF), Special Operation Training Group (SOTG); while at SOTG SSgt Devaney was assigned as a Reconnaissance and Surveillance (R&S) and Urban Sniper Instructor and Chief Instructor. At the time III MEF SOTG Instructors were members of Joint Task Force 510 (JTF 510 CT); a Counter Terrorism Task Force. In 1998 he deployed to Operation Desert Fox with Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 2/4 and was attached to Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 572/594 as a sniper. SSgt Devaney deployed again, during 2000, with ODA 135/136/132 to Malaysia as member of JTF 510, working with the Malaysian National Police. After leaving SOTG Gunnery Sergeant (GySgt) Devaney was assigned to Company A 1st Battalion 7th Marine, and spent much of his time training the Scout Snipers of 1/7. Just before the invasion of Iraq, in 2003, he was selected to the rank of First Sergeant (1stSgt) and led 270 Marines, sailors, and soldiers during combat – receiving a Bronze Star Medal for destroying the enemy and their will to fight. During 2004 1st Sgt Devaney was ordered to duty as the Inspector Instructor Staff 1st Sgt for 2nd Beach and Terminal Operations Company, Savannah, Georgia. During 2007 he was selected to the rank of Sergeant Major (SgtMaj) and received orders to Electronic Warfare Squadron 4 (VMAQ-4) stationed at Cherry Point, NC. There he trained a CADRE which in turn trained a massive Quick Reaction Force in combat operations. After two more deployments to Iraq SgtMaj Devaney received orders to Weapons Training Battalion, Quantico, VA. SgtMaj Devaney retired from the Marine Corps on 31 December 20013. He now works as an adjunct combat instructor at the “Crucible’’ in Fredericksburg, VA. David is also on the Board of Directors of the Marine Corps Scout Sniper Association. David’s published work: Books Devaney, D.K. (2007). Surviving combat: Mentally and physically (3rd edition). 29 Palms, CA: USMC. Devaney, D.K. (2015). They Were Heroes: A Sergeant Major’s Tribute to Combat Marines of Iraq and Afghanistan. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. Articles Devaney, D.K. (2011) Enough Talk of Suicide, Already! Proceedings Magazine. Devaney, D.K. (2011) Can PTSD Be Prevented Through Education? Proceedings Magazine. Devaney, D.K. (2012) PTSD Is Not Cancer. The Marine Corps Gazette. Devaney, D.K. (2012) Women in Combat Arms Units. The Marine Corps Gazette.

3 thoughts on “The Smell of Death – and a Failure in Articulation”
  1. Powerful. Always good, always thoughtful. Your enormous experience and how you use it to serve others is greatly appreciated. Thanks again David.

  2. Dave, your article is so true. I didn’t smell death through the military as much as I have on the fire department. The smells are something that you cannot explain in terms. Especially burnt flesh, to me it’s something that it takes days to remove from senses. I’ve seen guys that have to turn away before even getting near a body because of the smell, but others who can just jump right in to the situation at hand. Funny how our minds work, my mind shuts out the smell until after a scene is cleared. I may not comment to each of your posts, but enjoy each one. Keep writing bro, you’re good at it.

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