In the last six months, the Pentagon has ordered 9,640 body bags, but they are not immediately headed for the Persian Gulf.
"Right now, we're just replenishing supplies" in military warehouses, said Frank Johnson, a spokesman for the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia. "It's not necessarily an indication of things to come."
But two military suppliers said it is logical to assume that the government is anticipating battlefield casualties.
"The fact is, they are preparing for casualties," said Gerald Kramer, president of Extra Packaging Corp., a Boca Raton-based supplier of body bags. "This is a buildup of bags for a war that may occur."
Year-A-Round Corp. of Mankato, Minn., makes "transfer cases," which are used to transport soldiers' remains home.
In August, the company won a military contract for 80 transfer cases. "Then, in the last month, they sent us an e-mail saying they may need another order of 80," said president Mike Anderson. "In case we go to war, we're going to have to get more."
The military shuns the term body bag, which gained widespread usage during the Vietnam War, when 58,000 American military personnel died.
Instead, the military began calling them "human remains pouches" during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. They are made of vinyl and cost the government about $38 a pouch.
Jackson noted the black pouches could be used in events other than war: floods or typhoons, or a training accident at MacDill.
Once the bags get to government warehouses, "we don't know where their final destination might be," he said. "Right now, there's no urgency to get new production, but we have the contracts in place to support any future war or natural disaster."
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Pentagon ordered 23,000 body bags to prepare for future attacks or American casualties in Afghanistan. At the time, the military said it ordered them to guarantee it did not run out, not because it expected that many deaths.
Forty-four Americans have died in combat or accidents in and around Afghanistan since Oct. 7, 2001.
As of Dec. 31, the Defense Supply Center, which each year buys about $7.8-billion worth of food, clothing, medical and industrial supplies for America's soldiers and their dependents, had 34,000 body bags stored in its warehouses, according to Jackson.
The supply center has ordered another 8,890 bags in the last six months and may soon issue a bid for between 10,000 and 30,000 more, military officials said.
They declined to say how many body bags were ordered in a typical six-month period before 9/11.
In addition, the Pentagon is bolstering its stocks of another type of body bag -- a heavy-duty, olive-green bag known as "human remains pouch type II." The nylon bag is coated with rubber and used to lift remains by helicopter from rugged terrain. It has four nylon handles and costs about $98.
In December, the supply center had 924 type-2 pouches on hand; that same month, it ordered 750 more, all due to arrive by April, Jackson said.
The military also is planning to solicit bids for more heavy-duty bags: 3,500 to be delivered in the first year of a proposed four-year contract, and 1,000 each for years two, three and four.
Body bags are used for the battlefield and its rear areas. When the remains are ready for transport home, the body bag is placed in a transfer case, which is made of aluminum so it can be packed with ice to stay refrigerated. It is used to keep bodies intact at high altitudes, usually while en route to a mortuary.
The transfer case, which is reusable, is about 7 feet 4 inches long and costs the government about $1,100.
Jackson said the supply center had 301 transfer cases on hand as of late last year. It has ordered 156 in the past six months.
Jackson called human-remains containers possibly "the most difficult items you can try to plan for."
In the mortuary, a soldier's corpse is transferred to its third and final government-supplied container -- either a high-quality coffin or a cremation urn. Families may choose a casket with a silvery metallic finish (about $650) or one with a dark-oak finish (about $815.)
The Pentagon is also making plans for handling remains in the event that soldiers are killed by chemical or biological weapons.
It is considering ways to modify body bags so remains may be viewed through a clear screen, preventing contamination of surviving troops or mortuary teams.
According to a Denver Post report, the Pentagon is also eyeing a plan to bulldoze and burn contaminated bodies in mass graves, to save the lives of surviving troops.
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
© 2003 St. Petersburg Times