Raise your hand if you believe the U.S. Army could have made better decisions utilizing their draftees’ job assignments. Yeah, we’ve all heard about the certified welder assigned to be a cook or something along those lines.
On Aug. 7, 1917, the Quartermaster Corps of the Army developed the Graves Registration Service. GRS was responsible for the retrieval, identification, transportation and burial of our troops beginning with World War I.
In 1965 Vietnam needed more troops. If you were the officer responsible for assigning draftees, where would you place a young draftee who was a mortician in civilian life? Well, I’m here to inform you not even the Army can get it wrong all the time.
After boot camp the newly drafted morticians were assigned to the mortuary in Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon or the mortuary at Da Nang’s Tourane Air Base. Since I found significantly more information about Tan Son Nhut, easy decision.
Matthew “Matt” W. Burke, a reporter with the U.S. military publication Stars and Stripes, interviewed Gary Redlinski at a reunion of Graves Registration and mortuary affairs veterans. Gary served in Nam from 1968 to 1970. It was the worst time to be in Vietnam. During his three years, 34,289 were killed in action or died of wounds. Those years amounted to 59 percent of the 58,185 male and eight female names carved on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
Here’s your caveat. I’m going to use most non-offensive language when I describe the cross the morticians at Tan Son Nhat carried on their shoulders every day.
Gary shared with Matt, “Vietnam is still with me as clear today as it was back then.”
The horrors Gary witnessed 50 years ago every day for three years continue to influence his life today.
There’s an expression quoted by the “boots on the ground” — “Don’t worry about the bullet that has your name on it; worry about the shrapnel that has everybody’s name on it.” It’s one thing for a soldier to be hit by multiple bullets from an automatic weapon. It’s absolutely horrible for a soldier to be killed by an artillery shell, booby trap, land mine or mortar shell. The Graves Registration Service person(s) worked diligently to recover every body part and place it in a body bag. The morticians at Tan Son Nhat performed the time consuming task of reconstructing each soldier. Next, each soldier was clothed in his dress uniform with all his medals before being placed in his casket. When he arrived home to be waked and buried, if his family wished, they could open the casket, view their loved one and say goodbye to him.
Tan Son Nhat Mortuary had easy access being located next to the fight line and heliport. Most of the remains were flown to the mortuary. However, some remains were driven by jeeps or trucks.
Nobody at the mortuary was concerned about job security. The morticians worked in shifts around the clock. Tan Son Nhat had a capacity of 250 sets of remains. They were always over capacity. Once they had to throw away food to accommodate additional remains in their walk-in food refrigeration.
First, they removed all the individual’s clothing. They inspected boots and belts to see if names were written inside. Some of the soldier remains would have three different names on clothing, belts and boots, none were the correct name.
The morticians would look for identifying marks: birthmarks, scars and tattoos. Next the morticians would take fingerprints and make a dental chart. Taking fingerprints or making a dental chart was challenging when a corpse was burnt or bloated from days in the hot sun, a rice paddy or covered with maggots. Civilian anthropologists were assigned the most challenging identifications. Sometimes they had to match bone fragments to make a more whole person.
As much as the morticians tried to shut down their emotions, they didn’t always succeed. One example was a female nurse who died after overdosing on drugs. The picture on her ID card was beautiful compared to her bloated body, which was in terrible condition upon arriving at the mortuary. There were a few high-ranking officers who committed suicide. They were caught skimming government funds. Don’t forget deserters “who hugged a grenade” because they didn’t want to return to the fighting.
The morticians treated the remains of each soldier with respect. Some of the morticians had one-way conversations with the dead. “Sorry, I have to do this. I have to get you back to your family.” If you’ve watch the CBS show, NCIS, the pathologist, “Ducky,” talks to the body as he performs an autopsy.
A mortician was always assigned to go through the personal effects of each soldier. He examined every piece of paper and picture. He removed anything that was derogatory or would embarrass the soldier’s family. Reading each soldier’s letters from home and seeing baby’s photographs was difficult at times.
Because of their job, the mortuary personnel were treated as outcasts and avoided. One day after work the mortuary unit showered and changed into fresh clothes before walking to the mess hall. They went through the chow line and sat to eat. Before long they noticed everyone had left the mess hall. The smell from the mortuary had permeated their skin.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, didn’t happen to just the soldiers in battle. After Vietnam, many of the morticians suffered from nightmares, anger issues, substance abuse and being cast aside. When one Tan Son Nhut mortician visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. he became angry. Seeing all those names caused him to relive what he experienced as he prepared each solder to return home.
The morticians who served together in “Nam” have learned to lean on each other. Between attending meetings and annual reunions, they find strength to face their past experiences.
Today, the Joint Mortuary Affairs Center is at Fort Lee, Va. “The Army’s mortuary personnel are still the experts in recovery, identification, preservation and safeguarding remains until a deceased service member can be sent back home to their family.”
Thanks to DNA identification, remains from seven decades ago in World War II are identified and returned home. The word “home” connotes the feeling of arms lovingly wrapped around you. Welcome home, soldier. A la famiglia, family is everything.
Ken Beaton of Carson City contributes periodically to the Nevada Appeal.