Vets Of Army's Mortuary Unit Bear Unique Burden

Veteran Jerald Collman was a first lieutenant at Quang Tri Graves Registration Collection Point

Jerald Collman was a first lieutenant at Quang Tri Province Graves Registration Collection Point from Feb. 28, 1970, to October 1970. StoryCorps hide caption

itoggle caption StoryCorps

Even in a week devoted to honoring America's veterans, the work of soldiers assigned to duty in the Graves Registration Service is not often discussed. In Vietnam, it was the units' job to make sure the remains of soldiers killed in battle made it home.

More than 58,000 U.S. soldiers died in Vietnam. Most of their remains were processed through more than 30 Graves Registration collection points, which were positioned near combat areas.

The soldiers who worked in the units suffered a toll of their own, as recent conversations at StoryCorps show.

Close To The Front Lines

Jerald Collman, 64, was a collection-point officer whose team was the first to receive the dead from the field. In 1970, he and his men sent fallen personnel to a mortuary, where they were prepared to be shipped back home.

"We had some 1,100 to 1,200 Americans that went through in my time frame," he says. "And so many of them I knew. When you would see a name, and then you would see who was there, it was very tough."

For Collman, who was then a first lieutenant, there was one place he could go to let his emotions out.

"I’d go into the refrigeration unit, I'd go in there — nobody could hear me. I'd scream as loud as I could, and nobody knew.

"I'm proud that I didn't commit suicide. That's ... that's all I can say. I would have liked to have never had the experience.

"It changed me forever."

Sending Soldiers Back Home

There were two mortuaries in Vietnam. One was in Da Nang; the other was near Saigon at Tan Son Nhut, where Gary Redlinski, 64, and Glen Fruendt, 67, worked together.

Part of their job was to identify the dead.

Veterans Gary Redlinski and Glen Fruendt at StoryCorps in St. Louis.

Gary Redlinski (left) was at an Army mortuary near Saigon from May 1968 to July 1970. Glen Fruendt was there from September 1967 to September 1968. The two spoke at StoryCorps in St. Louis; the insignia on their shirts read, "Dignity, Reverence, Respect." StoryCorps hide caption

itoggle caption StoryCorps

"You'd look for body marks, scars, tattoos," Redlinski says. "It does get to be a strain on you after a while, and some guys couldn't handle it."

"You know," Fruendt says, "the Graves Registration is the only part of the service that, if you don't want to be in it, you don't have to be ..."

"You can get out of it, yeah," Redlinski says.

"They can't keep you in it," Fruendt says.

"The mortuary part," Redlinski says, "they always consider it to be demoralizing to the troops that are out in the field fighting. So, they kind of just keep us hidden. About five years ago, I remember meeting a guy, he was an infantryman. And when I told him I worked at the mortuary down in Tan Son Nhut near Saigon, he said, 'We never knew you guys existed.' They thought, whoever died, they sent them right back to the States."

Redlinski admits that he's still troubled by the memories of the work he did in Vietnam, back in the late 1960s.

"I have problems a lot, I can see the things that happened to me in Vietnam. They just come back, clear as ... clear as it was yesterday," he says.

"And, I always felt, oh I got out of Vietnam, didn't have a scratch, didn't get wounded at all, and then all that hit. I did go to some counseling, and I was talking to one of the psychiatrists, and he says, 'Do you have nightmares?' I said, 'No, but I have daymares.' The things guys dream about at night, I think about 24 hours a day, and it's there while I'm awake."

Fruendt asks him, "What would you like people to know about the work you did, Gary?"

"Probably the fact that I was there to help their son get back home," Redlinski says. "It didn't matter that people didn't know we were there — we were there to do our job."

Fruendt, his fellow sergeant from those days, says, "And our job was to take care of the soldiers that came in from the field and to treat them as if they were family."

There are no morgues or mortuaries in Iraq or Afghanistan. All remains are now shipped back to the United States to be embalmed or taken care of as their families prefer.

The U.S. military stopped using the term "Graves Registration" in 1991, when the unit was renamed "Mortuary Affairs."

Produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo and Jasmyn Belcher.

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