written by Lawrence Obrist

Lawrence Obrist, Army social work and psychology specialist who worked in Graves Registration, 1968

(Lawrence Obrist)

In 1968, I served as an Army social work and psychology specialist in Company D of the 25th Medical Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi and Tay Ninh, Vietnam.

Medical units like mine were where “the score was kept” in the Vietnam War. That is, we were part of the “body count” of dead and wounded.

Some GIs in Vietnam never glimpsed the visual reality of dead American bodies. We in Medical saw them daily.

It was a rude awakening after Tet to see the mangled bodies lined up in the small outdoor morgue awaiting pick up from Graves Registration.

Since I could type, I replaced the clerk for our company’s Admission and Disposition (A&D) office on some occasions. My job involved accompanying the Medical officer to the outdoor to complete death certificates. The forms were eight sheets of carbon copied paper that had to be signed by the doctor.

“What does ‘exsanguination’ mean?” was a questions I had to ask while filling out the form.

“It means ‘bled to death,’” the officer explained.

Looking back now, I see I didn’t appreciate the hard experiences of the GIs who had to bring the dead back in three-quarter ton trucks. The KIA weren’t in body bags, just their field uniforms and lifted by their arms and legs.

For many of the GIs, the dead were friends, and they were saying their last goodbyes without betraying too much grief. Occasionally, the GIs would say that the KIA was just about to go on R&R or had just come back from R&R. A few of the KIAs were days away from DEROS.

One morning at the A&D office, we got a call from an infantry CO who was coming by chopper to identify one of his men at Graves Registration.

I was available, so I picked him up at the LZ and drove him by ambulance to GR.

GR personnel pulled the body from a refrigerator unit for the CO to confirm it was one of his men. The GI had been killed when his jeep flipped over.

“What a waste,” was the CO’s only rueful comment.

Around that same time, we took in some wounded who’d been hit by an rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) that had penetrated their Armored Personnel Carrier (APC). They were badly burned. There were two dead left in the carrier.

All I could think of was the word “ignominy” referring to the humiliation of Christ in his passion (suffering).  The family would never have to see this horrific reality of their loved ones’ deaths.

Mortuary Service marked the casket “Not for Viewing.”

I eventually heard over the year, some combat GIs use the term “crispy critter” referring to such severe burns. A classic example of a counter-phobic defense.

Also during Tet, we got a call to send an ambulance to the Main Gate to meet one of the infantry units who were returning from patrol. I went along with a medic to respond.

It was dark, and all were on foot. The three wounded carried one of their dead. The medic and I picked up the litter of the KIA. I noted right away how warm the body felt and naively thought he had not been dead long. In reality, I later realized, that Vietnam would not let go of its heat until the GI was put into a Graves Registration refrigerator.

Sometimes the difference between life and death was a small but essential detail. One wounded man I carried in from a medevac was later transferred to the morgue. A senior NCO medic looked at the body.

“Hell,” he growled, “some did not know how to put a tourniquet on properly.”

Sometimes, the KIA overwhelmed our small morgue.

On March 2, 1968, after an ambush at Hoc Mon Bridge, we had 50 KIAs come into Cu Chi. Other large batches came on chinooks.

None of these would surpass the results of the ten-day battle of Hamburger Hill in May 1969: 72 KIA.

Years after Vietnam, I worked with another Team Leader at the VA Vets Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. The man had worked in Mortuary Affairs for a time. That service left a devastating mark on his personality that is hard to quantify.