written by Jack Woodard

Graves Registration: Vietnam era photo of soldiers moving an injured soldier

As an 18-year-old Marine dog handler in Vietnam, I often found lots of ways to get in trouble, as did my buddy, Bill Jeffcoat.

After several infractions, we were given a novel punishment: a few days working in Graves Registration.

GR, as it was called, was the process of bringing young Americans who had been killed in action off the battlefield to have their bodies scrubbed and prepared to head back home to their brokenhearted families.

When I first heard of my punishment, I wondered how hard it could be. How could working in the rear, in relative safety, be worse than serving on the front lines?

It didn’t take long to learn the answer.

Our job involved carrying filled body bags, hoisting them on to cold slabs, then unzipping the bags to reveal their contents. They were dead Marines, most 18 or 19 years old, covered in blood and mud, often mangled beyond recognition.

We removed the bodies, took scrub brushes and water hoses and cleaned the cadavers off as best we could. We also removed any personal belongings and tagged them to make sure they were returned home with the remains.

Not a Memorial Day passes without my thinking about those dead Marines I handled. They died a half-world away on behalf of what seemed an ungrateful nation.

I saw others killed and wounded, of course. How I, as a dog handler out front, returned home without a scratch, I’ll never know. The only thing I physically suffered was a bad case of weight loss. I came back 45 pounds lighter.

Today, I got to spend time with my children and my grandchildren, gifts those Marines never got to enjoy.

I’m humbled by the mercy Jesus showed me in Vietnam, when I was wild and lost, in the middle of a huge war that should have taken my life.

After a couple days in GR, Bill Jeffcoat and I quit. “Put us in the brig, we don’t care,” we told our superiors.

They let us go back in the bush to keep fighting. We never returned to Graves Registration, but those days and nights working with those dead Marines will be with Jeff and me forever.