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“Burial at Sea”

by Lt Col George Goodson, USMC (Ret)

In my 76th year, the events of my life appear to me, from time to time, as a series of vignettes. Some were significant; most were trivial.

War is the seminal event in the life of everyone that has endured it. Though I fought in Korea and the Dominican Republic and was wounded there, Vietnam was my war.

Now 37 years have passed and, thankfully, I rarely think of those days in Cambodia , Laos , and the panhandle of North Vietnam where small teams of Americans and Montangards fought much larger elements of the North Vietnamese Army. Instead I see vignettes: some exotic, some mundane:

*The smell of Nuc Mam.
*The heat, dust, and humidity.
*The blue exhaust of cycles clogging the streets.
*Elephants moving silently through the tall grass.
*Hard eyes behind the servile smiles of the villagers.
*Standing on a mountain in Laos and hearing a tiger roar.
*A young girl squeezing my hand as my medic delivered her baby.
*The flowing Ao Dais of the young women biking down Tran Hung Dao.
*My two years as Casualty Notification Officer in North Carolina , Virginia, and Maryland .

It was late 1967. I had just returned after 18 months in Vietnam. Casualties were increasing. I moved my family from Indianapolis to Norfolk , rented a house, enrolled my children in their fifth or sixth new school, and bought a second car.

A week later, I put on my uniform and drove 10 miles to Little Creek, Virginia . I hesitated before entering my new office. Appearance is important to career Marines. I was no longer, if ever, a poster Marine. I had returned from my third tour in Vietnam only 30 days before. At 5’9″, I now weighed 128 pounds – 37 pounds below my normal weight. My uniforms fit ludicrously, my skin was yellow from malaria medication, and I think I had a twitch or two..

I straightened my shoulders, walked into the office, looked at the nameplate on a Staff Sergeant’s desk and said, “Sergeant Jolly, I’m Lieutenant Colonel Goodson. Here are my orders and my Qualification Jacket.”

Sergeant Jolly stood, looked carefully at me, took my orders, stuck out his hand; we shook and he asked, “How long were you there, Colonel?” I replied “18 months this time.” Jolly breathed, “Jesus, you must be a slow learner Colonel.” I smiled.

Jolly said, “Colonel, I’ll show you to your office and bring in the Sergeant

Major, I said, “No, let’s just go straight to his office.”

Jolly nodded, hesitated, and lowered his voice, “Colonel, the Sergeant Major. He’s been in this Goddamn job two years. He’s packed pretty tight.
I’m worried about him.” I nodded.

Jolly escorted me into the Sergeant Major’s office. “Sergeant Major, this is Colonel Goodson, the new Commanding Office. The Sergeant Major stood, extended his hand and said, “Good to see you again, Colonel.” I responded,

“Hello Walt, how are you?” Jolly looked at me, raised an eyebrow, walked out, and closed the door.

I sat down with the Sergeant Major. We had the obligatory cup of coffee and talked about mutual acquaintances. Walt’s stress was palpable.

Finally, I said, “Walt, what’s the hell’s wrong?” He turned his chair, looked out the window and said, “George, you’re going to wish you were back in Nam before you leave here.. I’ve been in the Marine Corps since 1939. I was in the Pacific 36 months, Korea for 14 months, and Vietnam for 12 months. Now I come here to bury these kids. I’m putting my letter in. “I can’t take it anymore.” I said, “OK Walt. If that’s what you want, I’ll endorse your request for retirement and do what I can to push it through Headquarters Marine Corps.”

Sergeant Major Walt retired 12 weeks later. He
had been a good Marine for 28 years, but he had seen too much death and too much suffering. He was used up.

Over the next 16 months, I made 28 death notifications, conducted 28 military funerals, and made 30 notifications to the families of Marines that were severely wounded or missing in action. Most of the details of those casualty notifications have now, thankfully, faded from memory. Four, however, remain.

My first notification. My third or fourth day in Norfolk, I was notified of the death of a 19 year old Marine. This notification came by telephone from
Headquarters Marine Corps. The information detailed:

*Name, rank, and serial number.
*Name, address, and phone number of next of kin.
*Date of and limited details about the Marine’s death.
*Approximate date the body would arrive at the Norfolk Naval Air Station.
*A strong recommendation on whether the casket should be opened or closed.

The boy’s family lived over the border in North Carolina , about 60 miles away. I drove there in a Marine Corps staff car. Crossing the state line into North Carolina , I stopped at a small country store / service station /Post Office. I went in to ask directions.

Three people were in the store. A man and woman approached the small Post Office window. The man held a package. The store owner walked up and addressed them by name, “Hello John. Good morning Mrs. Cooper.”

I was stunned. My casualty’s next-of-kin’s name was John Cooper!

I hesitated, then stepped forward and said, “I beg your pardon. Are you Mr. and Mrs. John Cooper of (address.)

The father looked at me-I was in uniform – and then, shaking, bent at the waist, he vomited. His wife looked horrified at him and then at me.
Understanding came into her eyes and she collapsed in slow motion. I think
I caught her before she hit the floor.

The owner took a bottle of whiskey out of a drawer and handed it to Mr. Cooper who drank. I answered their questions for a few minutes. Then I drove them home in my staff car. The store owner locked the store and
followed in their truck. We stayed an hour or so until the family began arriving.

I returned the store owner to his business. He thanked me and said, “Mister, I wouldn’t have your job for a million dollars.” I shook his hand and said; “Neither would I.”

I vaguely remember the drive back to Norfolk.

Violating about five Marine Corps regulations, I drove the staff car straight to my house. I sat with my family while they ate dinner, went into the den, closed the door, and sat there all night, alone.

My Marines steered clear of me for days. I had made my first death notification.

The Funerals. Weeks passed with more notifications and more funerals. I borrowed Marines from the local Marine Corps Reserve and taught them to conduct a military funeral: how to carry a casket, how to fire the volleys and how to fold the flag.

When I presented the flag to the mother, wife, or father, I always said, “All Marines share in your grief.” I had been instructed to say, “On behalf of a grateful nation.” I didn’t think the nation was grateful, so I didn’t say that.
Sometimes, my emotions got the best of me and I couldn’t speak. When that happened, I just handed them the flag and touched a shoulder. They would look at me and nod. Once a mother said to me, “I’m so sorry you have this terrible job.” My eyes filled with tears and I leaned over and kissed her.

Another notification. Six weeks after my first notification, I had another. This was a young PFC. I drove to his mother’s house. As always, I was in uniform and driving a Marine Corps staff car. I parked in front of the house, took a deep breath, and walked

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