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Casualty Escort

Casualty Escort (1970-71)
Personal Recollections of a Vet Center Team leader (1980-Present)

By Lon D. Campbell

My first “Mission.” St. Louis, MO. Caucasion male. Combat casualty. Fear, anxiety, uncertainty, etc. Will I be accepted/rejected? Will I perform my duties in a military manner? Why in the hell did I volunteer for this impossible duty? I can handle this. I am a Sgt. (E-5) in the U.S. Army. Licensed mortician. Embalmer of approximately 1,000 bodies in civilian life. What’s the big deal?

Meeting the remains at San Francisco International Airport. Supervising the loading into a commercial aircraft TWA 727. Last item into the cargo hold. Flag properly covering the shipping crate. Head first. Dozens of eyes burning into my soul from the aircraft windows above. Holding my stiff salute till the body enters the hold. Why me, Lord?! Why me?! Last one on the plane. Same eyes burning me with their intense stare in recognition of my purpose. Military personnel nodding silently in respect. Civilians avoiding my glance or contemptuously challenging my indiscriminate eye. Stewardesses gentle and kind. Always seated at the front of the plane. First one off. Last one on. Palms sweating, butterflies, silent. Christ! I have not even gotten there yet.

St. Louis, MO. Airport. Family there to meet me and their loved one. Awkward beyond my wildest dreams. Me trying to do my duty without losing control. They openly grieving and concurrently trying to make me feel comfortable. Invited to go home with them. Transported the body to the funeral home and rode with the family to their home.

Family very friendly. Sweet mother stating that I look so much like her son. Picture to prove it. Damn! I could have been the guy’s twin brother. “Sit and eat with us, Sgt. Campbell.” Sit here. Instincts screaming that this was his chair. Scared shitless. Sister saying that her brother had left behind a fiancé. Would I like to meet her? She will be coming over later to meet me. How to say no? Yes, of course. Mother and father treating me like a son. Visit to his room. Everything as he left it. “You will be sleeping here, Sgt. Campbell.” No! No! No! I can’t be him for you! Wish I could, but I can’t. “Thank you very much for the most kind offer, but the U.S. Army provides travel expenses for me.”

Cousin sensing my dilemma. “Sgt., how about if I show you St. Louis?” Jump into his car. Lifesaver. Air Force vet about my age. “Looks like you could use a drink.” Yes! Maybe a dozen to start. No, can’t do that. Maybe a beer. Bar hopping. Maintaining control. Cousin telling me about what a great guy he was. Back to my room for sleep. Fat chance. Millions of thoughts crashing through my sleep attempts. Up all night.

Back to the funeral home. Death vigil. Viewing, grieving, crying, sadness, stress. Large turnout; young, old, family, relatives, girlfriend, schoolmates, parents, the curious, the funeral director, the Survivor Assistance Officer, and me. Gun-metal gray casket. Viewable. Glass window. Flowers, odor of embalming fluid unnoticeable to the masses, but very detectable to my mortician’s nose. Triggering memories from my past. Other funerals, other veterans from my past civilian life. Knotted stomach. Doing my job whatever it might be. Representing the Army, government?? Trying my damndest to do the best I know how.

Second day of viewing. More of the same. Family more calm. Recollection. Reflection. Stories. New arrivals. More grieving. Shocking physical likeness to the body even in death. Thinking of my own mortality. It could easily be me in the box. Luck of the draw! Depressing thoughts. Just realizing that I will get to do this job again real soon. Got to get through this one first.

Back to my room. Dragging ass. Sleep of the dead. Horrible nightmares. Bodies. Body parts. Family faces, mine and theirs. Sleep sweats.

Back to the funeral home. Burial day service. Large crowd. Post-burial team. Pallbearers and color guard. Coffin loaded into the hearse. Riding with the family to the cemetery. Graveside service. Folding of the flag. Presented to me. I in turn presenting it to the NOK. “On behalf of a grateful nation, etc. etc., etc.” Painful! 21-gun salute, 7 shooters, 3 rounds apiece, 3 volleys. TAPS, sweet TAPS. Feels like my heart is being ripped out. Fighting back tears. Wailing in the background. Blood running cold. TAPS lasting forever.

Finally it’s over. Endless ride back in silence with the family. Goodbyes. Promises to write. Back to the airport and the detachment. This is tough work, and even with my background, I’m having a rough time. Mission successful?? My only complaint is with myself. Not even sure what I am dissatisfied with. Curious. Uncertain. Maybe I did do a good job. The family and funeral director said so. One thing is sure. I am going to get plenty of practice.

Time to unwind with my escort buddies. Casual friendships appear to be escalated. No time for small shit. First mission over. Welcome. Have a beer. Let’s cook steaks. Debriefing. Good job. Let’s get drunk/high, both. Approximately three days between missions. Serious party mood. Not much time till the next trip. Packing large amounts of energy into short timeframes. 23 years old. Nine escorts living in an old, wooden-framed barracks. Isolated. No inspections. Decorated with posters, American flags, hippie funk. Incense burning, lights down low, stereo blasting out Jimi Hendrix. People partying day and night.

Strange transformations in the midst of it all as an escort prepares for a mission. He dressing in his uniform, spit and polished to the max. Strac as strac gets. Clean, straight, and sober. Not partying at all. Determined look. Focused! Sharp! Standing tall! Wishing he could party with the rest of us. Knowing it will be someone else’s turn when he completes his mission. Dreading the trip in some ways, but anticipating the action. Adrenalin slamming through the veins. Sharp salute to his fellow escorts, returned, and he’s off. We have all been there and we wish him God speed and good luck. The mission comes first, and we know he will bust his ass to do a good job!

18 months and 40 bodies later, I have completed my mission. Burned out! Elated! 90-day drop! Early out! Hot damn! “Re-enlist your ass, SIR!” “Thanks, but no thanks.” “But Sgt. Campbell, you are a good soldier. We need you.” “Sorry Sir, I’ve got shit to do and it don’t involve the green machine.” Discharge honorable.

All my shit packed in a ’58 VW. Heading east. Leaving my beloved California. The beauty of the place my salvation during my darkest times. Escapes to Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County, Sausalito, San Fran, Winnie, Cindy, Napa Valley, Pacific Coast Hwy. The ocean, the women, Berkley, Golden Gate Park, Haight Asbury, streetcars, seafood, Mexican dirt weed, wine, Coors beer, Filmore West, the music, the scene, the wonder of it all!

And yet, a void. Isolated into myself more than ever. Guilty, angry, volatile, aggressive, sad, and grieving for all of those dead young men, once so vibrant, virile, and alive—sons, fathers, brothers, grandsons, boyfriends, lovers, soldiers, men—good men, willing to fight and die for their buddies and their country. Never again will they be able to experience all of the wonderful things that I experienced as I put them in the ground and held their sobbing mothers and fathers, the widows and brothers and sisters and girlfriends and grandparents, and in-laws and outlaws and friends and neighbors of all kinds in my arms and tried my best to comfort them. No words yet spoken can do that job. Just hold them and say, “I’m sorry,” and I truly am! I truly am!

Leaving California feeling a multitude of emotions. I had good times and I had real bad ones, but none compare to these good men who made the ultimate sacrifice! My heart will always hold a place of honor for them and what they have done and too for their survivors, who also gave so much, and to my fellow escorts, who also gave their hearts and souls to the “mission.” Many who were also Vietnam combat veterans wounded in battle and to all of the casualty workers who gave so much. God bless you and keep you one and all!