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Author's Name: John Thorne

Title: "Survivor Assistance"

Having graduated from college in 1968 as a 2nd Lt. in the Army, through ROTC, a tour of duty in Vietnam was almost inevitable for me.  Though I did serve in Vietnam with the 156th Heavy Equipment Maintenance Company outside DaNang in 1969-70, my most impactful memories are related to my service at Granite City Army Depot, Illinois.  While there I had the extra duty of assisting some families of service members whose loved ones died on active duty.  These assignments were difficult and frequently heart-wrenching, but still contained events that were uplifting and encouraging and taught me that we have within us the strength to deal with tragedy and loss.

These lessons were particularly poignant for me as my own father was killed as a result of combat in France in WWII, 20 days before my birth. No one was there to assist my mother with her loss as she dealt with a newborn and two other children aged four and eight. Her years of medical treatment for mental difficulties, the intermittent separating of me from my siblings, and my youth with never having a father left me particularly sensitive to the grief of others when they experienced this loss. I was not looking forward to my duties.

I learned quickly that my work was relatively easy when the widow or parents were surrounded by loving family, even when they were not kind to me. I understood. Then I would work behind the scenes with the mortuary and the benefits paperwork.

My most poignant case came with an elderly couple whose only son was killed in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. Their home was a testament to their love for their son, with photographs and trophies of a healthy and athletic young man literally covering every wall of their small living room.  As we spoke, with them seemingly shrunk into their sofa, they seemed almost apologetic for their son’s death causing me so much trouble.  They were the sweetest, kindest couple you could meet. All of this in spite of the fact that the casket in which their son’s remains were delivered to the mortuary was too short to contain his full body. Even their final memory of their son at the closed casket funeral was a reminder of the horrific death he had experienced. I could only try to empathize and accept their thanks for helping them as I left.

A somewhat humorous, and encouraging, event occurred with a funeral arranged in southern Illinois involving a scheduled honor guard to play taps for the gravesite ceremony. While the funeral director and I waited for them to show from Scott Air Force Base we became more and more concerned and eventually became convinced they were not going to show. A quick call to a local veterans group produced an honor guard, and a call to a local high school gave us a student willing to give “taps” a try. With the funeral director and me hidden behind a cluster of shrubbery about 50 yards from the gravesite we waited for our trumpeter while the service progressed.  Just in time the student ran up to us, took a deep breath, and gave a very respectable rendition.  He received our thanks and immediately ran back to class with quite a story to tell. I never did learn his name, but was encourage by his willingness to put himself on the line for the fallen soldier.  There are good people in all places.

I was married in 1967.  Knowing Vietnam was likely, my only stipulation was that children would wait until my return, as I didn’t want to put my children through what my mother and I experienced with my father’s death.

My Vietnam in-country experience is another story with lasting impact on me, but different & less significant than what I experienced before hand.