StoryCorps 446: Too Much Hurt
Michael Garofalo (MG): It’s Veterans Day weekend, and in this episode we’re listening to stories of people who served in the Vietnam War.
Stories about what happened while they were there
Jerald Collman (JC): Our job was to take care of the soldiers that came in from the field and to treat them as if they were family.
MG: And about the battles they fought when they got home.
Glenn Freundt (GF): I was talking to one of the psychiatrists, and he says, “Do you have nightmares?” I said, no, but I have daymares.
The things guys dream about at night, I think about 24 hours a day, and it’s there while I’m awake.
MG: This is the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m Michael Garofalo. Stay with us.
MG:Welcome back to our Veterans Day episode.
In these first stories, we’ll hear from some men whose work in Vietnam is very rarely discussed. They were assigned to something called ”graves registration” in the Army. It was their job to make sure that the remains of soldiers killed in battle made it home. Jerald Collman was a collection point officer. This meant that his team was the first to receive the dead from the field.
Jerald Collman (JC): We had some eleven, twelve hundred Americans that went through in my time frame, and so many of them I knew. When you would see a name, and then you would see who was there, it was very tough. I’d go into the refrigeration unit, I’d go in there, nobody could hear me. I’d scream as loud as I could, and nobody knew. I’m proud that I didn’t commit suicide.
That’s, that’s all I can say, I would have liked to have never had the experience. It changed me forever.
MG: That’s Jerald Collman. Jerald and his men would send fallen soldiers onto a mortuary. That’s where they were prepared to be shipped back to the U.S. Gary Redlinski and Glenn Freundt, the guys we’re going to be hearing from next, they worked together at an Army mortuary near Saigon. And, here, they remember their work identifying the dead.
Gary Redlinski (GR): You’d look for body marks, like scars, tattoos.
Glenn Freundt (GF): There are times when we’d get bags of remains in from the field and we’d be opening them up, and–
GR: It was like a puzzle.
GF: Oh, yeah. This and this goes with this.
GR: It does get to be a strain on you after a while, and some guys couldn’t handle it.
GF: You know, the Graves Registration is the only part of the service that, if you don’t want to be in it, you don’t have to be–
GR: You can get out of it, yeah.
GF: They can’t keep you in it.
GR: The mortuary part, they always consider it to be demoralizing to the troops that are out in the field fighting. So, they kind of just, keep us hidden. About five years ago, I remember meeting a guy, he was an infantryman. And when I told him I worked at the mortuary down in Tan Son Nhut near Saigon, he said, ”We never knew you guys existed.” They thought, whoever died, they sent them right back to the states.
You know, I have problems a lot, I can see the things that happened to me in Vietnam. They just come back, clear as…clear as it was yesterday. And, I always felt, oh I got out of Vietnam, didn’t have a scratch, didn’t get wounded at all, and then all that hit. I did go to some counseling, and I was talking to one of the psychiatrists, and he says, “Do you have nightmares?” I said, no, but I have daymares. The things guys dream about at night, I think about 24 hours a day, and it’s there while I’m awake.
GF: What would you like people to know about the work you did, Gary?
GR: Probably the fact that I was there to help their son get back home. It didn’t matter that people didn’t know we were there, we were there to do our job.
GF: And our job was to take care of the soldiers that came in from the field and to treat them as if they were family.
MG: That’s Gary Redlinski and Glenn Freundt in St. Louis.
Next, a story about coming home. Tom Geerdes was drafted in 1969. He served as an army medic in Vietnam in Cambodia. He came back to the States in 1971. But as he told his daughter, Hannah Campbell, his time at war stayed with him long after his deployment was over.
Hannah Campbell (HC): What was the biggest change about you from Vietnam?
Tom Geerdes (TG): I was not really worried anymore about being socially acceptable. From the day I got out, I didn’t shave or cut my hair for probably a year. And people that I know before I left, even some of my cousins, didn’t think too much of me after I got back. So I took a long bicycle trip.
HC: Went off and got by yourself?
TG: Yeah. I rode straight north up through Minnesota, cut across and rode all the way to the West Coast. Took me about six weeks.
HC: Do you think that you sort of healed from Vietnam on that trip?
TG: Yeah. It helped a lot. But really, I actually didn’t heal from Vietnam till quite a number of years later. I had a janitorial business and I was doing floors at Sears. And they had a Vietnam movie on there and something just broke. And I cried. And I sobbed like a baby for a couple of hours. While I was finishing them floors, just sobbed like a baby because of several good friends I’ve lost. It was just too much devastation on us all over there, just too much hurt. And I really didn’t plan on coming back.
HC: I’m glad you came back.
TG: Yeah (Laughs). Me too. Me too.
MG: That’s Tom Geerdes with his daughter Hannah Campbell in Murray, Kentucky. And just this weekend we released an animated version of this story — called “Tom’s War.” Check it out at StoryCorps dot Org.
Our last story in this episode is about a man who served two tours in Vietnam. He was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. When he came back to this country, though, he took up a different fight. One for civil rights. His name was Leonard Matlovich. And in fall 1975, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine. His name tag was clearly visible on his Air Force uniform. And the headline read, ”I Am a Homosexual.” This marked the first time that an openly gay man appeared on the cover of a national news magazine. What he was doing, Matlovich was challenging the military ban on gay service members. This was long before ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” And at StoryCorps, his friend Jeff Dupre remembered how it happened.
Jeff Dupre (JD): I don’t know a lot of people that called him Leonard. Everyone called him Mat. I met him at a Thanksgiving dinner. We were sitting in the living room and we were watching Macy’s Day Parade on Thanksgiving Day.
He didn’t say too much at all until, um, someone started saying, ‘Mat what are you up to?’ And that’s when Mat opened up.
He said, ‘Well you know they’re looking for a candidate to challenge the gays in the military laws. They’re looking for an officer preferably, someone who has a good record to make it legal to be in the service and be open. I’ve got these awards from the service, I think I can do it.’
And the guy said, ‘Mat, no way. You’re too quiet. You’re not out. You’re not ready for that.’ Well the subject changed and that was about it for that day.
Dave Phillips (DP): Tell me about the day you saw him on the cover of Time magazine.
JD: I mean it was pretty wild. There it was on the rack. He was glancing up, shiny eyes, curly hair, with the headline: “I Am A Homosexual.” And I just stared at it. I just couldn’t believe it.
I think even the NBC and the CBS News put that cover on their TV that night. And when he called all I could do was tell him how proud I was of him. And then I didn’t hear from him for a while, and he died of AIDS. He was young, 44 years old. I didn’t even know he was sick. Before he died, he was discharged, he lost everything, you know. No (unintelligible), no nothing. He was buried in DC, and uh, his head stone does not have his name on it. It strictly says, ‘A gay Vietnam veteran, and uh, the inscription on it is ‘When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.’
He, he was the epitome of a perfect soldier, one of those people that stuck his neck out, and he was proud to be the person to challenge that law.
MG: That’s Jeff Dupre, being interviewed by his husband. He was remembering Leonard Matlovich, who was discharged from the Air Force in 1975 for being unfit to serve. He was originally given what’s called a general discharge, which is less than honorable. He fought that though, and got it changed to honorable. Matlovich went on to try to get reinstated into the Air Force. The court battle lasted nearly five years and in 1980, rather than admit him back into the service, the U.S. Air Force gave him a settlement.
You can see photos of Leonard Matlovich on the cover of TIME as well as a picture of his gravestone on our website, StoryCorps dot org. While you’re there, check out ”The Great Thanksgiving Listen.” It’s our ambitious project to record an entire generation over a single holiday weekend. You can participate. All you need is a smartphone and an Internet connection. Learn more at StoryCorps dot org. This has been the StoryCorps podcast. I’m Michael Garofalo. Until next time. Thanks for listening.