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There were just about a dozen left from the entire company, after some of the fiercest fighting they had seen thus far.
Actually, about a dozen left wasn't too bad when there was only about thirty five, or so, on the original patrol, with Mike Company, Third Battalion, Third Marines, just south of the demilitarized zone. The number of deaths, or death, wasn't the bad part at all. That was commonplace. The bad, or hardest part, would come later, after the first visit to a place called Graves Registration.
Walking up to the door of Graves Registration, it looked like just another pre-fabricated building. It sat just outside the hospital at Dong Ha, South Viet Nam, with two doors in the front, one marked "IN" and the other marked "OUT". Between the doors was the sign "GRAVES REGISTRATION". On one side of the building were parked four trucks with refrigeration units mounted on the cabs of each. On the other side stood the only hint of what was to be found inside. It was a huge bin about the size of two trash dumpsters, overflowing with the discarded and forgotten clothing, canteens and boots of those that had been and were now inside.
A mental note has to be made here to stop at the bin on the way back to pick up boots, clothes and canteens because of the lack supplies for those of us that are still alive physically.
Stepping across the threshold wasn't the hard part; continuing after getting inside would be the hard part.
There were two men in the middle of the cold, damp, dungeon-like building. No offices of any kind, just a table and two chairs stuck in one corner near the doors. The floor was concrete with a drain in the center and the coldness of the building would be matched only by the "devoted professionalism" of the two men inside with their "better him than me" expressions.
One of these men had a razor blade in hand while the other was rolling out a middle class suburban garden hose. The man with the razor was bent over this mass of dried, crusted blood, clothing and possibly flesh, cutting away the clothes and boots. This was done with great precision so as not to mark on what was, apparently, a body, at one time.
After everything had been removed from the body, the hose man moved in and began his task of washing down the body, which he attacked the same way he would have his garden. The front portion being done, the hose man grabbed the feet, like one would grab a side of beef, and flipped it over so the back side could be hosed down.
All this hadn't taken long. The razor blade man had put his blade down, written down a number and name on a form, picked up what appeared to be a wooden pointer and returned. He stopped and turned, saying they would be through very shortly and to relax. Maybe this is really a meat processing plant.
The hose man turned off the water, took the form from the razor blade man who now becomes the pointer. As he rolled the body, that hadn't even finished growing, from side to side he poked, pointed and prodded at anything that looked like a wound, while the hose man made note of it all on the form. All this was being done with the efficiency of a troubleshooter trying to determine the cause of this malfunction.
All this taken care of, a tag was filled out and tied to the toe of the body. A plastic bag, not unlike a freezer bag, was brought out along with a green cloth bag, to insure freshness. The plastic bag was laid out precisely, closest to the body, with the green one, to lock in odors, next to it. The body was packed inside the plastic bag and both were then placed in the green cloth bag. The cloth bag was then zipped up and a duplicate tag fastened to the zipper to ensure proper shipment.
Looking beyond the center of the room for the first time since entering, the big refrigerator doors look at you almost daring you to come through. The hose man and the razor blade man move towards one of the doors, open it and move inside. There, stacked like so many sides of beef, one more body is added.
The two emerge from the refrigerator, move to the next door, open it and unzip the bag. One of them asks, "Is this John Doe? Sign the form. Is this Sean Smith? Sign the paper." The paper is signed, under the penalty of law, stating that inside this bag is your carefree, fun loving child.
We make no promises or guarantees that all pieces are intact or that the hunk of meat contained is visually the same as when purchased by us. This, of course, is done in triplicate and the Pentagon thanks you for your contribution to the world freedom effort.