To continue with Gib Seegert's story, I want readers to understand, in a war, there are jobs that must be done. Graves registration was part of war. It was a duty some could not do. Yet it had to be done.
It was a job that took young Marines who volunteered; some were just months after graduating from high school.
It's also hard for me to write this story. When I started Gib's story, I realized that we were in the same areas at the same time. When we talked, I realized when I was wounded the second time, I was med-evacuated to the Dong Ha battalion aid station in June 1968. While there I ran into a Marine I went through boot camp with. When I asked why he was there, he told me he volunteered for graves registration. He later took me through the area and showed me a sight I will never forget. As we walked into the Dong Ha graves registration area, we entered a tent with five large fans blowing. On the floor were 11 bodies.
Gib Seegert, U.S. Marine
My friend from boot camp told his duty was to take a garden hose and every half hour spray the bodies with water to keep them at least cool until they could be put in body bags and shipped to Da Nang later that day where they had refrigeration. When asked why they weren't being shipped right away, his reply was we probably will have more to process as the day goes on. Staring on these fallen Marines, he pointed out that this one Marine had only 17 days left in country before he was to return home. I needed to tell you this because this is true. This actually was the way it happened at Dong Ha in June 1968. The rest of this story is what Gib Seegert saw and did while doing his duty.
Gib explained that the Marine Corp had its main in country graves registration in Da Nang. This facility had refrigerated areas to place the fallen marines. Other areas that had remote graves registration areas were Dong Ha, Camp JJ Carroll, Phu Bia, Khe Sanh, and the Rock Pile. These remote graves registration areas were tents that Gib stated were away from everyone else, a Marine Corps rule. The reason for the remote areas was that it made it convenient to confirm the bodies when the marines' unit was near. Once confirmation was made, the body was then shipped south. Most bodies were tagged. At times some bodies came in unknown. The unknowns were tagged with the units working close by. The majority of bodies came in within minutes of their deaths. At times bodies could be days to a week before being brought in depending on the battlefield condition. The remote units at times could use radio confirmation on identifying a killed- in-action (KIA). During the Tet offensive, graves registration remote areas were moved and attached to certain Marine units when starting a new major combat operation, knowing that there will be the loss of life due to the mission of the operation.
On occasion men from graves registration were taken out in the field when units were sent out to find the remains of a fallen pilot. Gib would go along to make sure the bodies or, at times, body pieces were properly gathered, recalling one day in June when members were caught in a company size ambush which resulted in 109 dead Marines. At times with large groups of KIAs, it would be common to see one or two of the enemy mixed in. In those cases, Gib would gather the information found and have the bodies buried behind the temporary tents.
In addition to KIAs, graves registration also came across the non-combat deaths which included drownings, vehicle accidents, drugs, and suicides. Some of the worse days were when soldiers of the ROK (Republic of Korea) met with forces of our enemy's N.V.A. units. There was no love loss when the two sides met, many time leaving mutilated, cut up, disfigured soldiers. In units involving the Marine Corp, Gib would notice irregularities when marines of the ninth marines were brought in.
Graves registration duties started when the choppers or trucks brought in the bodies. Once delivered the process was started to prepare the body for its transportation back home for a proper burial. Upon accepting the body, it was bagged and identified with the Marine's name and service number. Next came fingerprinting, and the next step was to chart the body. This involved marking on a chart all wounded areas of the body that may have caused the death, describing in detail what they had seen.
Next the body was wrapped in a plastic wrap and then placed in a body bag. Last the bag was identified and, when possible, a witness confirmed the remains. The final duty was to escort these bodies to Da Nang. The fallen Marines' paperwork was completed, composed of facts of death, medical attention given, and final preparation to have a body sent home.
After his tour in Vietnam was over, Gib returned home. He applied and received a job with the New York State Thruway as a heavy equipment operator. His area of work covered from Dunkirk to Hamburg. A few years later, after retiring from the Thruway Authority, Gib took employment with the Lake Shore Hospital, working for five years as a mental health counselor.
As time passed, the war started catching up with Gib. Every day was getting worse, always returning in his mind to Vietnam and seeing all those dead Marines and him still there. He started to forget about Vietnam with the help of a bottle.
Gib explained that he stayed intoxicated for 10 years. In 1984 his wife Elizabeth and his father took Gib to the Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital, where he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The VA started treating Gib, and, with the help of Dr. Ribble, Gib started to regain his life. In 1987 he went back to school at Fredonia State. He later attended Medaille College and received a bachelor's degree in human services and alcohol and drug counseling. He enjoys golf and is a member of the Tri County Golf Course.
Doing a story about Gib took me back to Leatherneck Square, a small section of I Corp that was a six mile times nine mile area that was mainly run by the U.S. Marine Corps. The year of 1968 was the worst of the war, claiming 16,592 Americans. Of the figure, 14,838 were Marines mostly serving I Corp and Leatherneck Square. It was a busy year for Marine Corp combat units and for graves registration.
Gib, if one was to look back, was right in the middle of all the action. Operations Kentucky Lancaster, Robin South and Pegasus accounted for nearly 11,545 of the marines killed. All these operations were in the Leatherneck Square area.
Gib volunteered for a job that changed his life forever. As for most who served in that area, there isn't a day that goes by without going back there in your mind. He has gotten his life back together with the help of his wife, his father and a VA doctor. This war in this small country has such a hold on so many who served there.
Some may say that the war didn't affect them. Those were the lucky ones, and for others, the effect is haunting them each and every day.
Life goes on for Gib. Instead of living in a whiskey bottle, he has his counseling and family. A story of a veteran who may or may not have fired a round will live the rest of his days as a combat veteran who did all he could. His reward is knowing that he helped make it possible for his fallen Marine brother to be reunited with his family for their final and proper burial.
Gib is one of the few who will say he was treated well when he returned from Vietnam. It was hard for me to believe his story about being treated well upon returning at first because of what I witnessed. After hearing his military story, deep inside, I was happy to hear at least Gib was treated well for all he had seen and done.
This is a story of a great Marine and a good person. Most people want to hear about the war with stories of about big ships, tanks, or artillery. This is a story about a Marine and a job few if any ever heard about yet is still a large part of a combat unit.
There are so many jobs we never hear of that nevertheless exist. Wars bring dead soldiers, sailors, and airmen. It doesn't end when they fall to the ground. Thank you Gib for serving. Thank you for taking care of all those fallen Marines. Thank you for being such a great person. If one wanted to see the process of graves registration in today's military, one should get the movie "Taking Chance," a movie that shows how our fallen heroes are treated today.
In his closing remarks Gib Seegert has now been at peace with himself for the last five years although PTSD will remain with him and his family for the rest of his life. Gib Seegert is a hero, our hero of the week.
Thank you Gib. Semper Fi.