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We’ve all watched the scene in movies: The car pulls up in the driveway, a sharp-looking soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine steps out of the car, accompanied perhaps by a priest or minister. The door to the home opens, and a mother, father, or child-toting wife opens the door. The door opens to Death.

Harry Spiller of Marion, Illinois, played this role many times while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was 21 years old and newly returned from his first tour in Vietnam when he was assigned recruiting duty in Cape Girardeau, Mo. It was a prestigious job, especially for one so young and with so little experience. But there was another duty. Spiller also was required to make casualty calls to families in the areas where he was recruiting. Although Spiller spent ten years in the Marines, these three years doing casualty notifications turned his life upside down and changed it forever.

No training existed for the mission. Much emphasis was placed on spit and polish and correct paperwork. But he had to find the words. There was no official protocol to use when walking up to the doors of total strangers to tell them their son, husband, or father was dead.

“When you go to somebody’s door, and you knock on that door, and that somebody’s kid is dead,” Spiller said, “you can dance, you can sing, you can do whatever you want. They’re dead, and I don’t know how you’re supposed to be able to tell somebody that and be gentle with it. There’s no gentleness to it. So I did it so that I could get through it.”

He thought that the worst part of these visits was the news itself. But when he visited a mother whose son had been wounded but whose prognosis was good, she opened the front door, saw Harry standing there in uniform, and passed out cold. Harry realized then that it wasn’t just the message. He represented bad things when he pulled into the driveway. “I was like the plague,” he said.

The Angel of Death
While Spiller was making casualty calls in Southern Illinois and Southeastern Missouri, he also was keeping up the flow of recruits into the USMC. Spiller was good at recruiting and received the quarterly award for enlisting the most people four times in his three years in Cape Girardeau. In 1967-68, casualties soared, but this did not stop the area’s young men from enlisting. Many young men, like Spiller himself, saw the military as an opportunity. “It was a great thing to die on Iwo Jima. All the stuff from World War II movies was full of that patriotism,” he said. “Plus, when you’re young, you’re invincible. When I was 19 and in Vietnam, I found out what ‘un-invincible’ means real quick.”

Spiller never failed to make his monthly recruiting quota, often filling it a month or more ahead of schedule.

Then in March 1969, PFC Clifford Combs of Marquand, Mo., was killed in action. Six months earlier, Spiller had been in Combs’s home with enlistment papers, which Combs had signed with the enthusiasm of any 18-year-old setting off on the adventure of a lifetime. Spiller found himself again standing in the doorway of the same home. And he wondered why.

Spiller was at a crossroads in his own life with little support. He found himself turning more often to alcohol to numb the pain and feelings of guilt.

“Everything was falling apart,” he said. “I was beginning to lose my belief in the esprit de corps. I was beginning to question what I was doing and what was going on, what with the assassinations of President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, and the demonstrations.”

Combs’s was just the first visit he had to make to the families of his recruits. More followed as the war raged in 1969 and 1970.

Then Spiller visited rural Farmington High School in Southeast Missouri to give a recruiting talk. “I was looking at them, and I saw other faces. It was like the whole thing just came home to me, all of it, for the whole three years,” he said. “I was fine when I went in and then here it came. I thought to myself, ‘I’m done with this.’ When I walked out, it was like someone had lifted a building off my shoulders.”

Spiller did one more tour of duty in Vietnam, aboard the USS Coral Sea. Upon completion of his ten years in the Marine Corps, Spiller, his heart full of turmoil, threw away his uniforms, hoping the act would provide him with a feeling of cleansing. “I no longer believed,” he said.

Bleeding Ink
Spiller did his best to put the war behind him. He did not talk about it and did not want to hear about it. “I’ve had the guilt all my life,” he said. “I didn’t deal with it twenty years ago. In fact I would have argued with you and said, ‘Vietnam doesn’t bother me.’” Then, in 1983, Spiller was watching a television movie about a woman whose husband was KIA in Vietnam. He remembers vividly the scene in which the young bride was notified of her husband’s death. The scene, and the movie itself, caused Spiller to begin thinking about his experiences as a recruiter and doing casualty notifications.

Try though he might, the faces and memories would not leave him, and he knew he had to find a way to heal himself. He began writing Vietnam: Angel of Death.

In researching and writing the book, Spiller found himself revisiting many of the sites where he made notifications decades before. He was shocked to find how many people remembered him. He was shocked, too, that their reactions were not what he had anticipated. “One mother was really decent to me. What I thought she would have thought of me, she didn’t think at all,” he said. Slowly, especially since writing the book, he has begun his healing process. The stories he tells are heartbreaking and poignant: stories of families refusing to believe their children are dead, loved ones gripping the last letters until the final volleys of a 21-gun salute are fired, of Mother’s Day bouquets sent by a son killed in action just days earlier.

“I’m who I am because of what I’ve done,” he said. “I don’t think that’s always a good thing, but that’s what we all are, and the life experiences are what make us who we are and make us come to terms with lots of things and appreciate things.

“The one thing I wanted when writing the book,” he said, “is to get recognition for those killed in action, not myself.” The book was a way of healing himself and a way of keeping alive the memories of those lost in southern Illinois and southeast Missouri. Spiller has visited The Wall in Washington and several Moving Walls.
“It doesn’t hurt to visit the guys,” he said. “It’s as close as you’re ever going to get to them.”

Harry Spiller, a former sheriff, is an educator in law enforcement and criminal justice at John A. Logan College in Carterville, Illinois.

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