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Meet the Vietnam War veteran whose job it was to notify loved ones about casualties

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps's Military Voices Initiative, recording and sharing the stories of service members and their families. Of course, it's Memorial Day weekend, and today we're going to hear from a Vietnam veteran whose job it was to identify casualties of war. Army Lieutenant Colonel Larry Candelaria was deployed to Vietnam in 1970. He was chief of the casualty branch for the 23rd Infantry Combat Division. His team notified families when their loved ones were injured or killed.

LARRY CANDELARIA: Every day, I had to deal with the wounded, with the missing, those that had died terrible death. I remember there was an invasion to Khe Sanh, and it was not going well. Every morning I got ID cards, and I went to the mortuary. We had to open the bags and see if we could identify that soldier. The first time I did that, I had to get outside and vomit. I couldn't stop crying. I felt really embarrassed. But, you know, when you see a 18-year-old with half of his face gone, it just gets the best of you.

I remember one Hispanic soldier, and the general was putting the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for valor on this soldier. He had no legs, no arms. The general was crying, the aide was crying, and I was crying. Just to see him was awful. The general asked him, soldier, what happened to you? He says, General, I jumped on a grenade to save my buddies, and he said I would do it all over again. Boy, that really knocked me over.

When I came back to the United States, I couldn't sleep. I continued to have nightmares of faces of individuals. It was an awful job that somebody had to do. We were all in the same foxhole, and we were trying to do good things for soldiers. But it did leave wounds in me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: That's Army Lieutenant Colonel Larry Candelaria in Las Cruces, N.M. His interview is archived in the U.S. Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.