In death, soldiers treated with respect by veteran mortician

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Judson Caldwell was familiar with death growing up in Newton County. He worked in the family funeral service business for most of his formative years. After graduating from Newton High School and college, he joined the U.S. Army and worked as a military mortician in Vietnam.

Caldwell, a 1965 Newton High graduate, arrived in Vietnam as a second lieutenant following graduation from Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., in 1969. After state-side training, he was assigned to Graves Registration with the 561st Supply and Services Battalion. Caldwell knew his next port-of-call would be Vietnam.

Under the most demanding of circumstances, the personnel at the U.S. Army Mortuary on Tan Son Nhut Air Base worked diligently to make sure no mistakes were made. Caldwell said, "I want every reader to know that when we received a veteran, he was treated with dignity and respect. We had no intention of adding to the anguish of the families."

Their task was challenging. Vietnam was sectioned into four "corps" Tan Son Nhut handled II, III, and IV corps, DaNang handled I corps.

"We were in contact with Washington, D.C., on a daily basis," Caldwell said. "We achieved positive identification or kept the veteran in a refrigeration unit until we could. Since our responsibilities covered most of Vietnam, we had refrigeration capacity for 250 veterans."

All veterans have memories; some have nightmares.

"I still remember when a transport plane went down en route to Cam Ranh Bay with a load of troops. Most of the boys on that flight were going home, their duty was over," Caldwell said. The aircraft crashed on Thanksgiving Day in contested territory. Their remains were not recovered until Dec. 24th.

"It was Christmas Eve. That didn't matter. Every man in our unit was on the tarmac to greet those veterans when they arrived. We worked non-stop," he said. "Each veteran was positively identified. That's the least we could have done."

A veteran, once identified, was home within 10 days. Caldwell said, "Our job wasn't easy, but our men were dedicated. Our veterans got home to their families without any misidentifications."

Today, Caldwell owns the Caldwell & Cowan Funeral Home in Covington. He married his wife, Ginger, in 1977. They have two children, Adam and Kate, and three granddaughters.

During the interview, Caldwell said, "I'm not a hero. The veterans our unit attended to were the real heroes. They gave their all."