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Sep 2, 2019 11:21 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

George Motz Reflects On His Vietnam Era Job As The Bearer Of The Worst News Possible

Sep 2, 2019 11:36 AM

In late March 1966, George Motz was driving down the highway outside of Charleston, South Carolina, reciting the speech he had memorized and was required to give when he showed up at the door of a stranger, telling them that their son had been killed in Vietnam.

Motz, who was 24 years old and a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army, had recently been assigned the job of casualty notification officer. It was a new initiative in the Army; the Vietnam War was not popular, and in-person casualty notifications were seen as a more sensitive and respectful way to deliver the news that no parent ever wants to hear, rather than the old way, via telegram.

Motz hadn’t initially felt much trepidation about the new assignment. He had already been working as a survivors assistance officer from his post at the Charleston Army Depot, north of Charleston, helping families plan funerals and coordinate other details surrounding the death of their sons. In those cases, he would not meet those families until a few days after they’d received the tragic news.

He worked as a survivors assistance officer for roughly a year prior to taking on casualty notifications, which he did from March 1966 to April 1967.

Motz said the gravity of his new assignment didn’t hit him until he was cruising down the road that day.

“I pulled over on the side of the road and said, ‘My God, I’m going to shatter a family’s dreams, just like that. How do I do that? How are they going to react, and how am I going to react to the way they react?’”

Over the course of the next year, Motz would figure that out. During his time as a casualty notification officer, he performed the difficult task more than a hundred times, breaking the bad news to mainly poor black families in South Carolina whose sons had died in the Vietnam War.

After a few minutes, Motz composed himself and got back on the road. He reached the house and delivered the terrible news to the mother of the fallen soldier. She screamed and collapsed on the porch. Motz helped her inside the house and onto her couch, then went into the kitchen and got her a glass of water before sitting with her as she grieved.

A few minutes later, the woman’s neighbor, who had heard the screams, came to the house to help comfort her. Together, the women began to pray.

“A lot of them developed in that way,” Motz said.

Now 77, Motz lives in Quogue. After his time in the Army, he had a 40-year career on Wall Street. He had four children with his first wife, Mary Thames, a Charleston girl whom he married in December 1967 shortly after completing his active duty assignment there. With his second wife, Kittric, whom he married in 1990, he had a fifth child, Teddy. He also served four terms as the mayor of Quogue Village, starting in 2002, and in 2010 was sentenced to prison for eight years after pleading guilty to securities fraud in connection with his work on Wall Street.

He said that, for decades, he had intended to write a book about his unique experience as a casualty notification officer. After years of putting that project on the back burner, as he said, Motz finally achieved that goal, recently publishing the book, “Taps: The Silent Victims of the Vietnam War: The Families Left Behind.”

In it, he recounts the many interesting, heartbreaking and surprising moments he experienced while doing a job that has been immortalized in movies and has come to carry a lot of cultural significance, but is not often shown from the perspective of the officers who do it.

Earlier this summer, Motz sat in his Quogue apartment and spoke about his inspiration for writing the book, while also recounting stories from his time doing that job. Even all these decades later, it’s clear that the work still has great emotional resonance with him. In the telling of certain stories, tears glistened in his eyes but did not fall.

He spoke with passion and conviction about the families he cared for, the communities he worked in, and the various tender ways that people took care of one another in times of intense grief.

It was clear he was also deeply moved by the compassion he was shown even as he had to be the bearer of the worst possible news.

Unlike many other casualty notification officers, Motz continued to work as a survivors assistance officer even after he was assigned to do casualty notifications. The Army’s thinking, he said, had been that families would not take kindly to having the person who delivered them the worst news of their life then also be the one to help them plan the funeral, eulogies and other important details that needed tending to after the death.

But Motz said his unit’s relatively small size, and the fact that no other officers seemed keen to do it themselves, meant that he had to. He added that he felt doing both jobs was a blessing rather than a burden.

“It was positive for me, and for them,” he said, referring to the family members of the fallen soldiers. “It helped me a lot, because I was able to help them. If I just said, ‘Your son died,’ and walked away, I think it would have permanently scarred me.”

But it still was far from easy.

Motz recalled being asked to eulogize the dead soldiers on several occasions, including one time when he was put on the spot at the funeral.

“I had 300 black faces looking at me, and I’m a white guy from New York,” he said, recalling the moment. “I got up there and just said, ‘I envy all of you.’ And they were looking around like, ‘Did this guy just say he envies us?’ So that got their attention. But I said, ‘I envy you because you had the opportunity to know him socially, play sports with him. I did not.’ Most of my eulogies started that same way.”

Aside from the emotional toll it exacted, the duty also left an indelible mark on his memory. “The casualty notifications were brutal, horrible,” he said. “I did a couple of hundred, and I remember every one. And the average age of the dead was 21.”

On April 1, 1967, Motz’s last day of active duty, he said he remembers driving home from Charleston, back to Long Island, and vowing that he would write a book and tell his story.

He said the mass shooting at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015 helped provide the final burst of motivation he needed. The church was close to where Motz was stationed, and he knew one of the victims, Susie Jackson, 87, during his time in the Army.

An observation of race relations is a big part of Motz’s book as well. He speaks about the unique experience of being a northerner and being sent to the deep South and finding out just how different things were there, particularly when it came to how black and white people interacted.

He witnessed many instances of blunt racism — including at a KKK meeting he attended, sent there by his commanding officer so he could get a sense of what the race relations were like in the region, and where he said he was “amazed” by the level of hatred present there — as well as in other interactions.

In one instance, he recalled inviting a local minister to accompany him to a casualty notification, at the suggestion of his commanding officer. When the minister realized they were heading to a black area of town, he referred to it as “N-town,” and said he would not go. Motz said he then had to ask his driver, a black man named Clark, to drop the minister off in town.

“Growing up in Garden City and then in summers in Quogue, I was never around black people,” Motz acknowledged. “I was never prejudiced, but I just didn’t know them. And then being down there, I was totally immersed among poor black folks. It was fascinating getting to know them. They really appreciated how I was trying to help them, and I appreciated the fact that they accepted me.”

Motz had clear motivations in writing the book and sharing his experiences. He wants to make people aware of the toll that wars take on the families whose loved ones are killed, and what it’s like for them to carry on when they’ve lost a child. Their stories are often lost, he said, and he wants to honor them.

“It’s usually the golden son in the family,” he said. “I want people to remember the families and what they go through. Because the soldier dies, and maybe the friends and other family members move on, but mom and dad never do. I visited families years and years after making notifications, and they never got over it. They’d gone on with their lives, but their son would never be there again.”

Motz’s stories have power, because anyone who has ever loved someone can relate to the pain that comes when you lose that person. Particularly parents. It is an experience that knows no racial, gender or economic boundaries.

Motz remembered another time that is particularly strong in his memory. He had to be flown in a helicopter to make a notification for a Gullah family on a sparsely populated island off the South Carolina coast. The Gullah people are descended from African slaves, and have maintained many distinct cultural traditions, and also speak a Creole-type dialect, called Geechee.

Motz made his way to a large cotton field, where he saw several Gullah women in long dresses, bent over cotton plants, while a white guard with a rifle across his chest stood by. It was a shocking sight, Motz said, something he never expected he’d encounter in the 20th century.

The guard initially told Motz to return at the end of the work day to speak to the woman, but he insisted on talking to her. Because of the language barrier, he simply walked into the cotton field and called out her last name. Several women pointed out the mother to him, and when she saw him approaching, she knew. Motz said she collapsed, sobbing.

“I got on my hands and knees and just hugged her,” he said. “All the women around her started consoling her and calling out to her, and then they burst into a Gullah song for unexpected loss. They were singing beautifully, across the field.”

Motz said he does not consider himself any kind of hero or someone worthy of deep praise and admiration for the work he did, even though he was chosen by the Warriors Rock concert group as one of its military service members to be honored at their concert in Westhampton Beach last year. He defers to soldiers who spent time in the battlefield, calling them the real heroes.

He shared how his son, Teddy, read a draft of the book two summers ago, and marveled at how his father — who was doing the notifications when he was just a year younger than Teddy was that summer — was able to do what he did, and handle the enormous emotional pressure of it at such a young age.

Aside from that five-minute stop along the highway on the way to his first notification, Motz said he never shied away from the job. He said he took a certain degree of satisfaction in doing it right, and in subsequently helping the families navigate everything they needed to get through during a time of intense grief.

“In the military, they tell you that this is what you’re doing, and you do it,” Motz recalled telling his son. “I never thought it was something I couldn’t do.

“It never became one ounce easier, though,” he added. “It was always tough.”

“Taps: The Silent Victims of the Vietnam War: The Families Left Behind” is published by Peconic Bay Publishing, and is available on amazon.com.

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