The recruiter looked at their innocent faces and went numb, realizing then he could no longer bury the same boys he recruited just months before. He could no longer look into the faces of parents of boys he'd recruited to tell them their child was dead. So, he left the job without saying a word.

And he stayed silent until years later when he decided to write about the experience.

It was 1970 when Harry Spiller came to the realization, three years after he began recruiting for the U.S. Marines and the war in Vietnam. As part of the job, Spiller was tasked with the dual role of delivering notifications of those killed or injured while in service.

He also arranged funerals, utilizing servicemen as pallbearers and for rifle squads. Usually, a high school student would be recruited to play taps.

Spiller had served two tours in Vietnam, the first before his recruitment assignment and the second afterward, when he decided he could no longer serve as an “angel of death.”

It wasn't until 1983, after Spiller saw a movie that wouldn't let him ignore his memories, when he decided to share his experiences as an author. Spiller does not recall the name of the movie, depicting the life of a lieutenant killed in Vietnam, leaving a wife to live on without him.

“For whatever reason, that just kind of sparked that whole thing,” Spiller said, of becoming a writer. “The more I thought about it, the more I felt like I had to try and write about it. When I sat down and actually started to write, it was like somebody plugged me into a typewriter.”

Spiller’s first book "Death Angel" was published in 1992. Since then, he has had 14 books published, some looking at true crimes by the former Williamson County sheriff, but others focused on war and those who fought in them, including Iraq, Afghanistan and World War II.

Spiller was born and raised in Marion. He graduated from high school there in 1963. He served as sheriff from 1982 to 1989 and taught criminal justice and political science at John A. Logan Community College.

Three of the books are on Vietnam, mostly detailing his own experiences. One of them, "Scars of Vietnam," focuses on the personal accounts of veterans and their families.

Reactions to death notifications were always the same, he said. He delivered between 30 to 40 notifications, not counting those involving the wounded. Each time, he watched families ripped apart.

One of the worst involved a direct rocket hit on a young soldier. Both his parents worked at the glove factory in Anna where the message was delivered individually to each parent. There were no remains.

“The first thing the father wanted to know was when we were going to bring him home. We had to tell him, we’re not,” Spiller said. “That was really tough. We ended up having a memorial service.”

Sometime after, remains were discovered, and a funeral was held.

Discharged in 1973, Spiller had planned to be a career serviceman and to work as a recruiter was one pathway to that goal. He considered himself a patriot when he enlisted five days after his high school graduation. At 19, he wanted to be a Marine.

But the work in recruitment, assigned to Southern Illinois and southeast Missouri, became too much. In his own words, it was devastating. It was while standing in front of a high school assembly in 1970 that the realization hit him.

“I started making casualty notifications on guys I had enlisted,” Spiller said. “That’s when it started really getting to me. I started taking it personally. I remember feeling like, I am killing these guys.”

In one small Missouri rural community, a town of some 900 people, he had recruited eight young men for the war. He delivered death notifications for four of them. Two of them came two weeks apart, Spiller said.

“Even today, I still live with that,” he said.

Knowing they would have likely been recruited had he never entered the picture does not matter to Spiller.

Rather than suppressing the memories, Spiller has found writing the books therapeutic. In 2000, he and his son went to Washington, D.C., to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

As Spiller explains in his third book on Vietnam, father and son together confronted and partially resolved his anguish.

Today, Spiller has a deeper, perhaps complex, understanding of the war compared to when he enlisted. The mixture of call to duty and the public lashing out against soldiers as they returned home -- unjustified in Spiller’s view -- complicates the perspective.

But when it comes to soldiers, then and now, alive or dead, one simple truth remains, Spiller said. He has told his son that he will not serve in the military. He has told his son that he has done two tours, one for himself and one for his son.

He later changed his mind, and his son did enlist for the U.S. Navy. Spiller said he was proud of his son because of it.

“They did what their country asked them to do,” Spiller said. “When we get to the point where we have people not willing to do that, then you are not going to be free anymore."

He adds: "Vietnam veterans were the best this county had during a bad time. If there is one thing I want my kids to remember the most is, when my country called, I answered."

Be the first to know - Sign up for Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Nick Mariano is a reporter for The Southern Illinoisan covering Saline, Franklin and Jefferson counties.

Load comments