Jonestown: 30 years later

The Herald Bulletin, Indiana/November 14, 2008

Anderson - There are days, many of them, when Jeff Brailey wishes he had not been called to the gruesome campground known as Jonestown, Guyana.

On Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 men, women and children died in modern history's worst mass murder- suicide.

Thirty years ago this week, Brailey was an Army medic stationed in Panama assisting a Special Forces battalion and a jungle operation training center.

"On a Sunday morning the day after the massacre, we were notified that several hundred Americans had tried to take their lives in Guyana," says Brailey, 60, now living in Chesterfield.

"We thought, until we landed there, that we were going down there for a humanitarian effort, to help people who had tried to kill themselves."

Brailey and the eight medics loaded up with universal antidotes intended for use by survivors. They wouldn't need those supplies. Instead, Brailey watched bodies being bagged for shipment to the U.S.

Most cult members had moved to Guyana on the north end of South America with leader Jim Jones, raised in Lynn, Ind. Jones, often first associated with pro-Communist leanings, was later criticized for promoting integration and he began to fear a nuclear holocaust. In 1977, Jonestown would become his refuge.

Within a year, reports circulated that Americans were held against their will. A team led by California Congressman Leo J. Ryan went to investigate; he and four others were killed with 13 cult members who wished to leave.

The murders triggered Jones' paranoia. Jonestown residents were ordered to drink cyanide-laced ade. Those who didn't were shot. Jones would be shot, likely by a camp nurse.

"Every time I think about it, I wish I hadn't gone there," says Brailey who served two years in the Vietnam War. "I would rather do two more years in Vietnam than to go back to Jonestown one more day. It was the worst experience of my life."

Jonestown changed many of those in the U.S. military. Brailey keeps in touch with Eric Vega, who was to man an aid station. Vega now lives in San Diego and wrote The Herald Bulletin through e-mail.

"I have more respect for the dead. I don't like seeing anything dead on the road like animals. I wish people could live forever but it is something we have to do whether we want to or not. It saddens me when people I know die.

"But my mother helped me through it with her strong love of God and my beautiful wife who shares my mother's love of God and they believe that we all go home to heaven," wrote Vega.

Brailey, who later married and divorced twice and was homeless for six years, currently earns a pension through the Army.

He put all of his thoughts into a yet-unpublished manuscript. The following excerpts are from "The Ghosts of November: Memoirs of an Outsider Who Witnessed the Carnage at Jonestown, Guyana" by Jeff Brailey.

- On first hearing of his assignment to go from Panama in Central America to Guyana, located between Venezuela and Suriname:

"The universal antidote for poisoning was activated charcoal mixed in water. We had plenty of water but were not sure we could locate enough charcoal to treat 400 to 500 poisoning cases. Even if we could locate the proper antidotes in an adequate amount, what condition would any survivors be in once we arrived at their remote jungle location some 1,450 miles away."

- Upon arrival, Brailey flew over Jonestown in a Guyana Defense Force helicopter.

"I told the two GDF flyers it was difficult to make out the individual bodies from this great height and before I finished getting the words out of my mouth, the pilot maneuvered the international orange GDF helicopter in a rapid descent to a hover about 150 feet above the pavilion.

"From this lower elevation, what had appeared to be piles of trash in a landfill from 850 feet higher, was easily recognized as a mass of hundreds of bodies in multicolored clothing. Arms, legs and heads extended from bodies so bloated the formerly loose fitting shirts and trousers that were so comfortable to wear in the tropics were skin tight against the gas-filled bodies. Even the severe prop wash of our helicopter rotors hovering overhead did not make the taut clothing flutter."

- Brailey was escorted by a Guyanese lieutenant who took him by the cottage where Jones' body was still on the ground.

"Although I had never seen a picture of the man in life, in death, he had the appearance of a leader. His shirt and trousers were black. That alone separated him from the rest of the dead. The strikingly strange position of the body, lying on the steps of his home, arms outstretched and sightless eyes wide open, Jones seemed to be appealing to the God he denied until the end."

- The U.S. Army's Graves Registration Service (GREGG) keeps mortuary records. They were assigned to help identify Jonestown bodies. They used snow shovels to pick up the remains, Brailey says.

"Nov. 23, 1978 was Thanksgiving Day, perhaps the most miserable one ever spent by the 100 or so American troops who had been in Jonestown retrieving the remains of their dead countrymen. By now, the evacuation process had become old hat and the GREGG soldiers and the troops from Panama who were assigned to help them were getting a little goofy. They began creating harmless diversions to make this tedious work in the hot sun more bearable.

"One team of baggers raced against another to see who could fill the most bags in an hour. Kool Aid jokes were making the rounds and some of them were pretty sick. These politically incorrect jokes forever but falsely stigmatize the beverage as the drink of choice in Jonestown."

- One "green" airman was nervous while loading bodies. The team saw a chance to play a joke on him.

"The GREGG team loaded a body bag that contained a living breathing soldier onto his helicopter. Once the bag was on the deck of the aircraft, the contents of the bag came to life and wriggled about the deck of the helicopter.

"Seeing an animated body bag rolling on the deck of his aircraft, the scared crew chief peeled off his helmet and earphones and jumped out of the chopper. The young man had to be physically put back onto his bird."

- Once home with his family, Brailey couldn't repress some emotions - the sweet smells from a bakery sickened him because they resembled the odor at Jonestown. In November 1979, he spent a few weeks with nightmares and screaming in his sleep.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.