Featured

My Books

This is the post excerpt.

I have been writing since I was six years old. I now have four novels and seventeen stories in print.

My first published book, Friendly Casualties, was a novel in short stories derived from experiences in the 13 years I trundled between the U.S. and Vietnam to provide signals intelligence support to U.S. Army and Marine combat units fighting in South Vietnam. The first half of the book is a series of short stories in which characters from one story reappear in another. The second half is a novella that draws together all the preceding tales.

No-Accounts came from my years of caring for AIDS patients. It tells the story of a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS. I got into helping men with AIDS to help me cope with the horrors of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. When I was with my patients, men suffering more than I was, my unbearable memories went dormant.

Next came The Trion Syndrome. It begins with the Greek Trion legend about a demigod so brutal to the vanquished that the gods sent the Eucharides, three female monsters, to drown him. The protagonist, Dave Bell, is haunted by half-remembered visions of the war in Vietnam. At his lowest point, he recalls that he killed a child. Dave considers suicide, but a young man appears and helps him. It is his illegitimate son, a child he had tried to kill through abortion, who now helps him find his way home.

Last of the Annamese was published in March 2017. I used this novel to confront my memories of the fall of Saigon from which I escaped under fire. Once again, the image of the boy-child recurs, as the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, a retired Marine, grieves over the loss of his son, killed in combat in Vietnam. He returns to Vietnam as a civilian intelligence analyst after the withdrawal of U.S. troops and encounters Vietnamese boys whom he tries to save during the conflagration.

 

MY SOUL HAS A HAT

My friend and fellow writer Grady Smith sent me a text that touched me. Grady’s debut novel, Blood Chit, tells of the effect of the Vietnam war on a soldier who fought there. His latest, written with other veterans, is The 31st Infantry Regiment: A History of “America’s Foreign Legion” in Peace and War. It’s due out this summer.

I quote the text exactly as Grady sent it to me, despite oddities that were probably the result of translation:

MY SOUL HAS A HAT

Beautifully written by Mario de Andrade (San Paolo 1893-1945) Poet, novelist, essayist and musicologist. One of the founders of Brazilian modernism.

__________________________

MY SOUL HAS A HAT

I counted my years and realized that I have less time to live by, than I have lived so far.

I feel like a child who won a pack of candies: at first he ate them with pleasure but when he realized that there was little left, he began to taste them intensely.

I have no time for endless meetings where the statutes, rules, procedures and internal regulations are discussed, knowing that nothing will be done.

I no longer have the patience to stand absurd people who, despite their chronological age, have not grown up.

My time is too short: I want the essence, my spirit is in a hurry. I do not have much candy in the package anymore.

I want to live next to humans, very realistic people who know how to laugh at their mistakes and who are not inflated by their own triumphs and who take responsibility for their actions. In this way, human dignity is defended and we live in truth and honesty.

It is the essentials that make life useful.

I want to surround myself with people who know how to touch the hearts of those whom hard strokes of life have learned to grow with sweet touches of the soul.

Yes, I’m in a hurry. I’m in a hurry to live with the intensity that only maturity can give.

I do not intend to waste any of the remaining desserts. I am sure they will be exquisite, much more than those eaten so far.

My goal is to reach the end satisfied and at peace with my loved ones and my conscience.

We have two lives and the second begins when you realize you only have one.

End of quote.

Presentations (2)

Far and away my most popular presentation is on the fall of Saigon. By last year, I’d given it more than fifty times and stopped counting. As more and more of my experience in Vietnam has been declassified, I’ve been able to include greater detail about what happened. I can now speak openly about being a covert NSA operative intercepting and exploiting the communications of the invading North Vietnamese. I can describe my knowledge that eighteen North Vietnamese divisions surrounded Saigon toward the middle of April 1975. I can talk about the enemy unit just north of me which was awaiting the order to attack.

And I can tell of the failure of the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, to act on my warning that Saigon was about to be assaulted. He never called for an evacuation. As a result, many people died, and I barely escaped under fire.

I always tell my listeners that the story I’m telling them is also the story told in my novel Last of the Annamese. I explain that I wrote the book as fiction so that I could relate what happened from five different points of view, three American and two Vietnamese. I stress that the book, as one reviewer pointed out, is fiction in name only.

What surprises me is that every time I do the presentation, I choke up as I relate events that still move me deeply: the raw courage of the two communicators who volunteered to stay with me to the end despite the risk to their lives; the intent a South Vietnamese officer to shoot his three children, shoot his wife, and shoot himself when the North Vietnamese took Saigon; and my last message, sent to the Director of NSA, General Lew Allen, commending to him my people who had shown such ingenuity and courage in the face of disaster. During the Saigon presentation, I keep a handkerchief in my pocket to wipe the tears from my eyes as I speak of each of these events.

I do the fall of Saigon presentation because I want Americans to know what happened at the end. It was an event that changed the U.S. and changed my life. It is shameful narrative of American abandonment of those gallant South Vietnamese who fought by our side. But it’s also a story of bravery and self-sacrifice by those I worked beside. It is a story that must not be forgotten.

Presentations

As an author, I regularly do readings and presentations. I read from my published work, four novels and seventeen short stories, but also from manuscripts I’m working on. The venue varies. It ranges from community centers and libraries to schools and veteran organizations.

Sometimes, the day being commemorated dictates the content. On Memorial Day and Veterans Day I read on the National Mall and occasionally at other gatherings celebrating the day. But most often, it is the audience that determines what I’ll say.

My favorite audience is veterans and their spouses. These are folks who know whereof I speak. I see nods and smiles when I talk about time with combat units. These people know what it means to eat C-rations sitting in the dirt, they know what a kaibo (field bathroom) is, they understand terms like fatigue blouse, lock and load, and skivvies. If they’ve been in combat, they know the psychic wounds from watching your buddy die at your side. These are wounds that never heal.

When Vietnam veterans are among my listeners, the bond is palpable. These men—they’re nearly always men—know what it means to have fought in a failed war. They understand the anguish of coming home from combat, with all the soul-wounds that entails, only to be met by mobs who called them “butchers” and “baby killers” and spit on them.

These men are my brothers.

More tomorrow.

The End in Saigon: Oddities (5)

I wrote yesterday about the failure of the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, to call for an evacuation as it became unquestionable that Saigon would fall to the North Vietnamese in April 1975. One of the eerie results was that I and other Americans were repeatedly approached by locals asking us to arrange for their evacuation or to get enough money to buy their way out. The following, from Last of the Annamese, tells of two incidents I lived through:

At lunchtime, he [Chuck, the protagonist] stopped at the shoe repair on his way to the snack bar [in the DAO building at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon]. Behind the counter of the miniature shop stood a Vietnamese in khaki shirt and shorts—no doubt once the property of the U.S. Army—and the inevitable clogs. Chuck handed him the green cardboard ticket he’d found in Ike’s room and watched him search through shelves. The man was already old, even though he looked like he’d never grown up. He had the face of a young boy, but his hair was graying and his skin was creased.

The man put a brown-wrapped package on the counter. “Five thousand three hundred twenty pee [short for piastres].”

Chuck counted out a wad of bills.

“You want give me tip, sir?” the man said, his eyes hungry.

“You’re supposed to get a tip?” Chuck said.

“The prices, they go up. Now cost fifteen hundred pee for one bread. And DAO, it set what I can charge. So now I ask customer for tip.”

Chuck put another thousand pee on the counter.

“I thank you very much, sir.” The cash vanished.

Next Chuck went to the dry cleaners. The clerk was a young girl in shapeless black pajamas. Her ready smile reminded him of Huong [the servant of a friend]. She took his slip and produced two class A Marine uniforms on hangers for his inspection.

“Six thousand five hundred pee, sir.”

He reached for his wallet.

“You meet my mamma, sir?” the girl said.

At the end of the counter sat a caricature of an ancient Chinese woman, her white hair smoothed back into a bun. Brocaded pajamas hid her tiny frame. Her face was a map of lines, her cheekbones protruding. She smiled and nodded, her eyes mere slits.

The girl took his money. “My mamma and me, we very afraid.” She leaned toward him and whispered. “We Chinese, sir. We work for American. The VC tortures us, kills us. You help us?”

Chuck was jarred. “Look, I just work here. I don’t have any planes or boats.”

“You American, sir,” she said, as if that explained everything.

He slung the uniforms over his arm and escaped to the corridor.

End of quote. At the end, when Saigon fell, almost all the Vietnamese and Chinese who worked with us were left behind. The North Vietnamese killed many and sent the rest to “re-education camps” where many more died.

The End in Saigon: Oddities (4)

So much of the irrationality during the fall of Saigon resulted from the ambassador’s continuous reporting to the Secretary of State and the president that the North Vietnamese had no intention of assaulting Saigon. He had been approached by the Hungarian member of the International Commission for Control and Supervision (a group established in 1973 to monitor the supposed cease-fire) who told him that the North Vietnamese would not attack the city. They instead wanted to form a coalition government of “all patriotic forces in the south” and rule jointly. The ambassador believed that gentlemen, a representative of a communist government allied to North Vietnam, in the face of overwhelming signals intelligence that the attack was imminent.

One result was no plan for the evacuation of South Vietnamese that had worked with U.S. forces. I described the resulting chaos in a scene from Last of the Annamese in which the protagonist, Chuck, asks his boss, Colonel Troiano, about evacuation plans:

“The Embassy’s dragging its feet,” Troiano said. “The Ambassador thinks there’s going to be some kind of cease-fire to negotiate the formation of a coalition government. But we haven’t been idle. Ever hear of the DAO [Defense Attaché Office] Special Planning Group? Don’t let the name fool you. The SPG’s the forward evacuation coordinator. It’s been quietly working with the Marines flying in from ships off the coast to get everything ready. But the Ambassador is doing everything he can to throw obstacles in their path. He won’t allow the Marines to wear uniforms, fly in on Marine helicopters, or stay overnight. Because we’re expecting mobs outside the gate, the deputy DAO, General Baughn, sent a message to higher ups requesting additional security guards when the evacuation begins. The Ambassador was furious—ordered Baughn out of the country. So now all the preps are sub rosa. Trouble is, the city is already rolling toward panic. That’s going to make it rough.”

“So the servants at the houses, the chauffeurs—”

Troiano wilted. “If the Embassy had faced the facts and started evacuating people other than high-risk Viets, we could have gotten many of them out. As it is . . .” He shook his head.

“What will we do, sir?”

“When I find out, I’ll tell you.”

End of quote. In short, the ambassador never did call for an evacuation. But the military side of the U.S. government was under no delusion about what was happening. It moved ahead, ordered the 7th Fleet to the South China Sea with Marines and helicopters aboard, and established liaison with people on the ground in Saigon. The sad part of the story is that the evacuation effort was too small and came too late. We couldn’t evacuate those faithful South Vietnamese who had worked with us against the communists. They were left behind to the mercies of the conquering North Vietnamese. That included 2,700 South Vietnamese soldiers that had worked with my employer, NSA.

More tomorrow.

The End in Saigon: Oddities (3)

One of the crazy happenings toward the end, as the fall of Saigon got closer in March and April 1975, was the arrival of new people assigned to our office together with their families. After the 1973 cease-fire, Saigon was no longer deemed a hazardous tour, and accompanied tours—permission for new assignees to bring their families with them—were standard. So families kept arriving. All our reporting made clear that the North Vietnamese held more than half the country and were bearing down on Saigon. But the official optimism of the civilian side of the U.S. government held sway.

I remember the arrival of at least two families toward the end while I was in the midst of trying to get my people out of the country. I welcomed the new arrivals and immediately arranged for them to depart as soon as possible. They were shocked, angry, and dumbfounded. Better disarray than death.

The End in Saigon: Oddities (2)

Among my unpleasant duties as South Vietnam was falling to the North Vietnamese was to inform South Vietnamese families of those who worked with us that that their father, son, or brother had been killed. I related one such scene in Last of the Annamese. Chuck, the novel’s protagonist, has found the home of Huong, a servant of his friend, Molly, in Phu Lam, which I described as “a shamble of shacks and lean-tos reeking of human waste.” Huong serves him tea and asks how Molly is doing:

“Miss Molly . . . Miss Molly is dead, Huong. The plane she took to the states crashed.” How could he say it like that, straight out, a routine statement of fact?

Huong’s polite face cracked. The smile remained as if forgotten. “Oh.”

“I’m sorry,” he said with crazy calmness. “I thought you knew.”

She didn’t answer.

“I came here to tell you,” he said, “that I have enquired about your husband.” She raised her head and looked at him, the smile in place, the eyes terrified. “We have no word on him. He was not with the men from his unit who made it to Vung Tau from Tuy Hoa.”

For a moment, she didn’t move. She shivered, wrapped her arms around herself, and turned from side to side. Then she folded her hands in her lap and sat very still. “You very good to come and see me. I thank you very much, Mister Griffin, sir.”

He understood that his visit was over. He rose. “God be with you, Huong.”

“Yes, sir, Mister Griffin, sir.” She was on her feet, looking down at an angle so that he couldn’t see her face.

He went outside. From inside, her voice rose, nasal, keening. The old woman hurried in. Others gathered around the door.

End of quote. More tomorrow.