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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.

To be published in March 2017 is Last of the Annamese. 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 Guys

My blog yesterday about the bond among men who fight side by side made me think again about the guys who were with me at the end in Vietnam in April 1975. We weren’t combatants, but we faced the fall of Vietnam together. Each of us contributed to the survival of the rest. The bond among us was the same love that men in combat share.

Starting in 1974, I was the head of the National Security Agency (NSA) covert operation in Vietnam. Our mission was to inform the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, of what the North Vietnamese were up to, based on the intercept of their communications; and to assist the South Vietnamese government in its own efforts against those communications. I had 43 guys and one woman (my secretary) working for me. They were communicators, signals intelligence specialists, intelligence analysts, personnel specialists, and couriers.

I had long since learned that leadership works where management fails. You lead people; you manage things. I saw my job as enabling my subordinates to be the best they could be. All of them were experienced professionals. I didn’t need to tell them what to do. I needed to support them while they achieved remarkable results.

As soon as I arrived on the job, I held a meeting with all my guys. I told them that, unlike predecessor, I wasn’t going to keep track of what they did during their time off. I knew that they—the ones there without their families—partied and drank and whored around, like all young men everywhere. I instructed them to come to me if they got in trouble before the U.S. embassy got involved. I was there to help them, not control them.

I couldn’t have started better. The men were devoted to me and outdid themselves on the job. Never even once did I have to deal with an incident caused by one of my guys. As the fall of Saigon loomed, they worked harder and longer hours. Some even slept in our office suite to save time.

More tomorrow.

The Bond

I’ve written here a number of times about the bond that forms between men who fight side by side. I’ve said that it is the strongest bond I’ve ever experienced. But I’ve never devoted a blog post to that bond, what causes it, and what it’s like.

I’m not a psychiatrist or sociologist, so I can’t talk in scientific terms about the bond. I can only tell you how it affected me.

I have to start by stressing why men fight in combat. They may have been put in harm’s way because of their desire to defend their country or their devotion to God or their determination to fight evil. But on the battlefield, men fight for each other. In combat, they fight for the lives of their brothers fighting at their side. They are determined to keep their fellow combatants alive even if it means giving up their own lives.

The feelings among men fighting by each other’s side is the strongest love I’ve ever experienced. Soldiers and Marines don’t call it love—that’s too sentimental. But that’s what it is.

I’m sure I didn’t experience that bond to the depths that other men in combat did. I wasn’t there to shoot and kill the enemy. I was there to provide information about the enemy—where he was, the size and identity of his units, what he was doing, what his intensions were. The men by my side were the fighters, intent on destroying the enemy and defending each other.

I have no doubt that what I did saved lives and hurt the enemy. But I didn’t personally kill enemy soldiers. I had no way of directly protecting the men who fought by my side. I was armed with a .38 revolver to defend myself, but I never used it in combat. That wasn’t why I was there. So my sense of kinship with my brothers fighting at my side could not have been as strong as it was between those actually doing the fighting.

And yet it is the most intense love I’ve ever felt. Emblazoned in my memory are the moments of death of men who fought next to me. I can’t talk about them. It hurts too much. Those hideous events, along with the ghastly happenings during the fall of Saigon, are the source of my Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. The memories never fade. They will be with me always.

When I’m with other veterans, especially those who served in Vietnam, I know the bond is still strong. A quick nod, a brief look in each other’s eyes, a handshake—we recognize each other. Nothing needs to be said. We each know we put our lives on the line for each other and we’d do it again.

Presentation for Vietnam Veterans

Last Thursday, I did the fall of Saigon presentation for a gathering of Vietnam veterans and their wives. As usual, I had finished setting up and greeted audience members as they arrived. Before I talked, each veteran stood and stated where he served in Vietnam and what year. The audience turned out to represent all services; members had seen duty in all parts of South Vietnam. I knew the areas and battles they spoke of. I was among brothers.

No sooner had I started to speak than I felt the rush of emotional support from audience members. When I said, “Let me show you what I looked like back then” and projected a slide of a photo taken of me in Saigon in 1962, I got a good laugh. Next I put up a slide of me holding my baby daughter during the Tet celebration of 1963. I said, “I want to tell that kid—and I mean the man, not the little girl—to go back to the high school he escaped from and turn himself in.” That brought down the house.

As I told the story of the warnings I gave the U.S. ambassador that the North Vietnamese were preparing to attack Saigon and how I wasn’t believed, I could feel the tension in the room rising. I related how I struggled to get my 43 subordinates and their families out of the country despite the ambassador’s refusal to allow evacuation. When I talked about the South Vietnamese officer who shot his three children, his wife, and himself rather than be taken by the North Vietnamese, I choked up as I nearly always do. The audience was dead silent. Every eye was on me. I told of the last days when two communicators and I, the only ones left from my office, ran out of food and couldn’t sleep because of the shelling. I described my escape under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets. The audience gasped.

These men had been there. They understood in a way most don’t. They knew what it meant to put their lives on the line. The knew what it was like to come back to the U.S. and be labelled butchers and baby killers and be spat upon. They, too, had spent decades in silence about their time in Vietnam. And here was one of their guys—me—telling what happened at the end.

When I finished, they gave me a standing ovation.

Folk Group Church Music in Saigon

My doctorate is in Public Administration (the functioning of the government bureaucracy), and my masters is in Government. But my BA is in Music. I was a composer—and occasionally still am.

By age six, I knew I was born to write stories, but I struggled against my vocation. I tried various other professions. Music and foreign languages took precedence for a while, and thanks to my flare for languages (I’ve worked in seven different ones other than English), I spent my working years as a spy. Through it all, I never stopped writing. I retired as early as I could to write full time. I now have four novels and seventeen short stories in print.

But my passion for music has stayed with me. I play the piano every day and nearly always have music going on my several stereos throughout my house. As I type in my office, a Sibelius symphony plays in the background.

Throughout my life, I’ve dabbled in church music. I’ve sung in choirs and directed them, but even though I was a classically trained musician, I much preferred the church folk music to the standard hymns. So I established and ran folk groups to provide music during services. During my last tour in Vietnam, I played guitar and sang with a folk group at the Catholic church in Saigon that catered to Americans and featured mass in English.

That experience found its way into my writing. In the novel Last of the Annamese, Molly, an American nurse at the U.S. dispensary in Saigon, sings in the folk group during masses at Cité Paul-Marie. I described how moved she is by “Hear, O Lord,” one of my favorite folk hymns.

I still remember sitting in church in April 1975 while the group sang that hymn, accompanied by the sound of distant artillery as the North Vietnamese closed in on Saigon. The memory still brings tears to my eyes.

On Aging

I’m getting old. No point in pretending otherwise.

I’m not complaining. The alternative to aging does appeal to me. But the gradual decay of the body is a challenge I wasn’t expecting and didn’t prepare for.

My approach to living is as youthful as ever. I’m very active. I spend my hours—never enough to get everything done—in writing, promoting my books, speaking publicly, taking care of my large house and yard, reading, and exercising (weight-lifting).

For years I was a runner and have always lifted weights, not for health reasons, but because I enjoy it. Then, five years ago, I had botched knee replacement surgery. Now I have trouble walking, and running is a thing of the past. But I still lift weights regularly. I can’t manage the heavy weights I used to when I was younger, but I lift a respectable amount.

The challenge of aging is that the body can no longer do everything it used to. I’m not as physically strong or agile as I once was. When I do a presentation that has me on my feet for more than an hour, my legs ache, and I have trouble walking. As a result of my lung cancer, I have a persistent cough, and I tire easily. That means I have to nap every day, whether I want to or not. Since I’m not as physically active as I used to be (e.g., no running), I have to watch my diet to avoid gaining weight.

But far and away the worst part of aging is the effect on the brain. Memory is the biggest problem. Typical was this morning when I heated myself a cup of coffee, did a few chores, then came back and heated another cup of coffee. I’d forgotten I already had a steaming cup waiting for me. I have trouble remembering the routes to various places I drive. And I have no recall for names.

But the odd aspect of aging is that as the brain slows, the mind becomes more expansive and resplendent. I can see, understand, process, and crystalize facets of being human far better than I ever could before. The new facility in thinking addresses primarily the nonmaterial aspects of living—creativity, morality, the nature of love, the breathtaking beauty that surrounds us.

Most important to me is that what I care about most—writing—is flourishing as never before. My use of language is better than it has ever been. I’m more facile with words and write faster than I once did. The right words come to me like flashes of lightening. I grasp and express connections and relationships I was blind to when I was younger.

So I have no complaints. As long as the mind grows and flourishes, the aging of the body is more than tolerable.

The Trump Administration and Intelligence

News reports these days are filled with stories about how President Trump and his subordinates handle intelligence. I’m deeply concerned.

I spent my entire professional career, before retiring to write fulltime, in intelligence. I learned early that the exposure of sources and methods to the intelligence target destroys the flow of information. During the Vietnam war, I saw repeatedly that ignoring intelligence led to deaths.

If current press reports are to be believed, many in the Trump administration have not received final clearances but nevertheless have routine access to some of the country’s most sensitive intelligence. Some of the clearances have been withheld because people being cleared “forgot” or hid information about contacts with foreign governments or other damaging data. Such omissions have in the past always led to the permanent withdrawal of clearances.

In short, people who in the past would have been denied clearances for cause now have unlimited access to some of the most fragile and valuable information available to the U.S. government.

The press also tells us that Trump doesn’t read the President’s Daily Brief, a summary of the most urgent intelligence. Instead, he relies on verbal coaching and news from Fox & Friends on television. And the verbal briefings omit information likely to spark Trump’s wrath, like, for example, reports on Russian meddling in U.S. elections.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Trump has likened U.S. intelligence agencies to Nazis. “He mocked their judgment that Russia had intervened in the campaign to help him win. And he repeatedly accused them of leaking to the media to embarrass him and undermine the White House.” And Trump disclosed to senior Russian diplomats highly classified intelligence about ISIS that had been obtained in Syria, reportedly by Israel, and had been given to Washington on the condition it go no further.

To the degree that press reports are accurate, the U.S. is likely to be losing vital intelligence through careless compromise. At the same time, urgent reports are being ignored.

When those two conditions prevail, people die.