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.
I write for a variety of reasons.
First of all, not to write would be tantamount to accepting damnation. When I was six years old, I discovered that I was mandated to write. I tried a variety of other vocations—languages, acting, and, especially being a spy—partly to see what alternatives were open to me, partly to worm my way out of the burden, and partly to make a living. But I couldn’t escape. I was stuck with the mandate. I write because I have to.
Second, I want people to know what happened. That desire especially drives my writing about Vietnam, but it was also a strong factor in my stories and novel about AIDS. It’s factor in my latest (unpublished) novel, Secretocracy, about illegal operations ordered by a presidential administration.
But third and equally important, writing allows me to vent. When I came down with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) as a result of my years in Vietnam, I couldn’t seek help in psychotherapy because I had top-secret-codeword-plus security clearances. In those days, therapy would have triggered the loss of my clearances; I would have been fired from my job. So, in an effort to come to terms with my grisly memories, I wrote down what happened. I learned later that one effective way of coping with PTSI is to record exactly what happened in writing. It forces the patient to face his memories head-on and he learns to live with them.
Venting worked for me. I have consciously faced the brutal recollections of what I observed and participated in and have learned to keep my emotions in check. I still can’t talk about some of my memories. But they creep into my writing.
Writing hasn’t worked for everybody. Some can’t bring themselves to write down their memories. Others can’t write well enough to get the stories on paper. I grieve for my brothers who can’t use the tools I’ve used. My heart is with them always.
A reader of yesterday’s blog asks why working with AIDS victims helped me cope with my Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI).
First of all, I call it “injury” and not “disorder” because the condition is the result of an external wound to the psyche—an experience so brutal that it does permanent damage to the soul—rather than an internal malfunction. Second, the affliction doesn’t heal; it’s a permanent infirmity. The afflicted’s only recourse is to learn to cope.
I learned to cope by helping others who were far worse off than I was. I spent five years working with AIDS patients, two years helping the homeless, and seven years taking care of dying people in the hospice system. I found that when I helped those less fortunate than me, my unbearable memories faded into the background. I learned that compassion comforts the giver as much as the receiver.
So I can’t claim that virtue or good will drove me to work with the needy. It was my own need. But I’m grateful that survival is a dominant trait in my personality. So many men who go through combat are maimed by the experience. Their memories of the battlefield are worse than mine. I was an intelligence operative; they were fighters who had to kill or be killed. The suicide rate among Vietnam veterans is higher than in any other socially-defined group, according to one report. And the rate of suicides goes up as people age.
In short, my drive to survive is far stronger than my despondence over my memories of war. In this season of thankfulness, I have much to be thankful for.
Early in the blog, I wrote several posts about how No-Accounts—my only novel not directly related to Vietnam—came to be written. That was a year ago. At the risk of repeating myself, I want to talk today about that novel.
No-Accounts, recognized with an Eric Hoffer award, is the story of a straight man taking care of a gay man dying of AIDS. It is the direct result of the five years I spent caring for AIDS patients in the 1980s. I became a volunteer for two principal reasons: I needed to cope with my Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), the result of my years in combat and surviving the fall of Saigon; and I couldn’t stand what was happening to AIDS victims—because of the public terror of the disease (we didn’t know how it was transmitted), men were literally dying on the street because no one would go near them or allow them a place to stay. I didn’t know how much danger of contracting the disease I faced, but I decided to risk it because these dying men desperately needed help.
To quote what I said a year ago in this log: “I saw that being with the ostracized dying was like combat: you stay with your brother no matter what the danger. And when he dies, part of you dies, too. In the five years I worked as a buddy, I had seven patients, all gay, all died. I grieved over every one of them as I did over the men who died in combat next to me.”
When the cause of the disease became clear and treatments were discovered, I stopped my work with AIDS patients. I went on volunteering to help others because I found that it helped me come to terms with my PTSI. I worked with the homeless and the dying in the hospice system. I came to see that I had a gift: I was willing and able to work with people that others shunned because of bias or horror. My experience in combat allowed me to reach out to the suffering when others backed away.
The U.S. Naval Institute Press is having a holiday sale. Last of the Annamese is listed at $14.98 with free shipping: “Special Holiday Pricing: 50% Book Discount & FREE SHIPPING. Discount Automatically Applied. Offer expires at 12:00 PM (EST) on Friday, December 15, 2017.”
You can find the sale information at https://www.usni.org/store/books/holiday-catalog-2017/last-annamese
I’ve written three novels (Friendly Casualties, The Trion Syndrome, and Last of the Annamese) and a series of short stories drawn from my time in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975, and one novel about my experience with AIDS victims (No-Accounts). The latter resulted from my volunteer work in the 1980s, undertaken to help me cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). Readers ask me what happened in my professional life after Vietnam fell to the communists in 1975.
I’m not free to say. My work after the fall of Saigon is still classified. The languages I worked in are not. I can publicly state that I used Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Latin in my work. Readers are welcome to guess where I might have been assigned.
I can tell one story without specifying where it took place. Once when I was working under cover, I did some sightseeing in a city away from the post where I was assigned. I was at the time operating under deep cover with a false name and identity as a maintenance man. The fact that I spoke the language of the country I was in was classified.
While I was wandering around in the city I was visiting, I lost my way. I found myself in a seedy part of town with the onset of night. No one in that section of the city spoke English. It was obvious to all that I was a foreigner.
To find my way back to my hotel, I was forced to ask directions in the language of the country. In short, I violated security.
Local citizens were very helpful, obviously impressed that I, a very ordinary-looking American, spoke their language so well. I found my hotel and, the next day, returned to the city where I was working. I reported my security breach to my handlers who forgave me, given the circumstances, but warned me never to do it again.
When the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin, visits the love of his life, Tuyet, at Thanksgiving, he brings her winter roses from Dalat.
Chuck’s choice of a gift came from my own experience. From early in my life, I cherished the idea of winter roses as being the rarest of flowers. And we Americans use the words “winter roses” to describe a variety of blooms including the exceedingly uncommon blue roses and others that actually bloom during the winter months.
The town of Dalat in Vietnam is in the southern reaches of the highlands and is remarkable for its cool weather, so unlike the rest of South Vietnam with its tropical heat. It is surrounded by pine forests, unknown in other parts of Vietnam. The name of the town (Đà Lạt in Vietnamese) has no meaning that I can discern, even though I’m told it means “city of thousands of pine trees”—a translation for which I can find no basis. My guess is that the name is not Vietnamese at all but is, rather, drawn from the Montagnard languages commonly spoke in the highlands.
I spent plenty of time in the highlands north of Dalat. The mountainous region in the provinces of Pleiku and Kontum, along the Laotian and Cambodian border, was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the war. I was involved in the battle of Dak To there in 1967. It’s barren country, remarkable for the sparseness of vegetation, and one of the few places in Vietnam where I was actually uncomfortably cold—due to the elevation.
Winter in Dalat is the coolest season, marked by low-lying mist. I have always doubted that the famous winter roses from Dalat actually bloom in the winter, particularly since one can buy them throughout the year in the open markets in Saigon. But it is true that roses grow in few places in South Vietnam because the weather is too hot for them. They do indeed thrive in Dalat and its environs.
During my years in Vietnam, winter roses were the rarest and most expensive and, to my eyes at least, the most beautiful flowers on sale. In my imagination, they were magical blooms from a magical place. They still are.
I reported earlier in this blog that the Huey I escaped in during the fall of Saigon was almost shot down by ground fire. Who was shooting at us?
The obvious answer is the North Vietnamese. But by the time I flew out of Saigon on the night of 29 April 1975, the North Vietnamese had sixteen to eighteen divisions in or besieging the city. They could easily have shot down all the choppers brought in for the rescue. But not one helicopter was shot down.
Those facts lead me to believe that it was not the North Vietnamese but the friendlies, the South Vietnamese military, who fired on me. By the time I went out, it was obvious that the U.S. was abandoning the South Vietnamese, leaving them to the mercies of the victorious northerners. I suspect that in their frustration, they opened fire on us.
Within hours, all of them were killed or captured by the North Vietnamese. They knew what awaited them. I cannot condemn them for their last desperate acts against their former friends who deserted them on the battlefield.