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.
A few months ago, I learned of President Obama’s 2012 proclamation entitled “COMMEMORATION OF THE 50th ANNIVERSARY OF THE VIETNAM WAR.” I framed a copy, and it now hangs on my office wall. I want to devote a series of blogs to this document. It reflects my my uneasiness about the war being forgotten.
The first paragraph reads:
“As we observe the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, we reﬂect with solemn reverence upon the valor of a generation that served with honor. We pay tribute to the more than 3 million servicemen and women who left their families to serve bravely, a world away from everything they knew and everyone they loved. From Ia Drang to Khe Sanh, from Hue to Saigon and countless villages in between, they pushed through jungles and rice paddies, heat and monsoon, ﬁghting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans. Through more than a decade of combat, over air, land, and sea, these proud Americans upheld the highest traditions of our Armed Forces.”
In earlier blog posts, I’ve described the brotherhood of Vietnam veterans and the grisly realities of combat. I’ve recounted being cursed and spat upon by crowds when we returned to the U.S. I’ve talked about our decades of silence from shame for ourselves and our nation.
Now it’s time to talk about our honor. President Obama’s words quoted above finally paid tribute to those who risked their lives for their country. Closure is at last ours.
I want to alert my fellow veterans to the Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day on 30 March 2018. I expect that there will a number of different celebrations that day. The first I’ve learned of is the one sponsored by Gilchrist. It will be from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. at Martin’s West, 6817 Dogwood Road, Baltimore, MD 21244. You can learn more about it at https://www.gilchristcares.org/event/welcome-home-vietnam-veterans-day-celebration/
As I hear of other events, I’ll post information about them here
A reader reacted to my blogs of the last two days asking just what memories we Vietnam veterans share. The answer is all the things we experienced. But the worst is combat.
No one who hasn’t lived through it can appreciate the grisliness of combat. Men doing all they can to kill one another is more ghastly than I have words for. I still have memories as vivid today as they were fifty years ago that I can’t talk about. Anyone who has survived combat is permanently changed by the experience. I’m persuaded that all suffer to some degree from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury.
I’ve talked before about why I call it “injury” and not “disorder.” My point is that the condition is a wound to the psyche inflicted from without, not an internal mental malady. The writers I most respect call it a wound to the soul. It’s permanent. It never fades. It’s with us always.
I’m grimly vindicated to note that contemporary writers are willing to describe in detail the horrors of the battlefield. They no longer avoid depicting broken bodies, severed limbs, and men engulfed in flame. The almost universal preference for emphasis on the glory and honor of the fighting man to the detriment of dealing with his physical suffering is more and more a thing of the past. Writers like Doug Stanton and Lucia Viti don’t hesitate to tell us what really happens. I’ve just begun Grossman’s On Combat (Warrior Science Publications, 2004) in hopes that it will help me come to terms with my own memories.
Why do I care? Because I want people to know. I want my fellow Americans to understand what we veterans have gone through, just as I want the facts about the Vietnam war to be public knowledge. When the truth is before us, we Americans can make informed decisions about avoiding or engaging in warfare.
Yesterday, I described my years of silence about my time in Vietnam and my sense of shame about the war and the way Americans reacted to it.
Though I didn’t know it for decades, I was not alone. Countless other Vietnam vets went through the same travail I did. They, too, were silent. But, as noted in yesterday’s blog, the American public has changed the way it sees Vietnam. Now people want to know what happened. Now we vets speak openly about our war experience. When I do presentations or readings on my time in Vietnam, men who did time in-country hurry to talk to me. We compare notes about where we were and what we did. We share a kinship that others who were not there can’t understand.
But most of the time when I’m with other Vietnam vets, we don’t talk much. There’s a deep understanding among us about what we’ve been through. We each know that the others feel what we feel. A handshake, a look in the eyes . . . it’s enough.
Next month, the circle will close. I’ve been invited to give my presentation about the fall of Saigon to a chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America in Vienna, Virginia. We will speak publicly to one another about our hurtful memories. And I’ll be at home with my brothers.
When I returned to the world (the U.S.) after the fall of Saigon, I didn’t talk about my years in Vietnam. It had been a shameful war, and no one wanted to hear about it. I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury with all the symptoms—panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, and irrational rages, but I couldn’t seek therapy because I held top secret codeword-plus security clearances. Talking to a therapist would have led to the withdrawal of my access to classified information, and I would have been fired. So I talked to no one about my hideous memories. It was the lowest point in my life.
Eventually, I realized that other Vietnam vets were as silent as I was. They’d been jeered as butchers and baby-killers and spat upon when they returned to the world. Now it was best for them to say nothing. These were men who’d risked their lives for their country. And now they were shamed.
The attitude of the American public toward war began to change a few years ago. My stories and novels drawn from my thirteen years in and out of Vietnam began to sell. I now have seventeen short stories and four novels in print. People want to know what happened in Nam.
About four years ago, I was invited to a welcome home celebration for Vietnam vets, something I’d never heard of before. When I attended, young people greeted me and shook my hand. I heard the words that I had always so yearned to hear: “Thank you. And welcome home.” I cried.
The story of Angela Duckworth’s book Grit is my story: a neglected child labelled as a slow learner who nevertheless wouldn’t quit. Discouraged from going to college because I wasn’t smart enough, I did it anyway. At the Army Language School, I graduated first in my class because I worked harder than anybody else. During the fall of Saigon, I wouldn’t leave until I got all 43 of my subordinates and their families safely out of the country despite an order from the ambassador not to evacuate my people. Struck with lung cancer that should have been fatal, I refused to die. In short, I did all these things because I had to. The alternative was giving up.
My worst days with cancer are illustrative: After regaining consciousness from the surgery that removed the upper lobe of my right lung, I saw myself lying beside a dark stream. I knew I could end my suffering by reaching out and putting my hand in that black flow. I could choose to die. Instead, I redoubled my determination to go on living, no matter how much it hurt. I did survive and am now well on my way to returning to complete health.
That experience informed a conversation I had a couple of days ago with another veteran who has colon and prostate cancer. We agreed that survival so often depends on the will to live. I’m persuaded that if this man lives, it will be because he is fiercely determined to cling to life. I’m doing all I can to encourage him.
Judgments of others to the contrary notwithstanding, I firmly believe that I started out with no better than average intelligence. Granted, I have a distinct flare for languages and writing. But my success as a writer is due more to my passion and fierce determination than to talent. Something like 10 percent of my writing time is spent drafting new text; 90 percent is taken up with revising. I typically go through ten drafts—sometimes more—of each of my books before I consider them finished. That takes me, on average, fourteen years per book, although I am usually working on more than one book at a time. I realize that as I age, I won’t be able to afford that long for the books I’m writing now. I’ll have to improve my writing speed. I’ll do it because I have to.
Per my promise some days back in the blog about scrappiness that I would write about the book Grit (Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Scribner, 2016), here are my thoughts.
I’ll start with my criticism and get that out of the way: Duckworth takes subject worth 150 pages and writes about it for 300. She is not an economical writer, nor does she eliminate extraneous or unimportant clutter. The writing made me impatient, but I persevered.
Now for the good part: I felt that I saw myself described on every page; reading the text turned into a personal experience for me. Duckworth defines “grit” as “the power of passion and perseverance,” almost precisely what I mean by “scrappiness.” The only change I would make in the definition is to add the idea of fierceness.
One of the main points of the book is that we Americans tend to credit natural ability—talent, intelligence, innate understanding—rather than hard work as the reason for success. As Duckworth makes clear through dozens of examples, determination and unwillingness to accept failure are far more essential ingredients. Success means taking the inborn resources you have and exploiting them to the hilt. It means never accepting failure, despite its recurrence. It means profiting from failed attempts. It means learning and learning and learning, about the nature of the task and goal and improving one’s own abilities. Above all, it means working as hard as you can.
Some quotes in the book that caught my eye: “Greatness is doable.” “To do anything really well, you have to overextend yourself.” And “Improve, Adapt, Overcome.”
As I came to see while reading Duckworth’s work, grit is the underlying quality of all five principal characters in Last of the Annamese.