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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. Adelaide Books in New York will publish my latest novel, Secretocracy, early in 2020.

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.

Secretocracy tells the story of an federal intelligence budgeteer persecuted by the current administration because he refuses to approve finds for an illegal operation.

 

Veteran Suicides (2)

The terrible irony is that if a veteran refuses to face combat memories and forces them into his unconscious, the recollections can lie dormant for decades and then resurface. The only way to cope with them is to bring them into the conscious mind and train the emotions to respond less violently. That worked for me. These days, I have an occasional nightmare, and the worst emotional reaction I allow myself is to cry. It can be done.

A veteran suffering from such memories often chooses to deal with it by himself. He’s inclined to believe that he’s the only one who can’t cope. That makes him a coward or weakling. His sense of shame for engaging in combat, for having survived, and for having seen others die at his side is compounded by his sense of inadequacy for failing to deal with his memories. He is ashamed to admit his failure to others.

That’s why it’s so important that we veterans come together and help one another. We soon discover that the hurt of combat memories is universal. Sometimes no words are needed. I can look into the eyes of another veteran and see what’s going on. A friendly greeting, a slap on the back, a handshake is often enough to tell me that I’m with others who understand what I’m going through because they are going through it, too. We are brothers, there to help each other.

Most important, we can show respect for former fighters. We can encourage each other to take pride in what we did. We can say to one another those words so precious to me: “Thank you for your service. And welcome home.”

Veteran Suicides

As readers of this blog are aware, I have great fondness for veterans. I’m one myself, and I honor those willing to put their lives on the line for the good of the country. As we who have served in the military die off, the proportion of veterans in the population is growing smaller.

As I reported earlier, in 2016, 7 percent of U.S. adults were veterans, down from 18 percent in 1980, according to the Census Bureau. Expressed differently, almost half of the Americans 75 or older are veterans; only 3.48 percent of those between 35 and 44 are. We are close to becoming a dying breed.

The draft ended in 1973. That change brought about a sharp decline in the number of young men and women who enlisted. So many, like me, joined voluntarily so we could choose the work we’d do in the service instead of being drafted and automatically assigned to the infantry or its equivalent. From 1973 on, that incentive was gone. Consequently, the veteran population declined.

A fact that haunts me is the number of veterans who choose to take their own lives. According to Department of Veterans Affairs data, more than 6,000 veterans killed themselves annually from 2008 to 2016. And a recent analysis found a suicide rate among veterans of about 30 per 100,000 population per year, compared with the civilian rate of 14 per 100,000.

Why? I think I know. When a man or woman has volunteered to risk death in defense of the country and has been close to or lived through combat, the memories of savage conflict can become unbearable. I know from personal experience. The recollections never weaken or go away. They can cause panic attacks, nightmares, flashbacks, and irrational rages. For some, death is preferable to enduring those intolerable episodes.

More tomorrow.

Commemorations of 9/11

I interrupt my reminiscences on the last days of Vietnam to tell of my attendance yesterday at two commemorations of 9/11.

The first was at noon in Columbia, Maryland, where I live. I was there because my American Legion post was participating in the ceremony. It was held in a parking lot that had been cleared. At the back were two fire trucks with long extension ladders parked back to back and suspending between them a huge American flag, at least eight feet in length, some forty feet above the ground. As we stood at attention, a band of bagpipers in kilts and an honor guard with flags marched forward to the accompaniment of patriotic songs. When they were in place, we listened to the national anthem sung by a baritone, recited the pledge of allegiance, and heard a brief speech on the importance of commemorating 9/11.

The second was two hours later at the Encore rehab facility in Ellicott City. I was there to visit my friend who is recovering from at attack of vascular dementia. This time the ceremony took place indoors in the vestibule. It consisted of a brief speech by a woman who passed around photos of the memorials built at each of the 9/11 attack sites. All the attendees were recovering patients in wheelchairs who encircled the speaker.

Both ceremonies brought tears to my eyes. At a time of the worst political disruption I can recall, when the country is more divided than at any time in my life, public moments of patriotism move me more deeply than they ever have before.

The Last Days of Vietnam (2)

The final days in Vietnam are hard to describe because no superlatives are strong enough. As the North Vietnamese came closer to Saigon, refugees fled by the thousands into the city. The streets were crammed with desperate people with no food or places to stay. Cars couldn’t get through. Our compound at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of Saigon was surrounded by mobs, ten to fifteen people deep, all demanding evacuation before the North Vietnamese seized the city. The runways at the airport, next to us, had been bombed. Deep craters meant that there would be no more fixed-wing aircraft takeoffs. Exodus from then on would be by boat—impractical because the enemy controlled the river and adjacent waterways—or by helicopter.

Bob and Gary and I hadn’t slept for days. All we had for food was bar snacks we’d been able to scrounge from a hotel while we were still able to get out into the streets, and they were almost gone. What’s odd is that I don’t remember ever being hungry or tired. I was so focused on somehow getting Bob and Gary out safely that all other considerations were forgotten. The regular shelling knocked us off our feet. The room shifted violently. Dust fell on us.

Somehow, through it all, our communications with the National Security Agency (NSA), our boss, never failed. Gary kept the equipment working, and Bob and I reported on what was happening. I learned later that our guys who had been evacuated were on the other end, reading our reports of what was happening.

One incident at the beginning of the collapse now strikes me funny. At the time, it was deadly serious. I had stopped using normal communications, called criticom, to keep NSA informed because the system was too cumbersome. To use it, I had to type a message on the proper form and give it to the comms guys. They would then poke the text onto a paper tape which they would run through transmission equipment. Instead, I was using what we called opscom (short for “operational communications”), normally used by communicators to solve technical communications problems. That meant that I was typing directly onto a circuit that was printing out simultaneously at the NSA Operations Center (NSOC). Among other things, I was reporting the departure of my guys and their families and where they were headed—determined by where we could get tickets to. I received a criticom message chastising me for using the opscom to report on personnel, matters that were strictly limited to the more formal communications system, and ordering me to cease forthwith.

More tomorrow.

The Last Days of Vietnam

Although I’ve written about it before, the final days in Saigon as it fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975 are worth a revisit. They are forever engraved on my memory.

Toward the end of my novel, Last of the Annamese, as the attack on Saigon begins on 26 April 1975, Chuck, Sparky, and Colonel Troiano are caught in their office at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, where they’re holed up. Here’s the text from the beginning of chapter 19:

“It started Saturday morning. Reports swamped the comms center. Long Binh was under attack, and Ba Ria fell. North Vietnamese shelling of Bien Hoa was low thunder that shook the floor. The final assault was under way. To get around the Ambassador’s edict that no one was to be evacuated, Troiano sent most of the remaining personnel out of country by air on trumped-up ‘temporary duty’ missions. The Intelligence Branch, the comms center, and the tank were now manned by five people—two comms techs who’d volunteered to stay to the end, Chuck, Sparky, and Troiano. ‘We’re just here to turn off the lights when the Ambassador gives us permission to leave,’ Troiano told Chuck. They adopted the eight-sixteen rule—eight hours of sleep, sixteen hours of work on rotating shifts, so that two people would man the tank at all times. Sparky made a food run, found out that the snack bar was deserted.”

That description matches what really happened to me. Most of my 43 subordinates were already gone, sent out the country on phony temporary duty, home leave, or vacation—all to get around the ambassador’s no-evacuation order. By the next day, Sunday, 27 April, we were down to three of us, me and two communicators who had volunteered to stay through attack. We had already been on the eight-sixteen rule but switched to a 24-hour schedule with two-hour breaks for one man while the other two worked.

It was a living nightmare. The North Vietnamese shelled us regularly. The comm center, where we were hiding, lurched from side to side. The sound of the artillery shells exploding in the building deafened us. For days we had almost nothing to eat and couldn’t sleep because of the shells detonating all around us.

I’ll never forget or stop honoring those two communicators who agreed to remain during the attack. Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman showed enormous courage. They stayed calm in the face of disaster, knowing they could be killed in the next barrage. They worked harder than I had any right to expect, doing between them the job 16 men had done when we were at full strength. When they were extracted by helicopter on the afternoon of 29 April, I knew my work in Vietnam was finished.

More tomorrow.

Marine Corps Ball, November 1974, Saigon

Long ago in this blog, I wrote a post about the last Marine Corps Ball in Vietnam. I’ll never forget that evening.

The Vietnam peace accords of 1973 required the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces; no more than fifty U.S. military personnel could be in country at any given time. After 1973, there were more Marines in South Vietnam than any other service. That was because the U.S. embassy was guarded by Marines. And in fact the last person evacuated at the very end was a Marine.

Throughout my thirteen years on and off in Vietnam, my work with Marine units was the most satisfying. The Marines readily accepted and acted on the intelligence I was able to give them. And the Marines saved my life when Saigon fell. Readers of this blog have noted that I always capitalize “Marine.” That is my way of honoring them.

My novel set during the fall of Saigon, Last of the Annamese, opens with the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, preparing to attend the Marine Corps Birthday Ball at the Gia Long Palace in Saigon on 10 November 1974. One of his housemates, Sparky, is, like Chuck, a retired Marine officer; the other, Ike, is an active duty Marine officer, assigned to the embassy. All three will be at the celebration.

The ball is always held on the Corps birthday (10 November). Among Marines, a private joke is that 11 November, Veterans Day, is really a national holiday to allow the Marines to recover from the birthday bash. In my time working with Marines in Vietnam, the celebration was always major. During my last years in Saigon, the Marine Corps Birthday Ball was the social highlight of the year. As an office head, I was required to attend, but I also always had multiple invitations from the Marines I worked with. It was a formal affair. That meant a tuxedo for me and a full-length evening gown for my wife.

The ball described in Annamese is the last one I attended in Saigon, on 10 November 1974. It was formal to the nines, even though there were few Marines in country. All traditions were observed, even the cake-cutting with a ceremonial sword. Yet amid the festivities was a detectable unease—so many of us knew from intelligence that the North Vietnamese forces were growing stronger through massive infiltration of men and matériel. Some, myself included, doubted that South Vietnam would survive another year.

It didn’t. It fell six months later.

Burns and Novick: The Vietnam War (8)

I’m glad I forced myself to watch the entire series on the Vietnam war again. It brought me face to face with my inglorious past. I observed so many others in the film who were, like me, permanently changed by what happened. We are damaged souls. But there is solace in seeing that I am not alone.

What the series didn’t emphasize was the healing that comes from pride. I, like some two and a half million others who served in Vietnam, put my life on the line for what I believed was the good the country. I was a volunteer, a civilian operating under cover, disguised as a soldier or Marine on the battlefield while really furnishing intelligence on the enemy. Nobody forced me to go. I could have said no. But I believed it was the right thing to do. I’ll always suffer from the wounds to my soul that those years inflicted on me. Only now, in the last quadrant of my life, can I judge the choices that the young man I was made. Now I believe they were the right choices. Now, at last, I can take pride in what I did for my country.

I’ve finished with the Burns-Novick The Vietnam War for now. I’ve learned once again from watching it. The series reminded me that I need to face my past head-on. I can never escape from it, and pushing into my unconscious doesn’t work. I’m a better man for what I did in Vietnam, and while the memories are the source of pain, I must own them. I have found an imperfect peace.