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.
So, in summary, the audience I most want to reach with my presentations are the young. They need to know and understand what happened in Vietnam. But my favorite listeners are the veterans, especially those of Vietnam. I share with them the bond that men have with others who have fought by their side. That’s the strongest human bond I’ve ever known.
Most of the veterans I talk to are not much like me. I spent my career as a spy. I’m highly educated, with a Ph.D. I’m a writer of literary fiction. I’m a linguist competent in seven languages. Most of the veterans are the most ordinary men you can imagine—high school graduates, maybe with some college. The majority are blue-collar kinds of guys who worked with their hands. But many, like me, are now retired and dote on their grandchildren.
The differences among us don’t matter. We share that bond I spoke of. We don’t say much to one another. It’s a look in the eyes, maybe a handshake or a pat on the back or even a slug to the bicep. We know and recognize each other as brothers who share memories beyond the imagination of those who have not served.
There’s another reason why I feel so close to Vietnam veterans. Ours was the war that failed. We came home to crowds who spat on us and called us baby killers and butchers. Most of us didn’t speak of Vietnam for decades. Everyone except us considered it a shameful war and blamed us. We stayed silent.
And the war ended in disaster. The evacuation from Saigon, during which I nearly lost my life, was a shameful retreat. We abandoned tens of thousands of Vietnamese who had fought at our side. We ran away and made no effort to save them. A shameful war came to an even more shameful end.
Only in the last few years have people started to change their way of seeing Vietnam veterans. We are now accepted along with the veterans of Iraq and Syria. Young people at gatherings come up to me and say, “Thank you. And welcome home”—words I yearned to hear for decades. Now, when I hear them, I cry.
The third moment that brings tears to my eyes during my presentations is when I describe how, as the fall of Saigon loomed, I made my last visit to a South Vietnamese signals intelligence officer I’d known throughout my years in Vietnam. I can’t tell you his name. It’s still classified. This man understood North Vietnamese communications better than anyone I knew. He was also a superior officer and a fine leader. His troops would do anything he asked.
I had to see him face to face to be sure he and his troops knew where to go when the long-delayed evacuation order was finally issued, something I couldn’t discuss on an unsecured phone line—by that time North Vietnamese were monitoring my phone calls. Always a model of Asian politeness, he invited me into his office and served me tea. He told me that his wife, who worked for USAID, had been offered the opportunity to leave the country with her family. That included him. But he wouldn’t go because he was unwilling to abandon his troops—no evacuation order had been issued—and she wouldn’t leave without him. So there they were, a mother and father and their three children, still sitting in Saigon as the North Vietnamese came closer each day. Alarmed, I asked him what he would do if he was still in Saigon when Communists tanks rolled through the streets. He told me he couldn’t live under the Communists. “When the Communists come, I will shoot my three children, then I will shoot my wife, then I will shoot myself.”
That officer didn’t escape at the end. I have no doubt he carried out his plan because so many other South Vietnamese officers did precisely what he described.
When I tell his story during my presentations, the audience is silent. I can’t hear a sound. Every eye is upon me. And the Vietnam veterans, especially those who worked with South Vietnamese who were left behind when Saigon fell, understand my grieving in a way no others can.
I’m surprised that no matter how often I do my presentations, I invariably choke up when telling the audience about several events. Tears come into my eyes even though I’ve done presentations repeatedly.
One such moment is when I talk about the two guys who volunteered to stay with me to the end during the fall of Saigon. The communicator was Bob Hartley, and the equipment technician was Gary Hickman—I can tell you their names now, they’ve been declassified. When I realized I had to stay in Saigon as it fell, I asked for two volunteers, a communicator and a technician, to remain behind when everyone else was evacuated. Most of the sixteen guys in the comms center felt that they owed it to their wives and children not to risk their lives. Then Bob and Gary stepped forward. As long as I live, I’ll love those guys for their raw courage. They risked their lives because I asked them to.
Another such moment is when I read my last message to the Director of NSA, General Lew Allen, telling him that we were closing down shop. Here’s the text:
- HAVE JUST RECEIVED WORD TO EVACUATE. AM NOW DESTROYING REMAINING CLASSIFIED MATERIAL. WILL CEASE TRANSMISSIONS IMMEDIATELY AFTER THIS MESSAGE.
- WE’RE TIRED BUT OTHERWISE ALL RIGHT. LOOKS LIKE THE BATTLE FOR SAIGON IS ON FOR REAL.
- FROM GLENN: I COMMEND TO YOU MY PEOPLE WHO DESERVE THE BEST NSA CAN GIVE THEM FOR WHAT THEY HAVE BEEN THROUGH BUT ESPECIALLY FOR WHAT THEY HAVE ACHIEVED.
What moves me the most in giving presentations and readings about the Vietnam war is the empathy I share with the veterans in my audiences. So many have told me that my stories bring tears to their eyes. One audience member, a veteran and physician, told me that I was handling my Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) in the right way—confronting my memories and learning to live with them. Another told me that I was the only civilian he’d ever met who understood combat.
That was perhaps the greatest compliment. It recognized and approved the oddity of the situation I was in while serving in Vietnam. I had completed my military service before my first tour there. While I was in-country, I was always a civilian under cover—most often as a member of the military unit I was supporting. So I lived the life of an army soldier or a Marine. That meant staying with the troops, sleeping on the ground, sitting in the dirt and sharing C-rations, and dressing in the uniform of the outfit I was with. It also meant going into combat with the men I was there to help. The combat I saw and participated in and the unspeakable deaths I witnessed are the principal source of my PTSI.
The other source was living through the fall of Saigon. I cope with grisly memories by talking about them in my presentations and in my writing. To deal with my angst was one reason I wrote Last of the Annamese telling in detail what happened during the fall of Saigon.
My fulfillment comes from veterans who hear my presentations and read my writing and are moved. One of the curses of PTSI is the sense that one is alone with one’s unbearable memories. The veterans who reach out to me, who comfort me and seek consolation from me, will always be with me. They give me peace.
By the end of last year, I had given my presentation on the fall of Saigon more than fifty times, and I stopped counting. I’ve continued to offer it this year. The invitations keep coming. Add to that my story about the 1967 battle of Dak To and my readings from my novels and short stories about Vietnam. One of my biggest dilemmas these days is deciding how I’ll find enough time to write between presentations.
One audience I’d like to reach is young people, especially those born after the fall of Saigon in 1975. They know almost nothing about the Vietnam war, why it was fought, and who fought in it. More than once, a young man or woman has asked me who was involved in the war and which side we were on. Their profound ignorance of what happened disturbs me deeply.
Most of the time, the people hearing my presentations are of the older generation. That’s partly because I’m most often invited to speak by senior centers, retirement communities, and community centers. Infrequently I speak in schools. But that’s where I ought to be—teaching the young about their past.
On the other hand, when I talk to older folks, a good many of them are veterans and their wives. They know and understand my references to weapons, military aircraft, jeeps, and armored personnel carriers. They nod and smile when I talk about flavorless C-rations and sleeping on the ground.
My favorite audience members are Vietnam veterans. They come equipped to understand and follow my stories of the Ia Drang Valley, the mountains of the Vietnam Central Highlands, and the Mekong River. These men are my brothers. With them I feel the bond that men share with those who have fought by their side. Combatants don’t call that connection love. That’s too sentimental for them. But it is love, the strongest love I’ve ever experienced. The Bible explains it: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
The words to Taps are:
Day is done.
Gone the sun.
From the lakes
From the hills.
From the sky.
All is well.
God is nigh.
Dims the sight.
And a star.
Gems the sky.
Falls the night.
Thanks and praise.
For our days.
Neath the sun
Neath the stars.
Neath the sky
As we go.
This we know.
God is nigh.
Taps, like the other bugle calls, only uses the three notes of the major triad based on the tonic (e.g., in the key of C, the tonic triad is C E G). Those tones are the natural tones of the bugle, and the calls are restricted to the octave from the fifth below the tonic to the fifth above.
I don’t recall Taps or other bugle calls ever being used on the battlefields of Vietnam. They would have alerted the enemy to our presence and activities. But I encountered it at military installations in the U.S. and heard it at military funerals and burials. It still moves me deeply. It calls attention to those who have given up their lives in defense of our country. For that reason alone, the tune deserves our respect.
A more likely history of Taps comes from Elizabeth Nix:
The origins of “Taps,” the distinctive bugle melody played at U.S. military funerals and memorials and as a lights-out signal to soldiers at night, date back to the American Civil War. In July 1862, U.S. General Daniel Butterfield and his brigade were camped at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, recuperating after the Seven Days Battles near Richmond. Dissatisfied with the standard bugle call employed by the Army to indicate to troops it was time to go to sleep, and thinking the call should sound more melodious, Butterfield reworked an existing bugle call used to signal the end of the day. After he had his brigade bugler, Private Oliver Wilcox Norton, play it for the men, buglers from other units became interested in the 24-note tune and it quickly spread throughout the Army, and even caught on with the Confederates.
Not long after Butterfield created “Taps,” it was played for the first time at a military funeral, for a Union cannoneer killed in action. The man’s commanding officer, Captain John Tidball, decided the bugle call would be safer than the traditional firing of three rifle volleys over the soldier’s grave, a move which couldn’t been confused by the nearby enemy as an attack. As for the name “Taps,” the most likely explanation is that it comes from the fact that prior to Butterfield’s bugle call, the lights-out call was followed by three drum beats, dubbed the “Drum Taps,” as well as “The Taps” and then simply “Taps.” When Butterfield’s call replaced the drum beats, soldiers referred to it as “Taps,” although this was an unofficial moniker, according to “Taps” historian and bugle expert Jari Villanueva. He notes that Butterfield’s bugle call was officially known as “Extinguish Lights” in American military manuals until 1891. Since that time, “Taps” also has been a formally recognized part of U.S. military funerals.