More on the Fall of Saigon

More on the escape from Saigon on 29 April 1975: After I was evacuated to the Oklahoma City, the flagship of the 7th Fleet, we sailed to Subic bay and I got a flight to first to Honolulu so I could brief the brass at CINCPAC, then to Baltimore. Once there I finally got to see a doctor. He diagnosed me with amoebic dysentery and pneumonia as a result of inadequate sleep and lack of food. Here are some details I added at the end of my report:

I’d be remiss if I didn’t credit Al Gray, a Marine intelligence officer who became a combat commander, with saving my life and the lives of my two communicators. I don’t call him Al anymore. That stopped the day he became Commandant of the Marine Corps. These days I call him “Sir.” General Gray is the finest leader I have ever seen in action and a man I am privileged to know.

None of the 2700 Vietnamese who worked with us escaped. All were killed or captured by the North Vietnamese. Many could have been saved but for two factors: (1) The Ambassador failed to call for an evacuation—by the time he was countermanded, the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of Saigon. And (2) the general in command of those 2700 abandoned his troops and was safely evacuated. They were still awaiting his orders when the North Vietnamese attacked them.

Ambassador Graham Martin’s career was effectively ended by the debacle he authored in Saigon. He retired not long after the fall of Vietnam. Bob and Gary, my two communicators, survived and went on with their careers. Bob died about seven years ago, but I spoke to Gary a few months back. He’s doing fine.

And me? Besides the pneumonia and dysentery, I sustained ear damage from the shelling, and I’ve worn hearing aids ever since. Worst of all, I suffer, even today, from a condition we didn’t have a name for back then—Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). It resulted not just from the fall of Saigon but from earlier experiences in the war. When I got back to the states, my marriage crumbled. The home I yearned for didn’t exist, and I was afraid I was going to lose my children, my reason for staying live. I knew I needed help, but my job was intelligence, and I had top secret codeword-plus intelligence clearances. Had I sought therapy, I would have lost my clearances, and therefore my job. I had to grit my teeth and endure the irrational rages, flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks.

As it happens, my writing vocation and my need to help others saved me. I wrote down everything that had happened to me in Vietnam, and I volunteered to help others worse off than me. The writing ended up being 17 short stories and four novels, all now published. Meanwhile, I worked with AIDS patients, the homeless, the dying in a hospice, and sick and dying soldiers in a VA hospital. Writing down what happened, it turns out, is an effective therapy for PTSI, and when I was with people who needed help, my unspeakable memories faded. I learned that compassion heals.

 

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