Why I Served So Long and So Often in Vietnam

A reader asked me why I was sent to Vietnam so often over a thirteen-year period. The answer is two-fold.

First, I have an inborn knack for languages. I was comfortable in the three languages commonly spoken in Vietnam—French. Vietnamese, and Chinese. That made me a rarity. The U.S. government had a real find in me and sent me as often as I would go.

Second, few civilian signals intelligence experts were willing to risk the danger of combat. I was. To this day I don’t know why. Part of it was patriotism; part was my sense that it was my duty to share the danger combatants faced. I knew I could be killed, but I didn’t know that repeated exposure to combat would sicken me with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. But I would have done it anyway. Somehow it was a sacred calling: I was gifted with a flair for languages. I was obligated to use the gift for the good of others.

Nowadays, time, age, and deafness (from artillery hits during the fall of Saigon) have weakened my ability to work in other languages. And I no longer have the physical stamina required for the battlefield. Instead, I write. I earnestly wish people to know what combat veterans have suffered through, and I want other Americans to know what happened in Vietnam, especially during the fall of Saigon. That’s why I wrote The Trion Syndrome and especially Last of the Annamese.

4 thoughts on “Why I Served So Long and So Often in Vietnam”

  1. I spent far less time in theater than you did, Tom, but, like you, the time I did spend there helped define who I am now. I was once asked by a marriage counselor why I kept volunteering to go back, and the only answer I could give on short notice was that it was “fun.” As you well know, it was anything but fun, but it gave me a deep sense of satisfaction to know that I was contributing to the success of U.S. and South Vietnamese forces in executing the war effort, and in reducing the toll of death for our forces. It was only after the conclusion of the war that I realized we were actually contributing to the prolongation of a battle that the U.S. public and politicians would have no will to pursue to a successful conclusion, and in the end actually helped increase the overall toll by enabling that prolongation.
    Thank you for the posts; they bring back memories of friends and events from the era.

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    1. So good to hear from you, John. Yes, we both trundled back and forth over and over. Not fun, no, but fulfilling. Where we might differ is that I believe Creighton Abrams’ strategy (as opposed to Westmoreland’s) had every chance of winning the war if the American people and Congress had been willing to see it through. But I share with you the feeling that in the end our sacrifices were for naught. That thought depresses me to this day.

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  2. I would go further, Tom, and say that we had all but won the war militarily when the politicians decided to fold.When I first went over in ’68, I remember sitting at the bar on the roof of the hotel in Saigon and watching firefights in the streets below. On one of my last trips over, a reporter for Stars and Stripes was writing articles while hitchhiking down Route 1 from the northern part of I Corps to the Delta; something unthinkable a few years before. The country was all but pacified. Had we simply held in there, I think a reasonable peace could have been achieved and all the effort would not have been pointless.

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    1. We see it the same way, John. Our exchange, coincidentally, comes just as I am sketching out a blog post expressing my sense that we could have won the war militarily. Maybe I’ll have time tomorrow to complete the thought and post it.

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