I escaped under fire during the fall of Saigon on 29 April 1975. When I finally returned to NSA in late May 1975, I found that the war in Vietnam was seen as shameful, not to be discussed.
Over my earlier years, when I trundled regularly between Vietnam and the world (the U.S.), I and the returning troops were regularly greeted by mobs who called us butchers and baby killers and spat on us. Now, after I returned from the fall of Saigon, I felt that the whole of the U.S. was spitting on me.
Three things got me through. One was the bond I had with the men who had worked with me in Vietnam. We stuck together and helped one another. The second was my determination not to give in to adversity. The third was writing. I wrote about what happened.
For more than thirty years, I couldn’t get my stories and novels about Vietnam published. Then American attitudes changed. Today four of my novels and seventeen of my short stories are in print. The pinnacle so far is Last of the Annamese, published last March by the Naval Institute Press, which tells the story of the fall of Saigon. Although it’s fiction, it’s historically accurate and complete. What helped greatly was that in 2016 the declassification of my work in Vietnam was completed.
Annamese helped in another way. It allowed me to confront my memories of abandonment and survival. I found an imperfect peace.
That peace is rooted in self-reliance. I learned that even if the whole world turned against me, abandoned me, and left me to survive on my own, I could depend on myself. I discovered in myself a resilience I didn’t know I had.
So, yes, I and others like me were abandoned. But we were a determined bunch, not cowed by hostile saliva. We worked hard and clung to each other. We watched as other warriors from other wars came home to thanks and honor withheld from us. We gritted our teeth and hung on.
When Americans changed the way they saw the war in Vietnam, they looked at us with new eyes. The young folks wanted to know what really happened. In the last three years, I’ve been to gatherings where people actually honored me and others who survived Vietnam. We are again upright citizens. We stand with other veterans who served their country.
Now at last, Americans are thanking us. Despite our resilience, our determination, our toughness, we Vietnam vets are more moved than we will admit. “Thank you. And welcome home.” Those words make me cry.