Last Thursday, I did the fall of Saigon presentation for a gathering of Vietnam veterans and their wives. As usual, I had finished setting up and greeted audience members as they arrived. Before I talked, each veteran stood and stated where he served in Vietnam and what year. The audience turned out to represent all services; members had seen duty in all parts of South Vietnam. I knew the areas and battles they spoke of. I was among brothers.
No sooner had I started to speak than I felt the rush of emotional support from audience members. When I said, “Let me show you what I looked like back then” and projected a slide of a photo taken of me in Saigon in 1962, I got a good laugh. Next I put up a slide of me holding my baby daughter during the Tet celebration of 1963. I said, “I want to tell that kid—and I mean the man, not the little girl—to go back to the high school he escaped from and turn himself in.” That brought down the house.
As I told the story of the warnings I gave the U.S. ambassador that the North Vietnamese were preparing to attack Saigon and how I wasn’t believed, I could feel the tension in the room rising. I related how I struggled to get my 43 subordinates and their families out of the country despite the ambassador’s refusal to allow evacuation. When I talked about the South Vietnamese officer who shot his three children, his wife, and himself rather than be taken by the North Vietnamese, I choked up as I nearly always do. The audience was dead silent. Every eye was on me. I told of the last days when two communicators and I, the only ones left from my office, ran out of food and couldn’t sleep because of the shelling. I described my escape under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets. The audience gasped.
These men had been there. They understood in a way most don’t. They knew what it meant to put their lives on the line. The knew what it was like to come back to the U.S. and be labelled butchers and baby killers and be spat upon. They, too, had spent decades in silence about their time in Vietnam. And here was one of their guys—me—telling what happened at the end.
When I finished, they gave me a standing ovation.