April 1975 in Vietnam (23)

Today, the forty-third anniversary of my first day aboard the USS Oklahoma City after my escape under fire during the fall of Saigon, I want to fill in a few gaps in the story I’ve told here over the last month.

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. I’ve never met a Marine who doesn’t know who Al Gray is. He is a deserved hero to the Marines.

None of the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers 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 from Washington, the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of Saigon. And (2) the general in command of those 2700 abandoned his troops. He was evacuated safely while his subordinates stayed in place awaiting his orders. They were still awaiting his orders when the North Vietnamese arrived and attacked them. I still grieve over them.

Ambassador Graham Martin’s career was effectively ended by the debacle he authored in Saigon. He returned to the State Department in Washington and moved from job to job. He was never given another overseas assignment and eventually retired.

Bob and Gary, my two communicators, survived and went on with their careers. Bob died about six years ago, but I spoke to Gary a few months ago. He’s doing fine.

And me? Besides the pneumonia and amoebic 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 combat experiences in the war. When I got back to the states in May 1975, I was an emotional wreck. 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 alive. I knew I needed help, but my job was intelligence, and I had top secret codeword-plus clearances. Had I sought therapy, I would have lost my clearances, and therefore my job. I still had a wife and children to support. So I had to grit my teeth and endure the irrational rages, flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks. As it happens, my vocation and my need to help others saved me. More on that tomorrow.

The two flags from my office—the stars and stripes and the banner of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam)—I carried with me on my long and winding itinerary from Saigon to the U.S. They are now in the Cryptologic Museum at Fort Meade, Maryland.

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