Over the past month, I’ve written of what happened forty-three years ago during the fall of Saigon and the Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) I suffer from. I tell the same story in my novel, Last of the Annamese.
I wrote the book as a novel in part because I wanted to narrate the stream of events from five different points of view, three American and two Vietnamese. Those of us who suffered through the final collapse in Vietnam were faced with choosing who and what we’d try to save, including our own lives. The five characters make different choices.
The novel’s protagonist, Chuck Griffin, goes through the same disasters I did, but he is not me. He is a retired Marine officer who lost a son in combat in Vietnam. He goes back after the cease-fire of 1973 and the withdrawal of U.S. forces to try to win the war so that his son’s death will not have been in vain. He learns that his son did not die in combat but was murdered by another soldier. His purpose for returning to Vietnam loses its meaning. And he loses the war.
Chuck is like me in his despair at the end. In May 1975, I returned to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon emotionally shattered. Shamed by all for my involvement in the war in Vietnam, tortured by PTSI, physically ill with amoebic dysentery and pneumonia, I was alone. My wife refused to return to Maryland from Massachusetts where she and the children were staying with her father. She would come back only when I could recover our house, leased to another family for the length of our three-year tour in Vietnam cut short by the North Vietnamese conquest. She finally returned the following July.
Doctors eventually cured me of my physical illnesses, but I couldn’t seek psychotherapy for the PTSI because I held top-secret-codeword-plus clearances. In those days, cleared personnel lost their clearances (and therefore their jobs) if they sought psychotherapy. I had to handle it on my own.
I stopped Chuck’s story before the PTSI sets in because I had already told that story in a different novel, The Trion Syndrome. In that book, as in my own story, the protagonist learns to cope with his PTSI. He, like me, finds peace—he through his son, me through writing.