What moves me the most in giving presentations and readings about the Vietnam war is the empathy I share with the veterans in my audiences. So many have told me that my stories bring tears to their eyes. One audience member, a veteran and physician, told me that I was handling my Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) in the right way—confronting my memories and learning to live with them. Another told me that I was the only civilian he’d ever met who understood combat.
That was perhaps the greatest compliment. It recognized and approved the oddity of the situation I was in while serving in Vietnam. I had completed my military service before my first tour there. While I was in-country, I was always a civilian under cover—most often as a member of the military unit I was supporting. So I lived the life of an army soldier or a Marine. That meant staying with the troops, sleeping on the ground, sitting in the dirt and sharing C-rations, and dressing in the uniform of the outfit I was with. It also meant going into combat with the men I was there to help. The combat I saw and participated in and the unspeakable deaths I witnessed are the principal source of my PTSI.
The other source was living through the fall of Saigon. I cope with grisly memories by talking about them in my presentations and in my writing. To deal with my angst was one reason I wrote Last of the Annamese telling in detail what happened during the fall of Saigon.
My fulfillment comes from veterans who hear my presentations and read my writing and are moved. One of the curses of PTSI is the sense that one is alone with one’s unbearable memories. The veterans who reach out to me, who comfort me and seek consolation from me, will always be with me. They give me peace.