The third moment that brings tears to my eyes during my presentations is when I describe how, as the fall of Saigon loomed, I made my last visit to a South Vietnamese signals intelligence officer I’d known throughout my years in Vietnam. I can’t tell you his name. It’s still classified. This man understood North Vietnamese communications better than anyone I knew. He was also a superior officer and a fine leader. His troops would do anything he asked.
I had to see him face to face to be sure he and his troops knew where to go when the long-delayed evacuation order was finally issued, something I couldn’t discuss on an unsecured phone line—by that time North Vietnamese were monitoring my phone calls. Always a model of Asian politeness, he invited me into his office and served me tea. He told me that his wife, who worked for USAID, had been offered the opportunity to leave the country with her family. That included him. But he wouldn’t go because he was unwilling to abandon his troops—no evacuation order had been issued—and she wouldn’t leave without him. So there they were, a mother and father and their three children, still sitting in Saigon as the North Vietnamese came closer each day. Alarmed, I asked him what he would do if he was still in Saigon when Communists tanks rolled through the streets. He told me he couldn’t live under the Communists. “When the Communists come, I will shoot my three children, then I will shoot my wife, then I will shoot myself.”
That officer didn’t escape at the end. I have no doubt he carried out his plan because so many other South Vietnamese officers did precisely what he described.
When I tell his story during my presentations, the audience is silent. I can’t hear a sound. Every eye is upon me. And the Vietnam veterans, especially those who worked with South Vietnamese who were left behind when Saigon fell, understand my grieving in a way no others can.