The darkest days of my life began in May 1975 when I returned to “the world” (the U.S.) after escaping under fire when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. I was suffering from amoebic dysentery and pneumonia brought on by inadequate diet, sleep deprivation, and muscle fatigue during the final days in Saigon. Worse, I had a full-blown case of Port-Traumatic Stress Injury from by my years in combat and the horrors during the final sweep of North Vietnam in its conquest of the south.
My wife and children, who had escaped Saigon twenty days before it fell to the North Vietnamese, were staying at her father’s house in Massachusetts. I telephoned her and begged her to come to Maryland. I told her I was very sick and needed her. She said no. She would only come back to Maryland when we got back our house. We had leased it to another family for three years, the length of our tour in Vietnam, now interrupted by the North Vietnamese conquest of the south. The lease had several years to go. It cost me considerable time and money to break the lease. My wife finally returned with the children the following July when we could move in. Her refusal to help me made me understand how little she cared about me. It was the beginning of the end of the marriage.
Meanwhile, when I was well enough, I returned to the National Security Agency (NSA) where I was employed. Nobody at NSA wanted to hear about Vietnam. It was a shameful war, best forgotten. People avoided me as if I smelled bad. Eventually I was placed in a new job and resumed my career.
A year or so after my return, the U.S. government decided to recognize me for the work I had done during the fall of Saigon, especially my successful effort to evacuate my 43 subordinates and their wives and children as Saigon came under attack. I got them out even though the U.S. ambassador had forbidden me to do so, requiring me to lie, cheat, and steal. It meant, among other things, that I had to stay in Saigon until the night of 29 April. By then, the North Vietnamese were in the streets. The helicopter I flew out on was nearly shot down.
The government’s recognition came in the form of a medal. It was the Civilian Meritorious Medal. I was reminded that usually only the military are awarded with medals. That makes me prize it all the more.
That medal, to this day, is one of my most precious possessions.