The Vietnam Effect

My participation in the Vietnam war shaped my life. I spent so much time in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975, when I escaped under fire as Saigon fell, that I felt more at home there than in the U.S. I had two complete tours there and so many shorter trips—what we called TDYs (temporary duty)—that I lost count. Most of my writing is about Vietnam. Three of my four novels and the majority of my 17 short stories detail my experiences there.

But I was not in the military in Vietnam. I had completed my military service before the National Security Agency (NSA), my employer, sent me there the first time in 1962. Granted, I was under cover as military in Vietnam until 1973 when U.S. military forces were withdrawn. I dressed in the uniform of the army or Marine Corps unit I was supporting. I cut my hair like that of the troops, lived with them, ate C-rations sitting on the ground next to them, slept beside them, used their latrines, and went into combat with them.

After 1973, my cover was State Department or, briefly, CIA. I dressed as the diplomats did in that tropical climate, white short-sleeve dress shirt and slacks. I and my crew of 43 analysts and communicators were indistinguishable.

On my two permanent assignment tours, between 1963 and 1965 and again in 1974-1975, my wife and my children lived with me in Saigon, my home base. My oldest daughter, Susan, learned Vietnamese and French along with English as a toddler. My family was safely evacuated twenty days before Saigon fell, even though the ambassador, Graham Martin, had forbidden evacuations. I lied, cheated, and stole to get them and my 43 subordinates out of the country before the North Vietnamese took the city. I was the last one out, after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets.

More next time.

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