Between 1962 when I first arrived in Vietnam and 1975 when I escaped under fire as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, I celebrated far more Christmases in Vietnam with the troops than I did in the U.S. with my family. I remember especially the brief recognition of the day on the battlefield when guys would wish each other a Merry Christmas between skirmishes. It was a day like any other, except for the unspoken yearning for family, so strong among the troops that I could feel it even though no one mentioned it—and, toward the end of U.S. troop deployments to Vietnam, disgust that led to the oft-repeated “Merry Fucking Christmas.”
I knew those feelings, too. As the war dragged on, I saw that the U.S. had no clue on how to fight the North Vietnamese. And I had children at home who would once again do without a father on Christmas. That deprivation is the factor I most regret about my years in Vietnam. My children have all grown into responsible, functioning, even admirable adults despite being forced spend so much time fatherless. That they have done so well is a tribute to their excellence as people, not to me.
My children were with me for two Christmases in Vietnam, thanks to the two accompanied tours I had there. Their mother and I went out of our way to decorate and celebrate so that they wouldn’t feel that Christmas had lost its meaning in a foreign land. We were marginally successful.
The most memorable Christmas in Vietnam for me was the last one, in 1974. In its foolishness, the U.S. government declared the war over with the signing of the peace accords of 1973. Those of us assigned to Vietnam were allowed to have our families with us. We had a big Christmas tree—never mind that it wasn’t the right kind of pine. The house was dripping with decorations. I read “T’was the Night Before Christmas” to the children on Christmas eve. We had all the men from the office who were there alone in for Christmas dinner. But under the veneer of celebration loomed the knowledge that the North Vietnamese grew ever closer. I already knew that the country would fall within months and was quietly arranging for my family to be evacuated before the North Vietnamese seized Saigon.
And yet, for all that, Christmas remained a magical time. I know that there is nothing inherent in the calendar to make the 25th of December the most special day of the year. I know that the magic comes from the human heart.
May that magic always prevail.