I called those who died by my side in combat men. They were really boys, eighteen and nineteen years old. Some had never before been away from home when were drafted or enlisted. Some looked to me like they had barely started shaving. They considered me, then in my late twenties and early thirties, an old man.
And then there was the enemy. The North Vietnamese soldiers were as young or younger than the American soldiers, and they looked like children. They were much smaller than the Americans. It felt like we were fighting and killing little kids. And their deaths were as gruesome as those of the Americans.
One incident I can talk about. Through signals intelligence, I targeted an enemy unit. Our side was victorious. After the clash was over, we went to the spot where the unit had been deployed. Most of the bodies were gone—the North Vietnamese made a point of taking their dead and wounded from the battlefield. But we found one body. It was a little guy—he wouldn’t have come up to my shoulder standing tall. In his pocket, I found a letter. Since I knew Vietnamese, I was able to read it. It was from his wife in North Vietnam. With it were snapshots of a tiny smiling woman holding a grinning toddler. I had been instrumental in killing a young father.
During the fall of Saigon, it was the ghastly deaths of civilians that stained my soul. People were trampled to death by panicking mobs. Others died from North Vietnamese artillery shelling. I was caught in the shelling. It damaged my hearing. Ever since, I’ve had to wear hearing aids.