When Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried came out in 1990, I read the book fascinated. I’d been with the troops on the battlefield in Vietnam. I knew what they had with them. I remembered what I carried.
But back then, I still couldn’t speak of my time in Vietnam. For one thing, the fact that I was an NSA (National Security Agency) civilian operant under cover as military in Vietnam was still classified. Besides, I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) and couldn’t bring myself to speak about what I had been through. Beyond that, Vietnam back then was still considered a shameful war. I never mentioned my years in Vietnam.
Now I’m in a different time. My years-long presence in Vietnam on and off between 1962 and 1975 was declassified in 2016. I’ve come to terms with my PTSI by forcing myself to speak of my combat experiences. And Americans now are curious about Vietnam. It’s no longer a shameful war. Now it’s a mysterious one, and people want to know more about it.
So now I can talk about the things I carried, especially at the very end, in April 1975 when I escaped under fire as the North Vietnamese attacked Saigon.
I escaped in the clothes I was wearing, the standard office apparel for Americans in Saigon—white, short-sleeved dress shirt with no tie; slacks; and black loafers. I’d been wearing that same outfit for more than a week, holed up in my office at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, as the North Vietnamese attacked. The clothes were dirty and smelly. So was I.
That last week when I was hiding out in my office with the two communicators who had agreed to stay with me to the end was a time of severe deprivation. We had almost nothing to eat and couldn’t sleep because of the artillery shelling. I kept going by dint of sheer will power: I was determined to do everything I had to do, including giving up my life, to save the lives of the two guys with me.