Do What You Have to Do, Whatever It Takes

I heard those words in Vietnam from soldiers and Marines. I understood them to mean that a warrior must do his duty, even if it costs him his life. Those same words became the underlying motto of my novel set during the fall of Saigon, Last of the Annamese. They drive the actions of the protagonist, a retired Marine officer, and his housemate, an active duty Marine captain.

Hanging in an honored spot in my piano room is a large color photo of the last pair of combat jungle boots I wore in Vietnam. I wasn’t in the military in Vietnam. I was a civilian employee of the National Security Agency (NSA). I was there to furnish signals intelligence to U.S. forces. Between 1964 and 1973, when U.S. military forces were withdrawn, I was regularly on the battlefield supporting army and Marine units in combat. I was under cover as military. I wore the uniform—and boots—of an enlisted man assigned to the unit. I slept beside the troops on the ground, ate C-rations sitting in the dirt next to them, used their latrines, and went into combat with them. I know that my work contributed to U.S. victories and saved lives. I did what I had to do.

That picture of my boots is captioned with the words, “Do what you have to do, whatever it takes.” The message implied is that the owner of the boots made the ultimate sacrifice and gave up his life on the battlefield. So many men I stood beside on the battlefield did just that. And they were just kids. The average age was nineteen. They died in ways so grisly before my eyes that today I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). That disorder is with me for life.

So those words, “Do what you have to do, whatever it takes,” are sacred to me. They, like my PTSI, will be with me always.

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