After I learned that the Naval Institute Press would be publishing my novel, Last of the Annamese, in 2017, I sent copies of the ARC (advance review copy) to men who had seen combat in Vietnam. I wanted to know how they’d react.
They fed back to me a little at a time. I was moved by the mix of pride and pain they showed in their responses—pride that they stood their ground for their country and risked their lives for what they believed was right; and pain at remembering the gruesome experiences they went through in combat and the ugly welcome they received when they returned to the U.S. They, like me, were met by mobs who cursed them and spit on them.
They’re all younger than me. Almost all of them were 18 or 19 when they arrived in Vietnam. By the time I got there in 1962, I was already 25 with a wife and my first child. I’d finished my military service and was a civilian operating under cover as military. Most of the guys I knew went to Vietnam after 1964. When Saigon fell in 1975 (I was 38), most of them were still in their twenties.
So I was more mature than the guys I served beside on the battlefield. I looked so young that they assumed I was their contemporary when I was actually old enough that I qualified for the name “Pops” as they called men serving with them who were already in their mid-twenties. Worse, in civilian-to-military equivalency, I outranked their commanders. Nevertheless, once they saw that I was going to be with them through it all, even in combat, they accepted me and we worked together.
What I came to understand is how rough it must have been on them. I was older, more experienced. By the mid-sixties, I’d already been through combat; they hadn’t. Besides, they were fighters. I was there to support them with intelligence and was armed, at most, with a pistol. They were there to kill or be killed. I struggle with my own memories and my recurring attacks of Port-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). How much worse it must be for them.
I do sense their pain, and I understand their unwillingness to talk about their memories. But I also feel—and share in—their pride. To paraphrase Ike in Last of the Annamese, they did what they had to do, whatever it took. I salute them and honor their pride.