The Sad Month of April (17)

None of the 2700 Vietnamese who worked with us escaped. All were killed or captured by the North Vietnamese when they took Saigon. Many could have been saved but for two factors: (1) The ambassador failed to call for an evacuation—by the time he was countermanded from Washington in the predawn hours of 29 April 1975, the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of Saigon. And (2) the general in command of those 2700 abandoned his troops. He was safely evacuated without doing anything to protect the troops subordinate to him. They were still awaiting his orders when the North Vietnamese attacked them.

Ambassador Graham Martin’s career was effectively ended by the debacle he authored in Saigon. He retired not long after the fall of Vietnam. Bob and Gary, my two communicators, survived and went on with their careers. Bob died about eight years ago, but as far as I know Gary is doing fine.

And me? Besides the pneumonia and dysentery, I sustained ear damage from the shelling, and I’ve worn hearing aids ever since. Worst of all, I suffer, even today, from a condition we didn’t have a name for back then—Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). It resulted not just from the fall of Saigon but from earlier experiences in the war. When I got back to the states, my marriage crumbled. The home I yearned for didn’t exist, and I was afraid I was going to lose my children, my reason for staying live. I knew I needed help, but my job was intelligence, and I had top secret codeword-plus intelligence clearances. Had I sought therapy, I would have lost my clearances, and therefore my job. I had to grit my teeth and endure the irrational rages, flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks. As it happens, my vocation and my need to help others saved me.

I have always been a writer, and I wrote and wrote and wrote about what had happened in Vietnam. That eventually led to three books, Friendly Casualties (2012), The Trion Syndrome (published in 2015 by Apprentice House of Baltimore), and Last of the Annamese (2017, published by the Naval Institute Press). I found out much later that one of the most effective therapies for PTSI is writing down the searing experiences. So to some degree, I healed myself.

Instinctively, I knew I had to help others who were worse off than I was. So I volunteered to care for AIDS patients during the years of that crisis, worked with the homeless, ministered to the dying in the hospice system, and finally worked with sick and dying veterans in the VA hospital in Washington, D.C. I learned that when I gave all my attention to suffering people, my unspeakable memories receded into the background. Compassion heals.

More tomorrow.

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