Between 1962 and 1975, I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the U.S. My job was signals intelligence support to U.S. combat troops and friendly forces on the battlefield. I tipped off the friendlies to what the enemy was doing, where he was, what units he had deployed, and what his plans were. My information came from the clandestine intercept of the enemy’s radio communications. After the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1973, I stayed on as chief of the National Security Agency (NSA) secret operation working with the government of South Vietnam against the North Vietnamese invaders. I escaped under fire when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese on 29 April 1975.
Through it all, even though I operated under cover as military—army or Marine enlisted man depending on which unit I was supporting—I was a civilian. I was a veteran—I had completed my military service before NSA hired me and sent me to Vietnam starting in 1962. One source defines a veteran as “someone, who in his/her life, wrote a blank check made payable to the United States of America for an amount ‘up to and including my life.’”
The troops I lived with and went into battle in Vietnam with found it hilarious that I, a civilian, often outranked their commanding officers. Yet here I was sleeping beside them, eating C-rations sitting next to them in the dirt, using their latrines, and going into combat at their side.
As far as I know, the enemy never penetrated my cover. And my status as a civilian on the battlefield makes me unique. No one else I knew could do the job I did in Vietnam. I was comfortable in Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam. I had been exploiting North Vietnamese communications since 1960 and knew them intimately. I was willing to put my life on the line for the good of my country. And when we lost the war—the first war the U.S. had ever lost—I went into mourning.
Some years ago, given my combat background, I tried to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). The organization refused to admit me to its ranks. I was not qualified because I had been a civilian, not military, during my time in battle on foreign soil. But the American Legion welcomed me with open arms.
It regularly surprises me to realize that my service on the Vietnam battlefields ended 46 years ago this month. The memory of those days is as vivid as ever. My grieving over the men killed by my side never lessens. And my pride in my service has never been stronger.
Some experiences don’t fade with time.