Civilian in Combat

As far as I can tell, I’m unique in that during all my time in combat, I was a civilian. I had finished my military service before I was hired by the National Security Agency (NSA) and sent abroad. For many years I operated overseas under cover as an enlisted man in whatever unit I was supporting. I spent more time in Vietnam than anywhere else. Between 1962 and 1975, I was in Vietnam more than I was in the U.S. I had two three-year PCS (permanent change of station) tours there with my wife and four children—they lived in Saigon while I was in the field with the troops. Then, in April 1975, I got my family out of the country just twenty days before the North Vietnamese seized Saigon. I was evacuated under fire on the last day after the North Vietnamese were in the streets of the city.

I went on to do the same kind of work in other places around the globe after Saigon fell in April 1975. But whereas my work in Vietnam is now declassified, what I did after April 1975 is still secret. I can’t tell you where I went, what I did, or who I worked with. I was fluent in seven languages, so much of the world was open to me.

The whole time, I remained a civilian disguised as a soldier or Marine depending on who I was supporting. I lived with the troops, slept on the ground next to them, used their latrines, ate C-rations sitting by their side, and went into combat with them. I formed with them the strongest bond I have ever known, the love of the man fighting next to you in combat. And when one of them was killed, I learned the greatest grief I have ever known.

The miracle is that I wasn’t killed or even wounded. The worst physical damage I suffered was after the fall of Saigon. I had been holed up for days in the comms center of my office while I struggled to get my 43 subordinates and their families out of the country safely. When I finally flew out on a helicopter, I was suffering from dysentery, pneumonia, exhaustion, and severe ear damage from the shelling (rockets and artillery) we were subjected to before my escape.

More next time.

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