My Wife During Vietnam (2)

By the time I escaped Saigon under fire twenty days after wife and children were evacuated, I was sick with dysentery and pneumonia and was suffering from severe Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. I had been holed up for days on end in my office with little food and no sleep as the North Vietnamese first shelled then launched a ground attack on Saigon. I arrived in Maryland in mid-May 1975 but couldn’t go back to my house there because we had leased it to another family for the expected length of our Vietnam tour, three years. My wife and the children landed in Massachusetts on a flight from Europe to stay with my wife’s father. I telephoned her and begged her to come to Maryland. I explained that I was ill and in need of help.

She refused. She said she would not return until I was able to pay off the family in our house and get it back. She and children finally came back to Maryland two months later, after I had regained the house.

In sum, my sickness and need were of no interest to her. I was left on my own to cope with my physical illnesses and emotional wounds. Because I held high level security clearances, I couldn’t seek psychiatric help with my Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). I was on my own.

Thanks to my childhood with an alcoholic mother and a father in prison, I had long since developed resilience and self-reliance. I got through it all by myself, without help. I managed my health problems and healed myself. I don’t recommend it as a way of life.

The worst aspect of my recovery was the realization that my wife was indifferent to my need. She delighted in being the woman around town in Saigon but didn’t care enough about me to help me when I was at the lowest point in my life, suffering from both physical and emotional illnesses. It was obvious that cared little for me. That was the beginning of the end of the marriage.

During the divorce, she secretly arranged to have one of my children brought into the courtroom just as I was about to testify against her. I wasn’t about to lay out all the evidence of her misdeeds in front of her child. The end result was I lost everything to her in the divorce. It took me years to regain financial standing.

My wife, meanwhile, spent the rest of her life in our family house, alone after the children grew up and moved out. She was content.

My Wife During Vietnam

A reader points out that in recent posts I talked about what my children went through as a result of my time in Vietnam, but I made no mention of my wife. That was intentional.

Here’s the story. While my children suffered from their time in Vietnam, my wife enjoyed it. My absence didn’t trouble her, and during the two tours she was with me in Vietnam, she had servants who did all the housework and cared for the children. She was free to play tennis, go to coffees and lunches and teas, and shop as much as she wanted. She even took advantage of the limousine and driver assigned to me.

During her second tour in 1974 and 1975, she played the role of Mrs. Chief to the hilt. She enjoyed being first among the dependents there. While the children were uncomfortable with the poverty and the presence of war-wounded, my wife remained impervious. When I told her that she and the children must leave Saigon because the North Vietnamese would soon attack the city, she rejected my warning. At an embassy coffee, officials had told her and other dependents that there was no danger—we would not be attacked. She finally agreed to leave on three conditions: she could choose her own date of departure, she and the children would tour the world on the way home—travelling all through Asia and Europe for as long as she wanted— and she could buy a new Buick station wagon when she got back to the states.

I agreed with all her conditions and got her and the children tickets for departure on 9 April. The day before, a renegade South Vietnamese pilot bombed the presidential palace, near our villa, and defected to the North Vietnamese. Now she was more than willing to go. But when I drove my family to the airport on 9 April, I ran into many roadblocks. The South Vietnamese government had declared a curfew in the wake of the previous day’s attack. I finally had to pull rank to get my wife and children to the airport on onto a plane.

More tomorrow.

My Guys in Vietnam (2)

To reduce the anxiety of the guys in my workforce, I decided not to tell them that the ambassador had refused me permission to evacuate them and their families as it became more and more obvious that the North Vietnamese were about to attack. Until recently, I thought I’d been successful in my ruse. But about a year ago, I had coffee with one of my communicators. He told me that they all knew about the ambassador’s orders but didn’t let on to me to reduce the pressure I was under. The communicators were of course reading the eyes-only messages I was sending to my boss, the director of NSA, General Lew Allen, and they quietly shared that news with the rest of the staff.

The bond that formed between me and the men who worked for me at the end in Saigon remains as powerful today as it was when the tragedy happened. The best manifestation of our devotion to each other is a plaque my guys gave me about a year after the fall of Saigon at a dinner where we all gathered to reminisce. Across the top are the words “Last Man Out Award.” Below that is a brass eagle and the following:

“MACV HQS SAIGON, REPUBLIC OF SOUTH VIETNAM

“The fall of Saigon will always remain a monumental tragedy in U.S. history. This is to finally recognize your exceptional leadership while safely evacuating all your employees and the closing down amid the danger and chaos of those final days.

“[Signed] The Women and Men and Dependents of F46”
End of quote. “F46” was our unclassified designator.

That plaque hangs on my office. I see it—and remember—every day. The love I bear those men—and the feeling is too strong to call it anything short of love—has never weakened.

My Guys in Vietnam (2)

To reduce the anxiety of the guys in my workforce, I decided not to tell them that the ambassador had refused me permission to evacuate them and their families. Until recently, I thought I’d been successful in my ruse. But about a year ago, I had coffee with one of my communicators. He told me that they all knew about the ambassador’s orders but didn’t let on to me to reduce the pressure I was under. The communicators were of course reading the eyes-only messages I was sending to my boss, the director of NSA, General Lew Allen, and they quietly shared that news with the rest of the staff.

The bond that formed between me and the men who worked for me at the end in Saigon remains as powerful today as it was when the tragedy happened. The best manifestation of our devotion to each other is a plaque my guys gave me about a year after the fall of Saigon at a dinner where we all gathered to reminisce. Across the top are the words “Last Man Out Award.” Below that is a brass eagle and the following:

“MACV HQS SAIGON, REPUBLIC OF SOUTH VIETNAM

“The fall of Saigon will always remain a monumental tragedy in U.S. history. This is to finally recognize your exceptional leadership while safely evacuating all your employees and the closing down amid the danger and chaos of those final days.

“[Signed] The Women and Men and Dependents of F46”

End of quote. “F46” was our unclassified designator.

That plaque hangs on my office. I see it—and remember—every day. The love I bear those men—and the feeling is too strong to call it anything short of love—has never weakened.

My Guys in Vietnam

My last tour in Vietnam, in 1974 and 1975, was as the head of a covert operation run by the National Security Agency (NSA) in Vietnam. Its purpose was the collection and exploitation of the radio communications of the invading North Vietnamese. I and my 43 guys worked closely with the South Vietnamese government to learn everything we could about the enemy and his intentions. We were spectacularly successful even though our warnings about the enemy were often ignored.

All of us were veterans. We’d all served our country in one of the branches of the military. We were disciplined and devoted. And we worked as hard as any group I’ve ever seen.

It was quite a collection of men—at that point, after the evacuation of my secretary, it was male only. The largest group was communicators who manned the comms shop twenty-four hours day. Most of the messages exchanged were with NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland, who would analyze the result of our work and intercept from many other sources to unmask what the North Vietnamese were up to. During the last week or so of April 1975, NSA forecast the North Vietnamese attack on Saigon.

But I also had with me analysts and linguists whose achievements remain unparalleled in my memory. During the last few weeks before Saigon fell, my guys were working around the clock, sometimes snatching what sleep they could in the office. As I struggled to evacuate my people and their families as the end came closer, we were forced to work with fewer hands on deck, but the workload got larger.

What made those days even harder was that Graham Martin, the U.S. ambassador, the man in charge of all U.S. activities in Vietnam now that the military had withdrawn, refused to allow evacuations. He was convinced that the North Vietnamese would never attack Saigon. He rejected my warnings that the assault was about to begin. I knew I had to get my men and their families out of the country before the North Vietnamese struck. So I lied, cheated, and stole to get my people out. I sent them out on any pretext I could dream up.

More tomorrow.

My Many Tours in Vietnam (2)

My family and I paid dearly for my service in Vietnam. First, my children during those years often had to make do without a father. I wasn’t there, I was in Vietnam. They also endured two tours in-country (what we called Vietnam) when I took them and my wife with me. They lived in Saigon. They disliked it. They yearned to go home. And on their second tour, they got out of the country only twenty days before Saigon fell. They learned the hard way what it was like to live in a war zone in a city under attack.

And I’m still paying the price for my service. After the fall of Saigon, I was diagnosed with amoebic dysentery and pneumonia due to inadequate diet, sleep deprivation, and muscle fatigue. I had been holed up in my office during the attack on Saigon unable to sleep and with little to no food for days on end. I recovered from those illnesses but not from the deafness that the close explosion of artillery shells inflicted on me. I’ll have to live with that all my life. But that’s not the only injury that remains with me today.

We didn’t have a name for the malady back then. Now it’s called Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). It’s symptoms are panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, and irrational rages. It comes from having witnessed and participated in soul-destroying events. For me it was the grisly deaths I witnessed on the battlefield, so gruesome I still can’t talk about them, and the unbearable happenings as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. The condition never weakens. The unspeakable memories never fade. The victim must learn to cope.

I’ve taught myself to control my emotions when the memories flare. I’ve learned to watch for the warning signs that some sound, smell, or sight will unleash unbearable scenes from my past. These days, aside from occasional nightmares and crying jags, I’m able to muddle through.

Would I do it all again knowing the price I’d have to pay? Yes. I’m a better man for having served my country even though my life was at risk. My children and I suffered because of the war, but we all can be proud that we did what our country asked of us.

At the end of it all, as I age and death comes closer, I can find peace and take pride in what I did. That pride is stronger and more important than the cost.

My Many Tours in Vietnam

More than two years ago, I posted a blog here about why I served so long and so often in Vietnam. It’s time to update that post.

Every year between 1962 and 1975, I was in Vietnam at least four months. I had two PCS (permanent change of station, a stay that lasts two to three years) tours and so many TDYs (temporary duty trips that last from one day to many months) that I lost count. Why did I go into a war zone so often? Was I required to make those many trips to Vietnam?

No. They were all voluntary. I was not in the military—I had completed my army enlistment before the government hired me. I was a civilian employee of the National Security Agency (NSA). I did it because I felt I had to.

The U.S. was at war. I didn’t question the validity of that war. That wasn’t my job. Few if any other NSA employees had the needed skills to do the job on the battlefield. I spoke Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam. I was professionalized in many different cryptologic disciplines. I knew the radio communications of the invading North Vietnamese as if they were my own—I’d been intercepting and exploiting them since 1960. And I was willing to go into combat with the units I was supporting, both army and Marine Corps, all over South Vietnam. That combination made me unique.

I was, in short, capable of supporting military forces on the battlefield better than any of my counterparts. That made me feel compelled to be of service. My willingness to go into combat made me very popular with the forces serving in Vietnam. No sooner would I get back to the states (what we called “the real world”) than a message would arrive saying, “Send Glenn back,” and back I’d go.

I was and still am patriotic. I genuinely love my country, with all its flaws, and believe with all my heart that it is the best country in the world. I couldn’t tolerate the idea of sitting, safe and sound, back in the U.S. while my military buddies, the guys I’d come to know so well by serving at their side, were risking their lives. If I wanted to live with myself, I had to go back and do all I could to help.

More tomorrow.