Salvation: Helping Others to Help Yourself

A man who served in Vietnam and suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury wrote me that Last of the Annamese moved him. He told me he’s considering working with other veterans who struggle with the trauma. I urged him to use his experience to help others. And I told him of my experience.

As I’ve said earlier in this blog, I was in Vietnam at least four months every year from 1962 to 1975. I had two complete tours in-country and so many shorter trips I lost count. Because I was providing signals intelligence support to combat units, I went into battles with the troops even though I was a civilian operating under cover. After the withdrawal of U.S. military forces in 1973, I headed the covert NSA operation in Vietnam and escaped under fire when Saigon fell.

In the process, I lived through catastrophes that I still can’t talk about, even though I’ve forced myself to bring the memories into my consciousness. I struggle with classic Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (I use the term “injury” rather than “disorder” because the damage to my soul was clearly externally inflicted) that will be with me for the rest of my life.

For so many years I thought I was the only one with nightmares, panic attacks, irrational rages, and flashbacks. Until a few years ago, Americans looked on the war in Vietnam as a shameful thing. When I came back to the U.S. with the troops, we were met at the San Francisco airport by crowds who called us baby killers and butchers and spat on us. That sickened my soul. So for decades I never spoke to anyone about my experiences. I had top secret codeword-plus clearances, and if I’d gone for psychological help, I’d have lost my clearances and my job. I gritted my teeth and sweated through it. Writing down what happened turned out to be good therapy. Hence my novels and short stories.

But the biggest help came from volunteering, starting in the 1980s. I worked with AIDS patients, the homeless, the dying in the hospice system, and finally with sick and dying soldiers in a VA hospital. I learned that when I was with people worse off than I was, my memories faded into the background. I found out that compassion heals.

So I profoundly hope that the brother in arms who wrote to me will follow through and help other veterans. Just knowing that others share that wound to the soul helps more than most people could imagine. God bless him.

Reading from Last of the Annamese

Yesterday afternoon, I did a reading/book signing from Last of the Annamese for a group of seniors. As so often happens when I read from Annamese, I choked up and had to blink away tears at several points in the story. Why does my own writing move me so deeply? Because the book is really my story. It’s an autobiographical novel, historically accurate and as complete as I could make it. I put the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, through the travails I suffered myself during my years in Vietnam and the fall of Saigon. And those events, especially the deaths of so many people I knew, are still and always will be a cause of grieving for me.

As I always do when I’m reading or doing a presentation, I stopped for a moment here and there and listened. Dead silence. I looked up. Every eye was on me. The audience was with me.

As time goes on, I’m finding that my preferred audience for readings and presentations is seniors. Granted, I’m a senior myself, but more important, these are people who have lived through the tragedies that life inflicts on us. They know what it is to lose someone they love. They have faced life and death.

Younger audiences, especially millennials, react very differently to my stories. They are curious, especially about what happened in Vietnam and why the U.S. lost the war. They wonder what being a veteran is like since almost none of them ever served. The losses I write about move them less because they haven’t experienced anything comparable. Loss is, for so many of them, an aspect of life they haven’t yet faced.

In the same way, most of the reviews of Last of the Annamese have been positive, some glowing. The only one that wasn’t was written by a graduate student. He simply hadn’t lived enough to understand the book.

When I finished my reading yesterday, as so often happens, people came up to talk to me. They told me of their own experiences. If the interlocutor was a woman, she most often talked about her relatives who went to war. If it was a man, he related to me his military service experience. That’s another difference in dealing with seniors—nearly all the men are veterans and nearly all women had fathers, husbands, brothers, even sons, who had served in the military.

So I share with these people an understanding of war, the pride that comes from serving and the pain that combat inflicts. The bond between me and them is instant. These people are my brothers and sisters.


During the years that I provided signals intelligence support to combat units in Vietnam, a number of times I ran into men called “corpsmen” serving with Marine units. Eventually I came to understand that these men were not Marines but enlisted men in the US Navy. I knew that other services have medics on the battlefield—they’re called field medics or combat medics—but I learned that the Marine Corps does not. Navy corpsmen fill this role.

Over the years in Vietnam, I learned more about corpsmen. They are officially referred to as US Navy Hospital Corpsmen. My understanding is that there are no officer corpsmen. All are enlisted. Because of the urgent work they do, corpsmen are the most decorated rating of all branches of the service. And the US Navy has named fourteen of its ships after corpsmen.

Twice recently I’ve come across two former corpsmen. One was at the Naval Support Activity USO celebration of Vietnam veterans last Friday in Bethesda, Maryland. When another vet introduced himself as “Doc,” I knew immediately what his service had been. How often did I hear the call for “Doc” among Marines on the battlefield. All corpsmen are called “Doc.”

The other is a reader of my books who is in prison. I mentioned him in an earlier blog. I knew he was a Vietnam vet, but I only recently learned he was a corpsman. I knew he suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury from his experiences in combat, but only now am I beginning to imagine what he must have gone through. I suspect that had he not been soul-damaged, he never would have gotten into trouble with the law.

I am humbled and grateful that he reads my writing and sees me as a brother who shares his affliction.

Self-Reliance and Keeping in Shape (2)

Being able to depend on myself has seen me through a good many tight spots. I learned during my Vietnam days, when I went into combat with the soldiers and Marines I was supporting, that staying in good shape was essential to my success. So I went out of my way to keep my body operating at maximum efficiency. I became a runner and a weight lifter, watched my diet, and eventually quit smoking.

The latter didn’t come soon enough. In 2013, more than twenty-five years after I gave up tobacco, I developed lung cancer, though it wasn’t diagnosed until 2015. I underwent maximum chemotherapy and radiation and finally had the upper lobe of my right lung removed. My doctors marveled at how well I withstood the rigors of treatment and credited my recovery to the excellent shape I was in.

I acknowledged another element in my battle against cancer: my long-ago formed habit of depending on myself. I was determined that I wasn’t going to let a little thing like cancer keep me from writing the books I still had in me. I’m still in recovery with a cough that won’t quit and an irritating lack of energy. But I cheat and steal and trick my body into doing what I want it to do.

As age takes its toll, my resilience is working overtime. I can’t run any more thanks to failed knee replacement surgery, but I follow a regular regimen of weight lifting and keep my weight to the recommended level for my body type. My diet stresses healthy foods, especially vegetables and fruits, and I stay away from sweets and fried food. I allow myself half a gimlet and a small glass of wine each day. I assure that I get enough rest.

It’s working. At least so far. I’ve been able to maintain a demanding schedule of presentations, readings, and book signings to promote Last of the Annamese. As usual, I have to depend on myself for my appearances. No one’s going to help me.

As it was in the beginning, so it is now: it’s up to me.

Self-Reliance and Keeping in Shape

As I mentioned earlier in this blog, I essentially raised myself from the age of six because my mother was an alcoholic and my father was in prison. I had to do everything from preparing my own meals to doing my own laundry to figuring out where I was going to get money for everything from carfare to school to buying new shoes. I started with a paper route as a young boy and graduated to working in a drug store as delivery boy and clerk, pumping gasoline, washing dishes in a restaurant, and waiting tables. I accepted the general view that I wasn’t very bright and didn’t do well in school. Even though high school advisers recommended that I not go to college (I didn’t have the brains to make it, they said in so many words), I still enrolled in the University of California in Berkeley and worked twenty hours a week at any job I could get that fit with my academic schedule. True to my advisers’ predictions, I didn’t do well and graduated with low B average.

Meanwhile, I was fascinated with languages and greatly attracted to music. I taught myself to play the piano—even though I didn’t own one—and learned on my own to speak Italian and French. In high school I had four years of Latin, and in college, I added German. Upon graduation, I enlisted in the army to study Chinese at the Army Language School in Monterey, California, the best language school in the world, later called the Defense Language Institute. The army directed that I study not Chinese, but Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of—this was 1959, and we still called that part of the world French Indochina. So I had intensive training in Vietnamese, six hours a day in the classroom plus two hours of private study every night, five days a week, for a full year. I loved it. I graduated first in my class and was sent to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland. Once there, I enrolled at Georgetown to study Chinese.

I knew I had a flair for languages, but that didn’t mean I was intelligent. In my forties, determined to go on learning despite my lack of intellect, I returned to graduate school and earned a masters and a doctorate. Once again, I loved the study, graduated with honors, and finally realized that I wasn’t dumb at all.

I see now, looking back at a long life, that I succeeded by virtue of being forced to depend on myself. I was strong-willed and stubborn. Since no one was going to take care of me or help me, I had to develop self-reliance.

As I wrote earlier in this blog, my ability and willingness to fend for myself was instrumental in surviving the fall of Saigon and getting all forty-three of my subordinates and their families safely out of the country in the face of opposition from the U.S. Ambassador and lack of help from any quarter. Now in the ranks of seniors (a politically correct term for old people), I’m coming to realize that staying active and healthy is up to me. No one’s going to help me.

More tomorrow.

Tết: The Vietnamese New Year Holiday

Far and away the greatest annual holiday in Vietnam is Tết, the first day of the lunar calendar and, in Vietnam, the first day of spring. It is celebrated for three days at least and by some for seven days. The festivities emphasize eating and drinking, returning to one’s parental home, buying new clothes, getting one’s hair cut, and being sure one’s house is freshly cleaned. The traditional greeting is Chúc Mng Năm Mi or Cung Chúc Tân Niên (Happy New Year) or Cung Chúc Tân Xuân (Happy Spring).

Flowers are the sine qua non of celebrating Tết. Preparations to assure that plants are blooming at their peak on Tết begin months in advance, and in Saigon, the Street of Flowers (the street’s real name was Nguyễn Huệ, the name of a Vietnamese emperor) was so filled with blossoms at Tết that the street itself appeared to be in bloom.

Because the date of Tết is determined by the lunar calendar, its date in the Gregorian calendar varies between the last week or so of January and the first days of February. The name Tết is known to Americans because the North Vietnamese began a country-wide offensive during the celebration in 1968. It came to be known as the Tết Offensive. That year, Tết fell on 28 January (if my memory is accurate), the same date as in 2017, and both the Americans and the South Vietnamese were caught unprepared because for years both the north and the south had all but ceased combat during the Tết period. In Last of the Annamese, the date (in 1975) is 3 February, less than four months before the fall of Saigon.

I have many happy memories of celebrating Tết with the Vietnamese. In 1964, I took my daughter, Susan, then a toddler, to the Street of Flowers to see the display. When I was in the field with combat units, I made it my business to join the locals for the festivities when I could.

But the holiday also brings back sad times. In 1968, I warned the Americans that the North Vietnamese were about to launch a country-wide offensive and wasn’t believed. The saddest was 1975. I alerted the U.S. Ambassador that the North Vietnamese were about to attack Saigon, but he dismissed my prediction. I saw that the end of An Nam (the old name for Vietnam which means “peace in the south”) was at hand.

Memories of a Good Man

One of the men who was with me in Saigon was an intelligence analyst I’d worked with for years. He was a friend of my family, a favorite of my children who were still quite small back then. He enjoyed playing with them and showed an unusual understanding of what charmed them. A good-looking guy, he was in his thirties at that point but had never married and had no apparent connections with women. I wondered privately at the time if maybe he was gay.

This man, along with me, was among the earliest to see that Vietnam was lost to the communists. It was he who lived out for real the scene I later attributed to the character of Sparky in Last of the Annamese:

Sparky’s eyelids stretched and blinked. “Da Nang fell yesterday. I Corps is in rout. And the safe haven on the coast where all those people tried to flee from highlands? Tuy Hoa. It’s under enemy fire. A hundred thousand refugees are stranded along Route 7B between Pleiku and the coast. No food, no water, no medicine, nothing. Jesus, Chuck.” He ran his hands through his hair. “Did it have to end like this? After 58,000 American military dead, at least a million Communist soldiers, and who knows how many million civilians? Chuck, what the hell have we done?”

End of quote. This man, whom I’m leaving unnamed, resigned from NSA not long after we were evacuated during the fall of Saigon. Sometime later, we got word that he was dead. He’d fallen from a window in a Los Angeles hotel. I concluded then and still believe that his death was suicide.

His death hurt. He’s among the men who served with me who have died. I grieve for them still.