Sparky’s Insight

Sparky, Chuck’s housemate and fellow intelligence analyst in Last of the Annamese, got his nickname because he’s something less than nimble-minded. He appears throughout the story as a foil for Chuck.

In his review of Annamese, Bruce Curley cites Sparky’s speech toward the end. The passage he refers to takes place in their work spaces. It reads:

“You’re getting soupy,” Chuck said. “Go home.”

“Can’t.” 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. Bruce notes that Sparky’s questions haunt every page of Last of the Annamese. He’s right. I wrote the book in part to fumigate my own post-traumatic stress. But I wrote it in part to tell the story of what really happened during the fall of Saigon and the years that led up to it. That’s why I made every effort to assure the story’s historical accuracy and completeness, even including details classified until the beginning of 2016, some published publicly for the first time in Annamese. Sparky stands for me in the scene quoted above. He asks the questions I asked:

Did it have to end like this? What the hell have we done?

Orphans in Last of the Annamese

As one reviewer pointed out and as Jim Bohannon mentioned when he interviewed me, orphans appear and reappear in Last of the Annamese almost as a leitmotif. The story starts in an orphanage, and three of the principal characters in the novel volunteer, during the course of the story, to work with orphans.

Last week I spoke at the Author Fair in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. A member of the audience, who had read Annamese, asked about the orphans. Had I, the questioner wanted to know, been a volunteer like the characters I wrote about?

The answer was yes. I worked in an orphanage very much like the one in Saigon that I described in the novel. Most of the orphans were Amerasian, fathered by American GIs with Vietnamese women. They were, for the most part, smaller than normal children their age, due to undernourishment before they arrived at the orphanage. Many were hideously crippled, sometimes from poor care before they were abandoned or after their mothers were killed or disabled, sometimes from having been caught themselves in combat. The greatest gift I could give them was to help them smile or even laugh.

President Ford arranged for a program called Operation Babylift to evacuate as many orphans as possible from Vietnam before the North Vietnamese took what was left of the country. We all knew that the strongest motivation for that effort was that so many of the orphans were Amerasian and the North Vietnamese would treat the half-American children cruelly. As reported in Last of the Annamese, the first Operation Babylift flight was scheduled for 4 April 1975. The aircraft was the C5A Galaxy, the largest plane I had ever seen. It crashed immediately after takeoff. Seventy-eight orphans were killed.

Their loss—and the North Vietnamese capture of those still in Vietnam after it fell—are among the many things I grieve about from my involvement in the fall of Saigon.

Vietnam and Tom Glenn

With the publication of Last of the Annamese, maybe I’ve finally arrived at the culmination of my obsession with Vietnam. It began in 1959. In 1958, immediately after earning a BA from the University of California, I enlisted in the army to go to the Defense Language Institute (DLI). I put in to study Chinese, a language that had always fascinated me. I had already studied French, Italian, German, and Latin, but I grew up in the San Francisco bay area, surrounded by Chinese restaurants and laundries. I knew Chinese was too difficult to learn on my own, as I had done with other languages, so I wanted to go to the best language school in world to learn it. When I got to DLI in January 1959, the army informed me that I was to study something called Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of—we called that part of the world French Indochina back then. So I spent a year in intensive study of Vietnamese with native speakers. That year changed my life.

At the beginning of 1960, I was assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA) and worked full time in the Vietnamese language. Meanwhile, I enrolled in Chinese classes at Georgetown University. So by 1961 when I left the army and was immediately hired by NSA, I was comfortable in French, Chinese, and Vietnamese, the three languages commonly spoke in Vietnam. NSA sent me to Vietnam for the first time in 1962.

I spent the next 13 years trundling between the U.S. and Vietnam. I had two complete accompanied tours there, with my wife and children, and so many shorter trips—called TDYs (for temporary duty)—that I lost count. Most of that time, I provided direct signals intelligence support to U.S. Army and Marine units in combat. I was sent there so often because I knew the languages of the country and I was willing to go into combat with the units I was supporting. In 1974, after the withdrawal of U.S. military forces, I was named the head of the covert NSA operation in Vietnam. By a ruse, I was able to evacuate my wife and four children 20 days before Saigon fell in April 1975. The ruse was necessary because the U.S. Ambassador didn’t believe that Saigon was threatened and refused to allow evacuations. As the North Vietnamese attacked the city, I escaped by helicopter under fire on the night of 29 April. The city fell to the North Vietnamese a few hours later.

I still suffer—and always will—from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury as a consequence of my time in combat and my experiences during the fall of Saigon. Much of my writing has been driven by my gruesome memories, ending with Last of the Annamese. But the book I wrote after Annamese (I’m now seeking a publisher for it) is not about Vietnam. Nor is the novel I’m working on now. Now that I’ve told the story of the fall of Saigon, I’ve found an imperfect peace. Maybe my preoccupation with Vietnam is finally resolved.

No Final Scene between Tuyet and Thanh

My friend and colleague, the master linguist Bob Headley, pointed out to me that Last of the Annamese lacks the final scene between Tuyet and Thanh. I believe that’s a valid criticism of the novel. As I explained to Bob, I chose not to include it for a variety of reasons. One, once I’d arrived at the dénouement, I didn’t want to delay the end of the text. Besides, Thanh is in such bad shape that he can’t talk. And I wanted the full irony at the end of Tuyet using the snub nose pistol that Chuck had given her. Given all that, I couldn’t think of a way to write the scene of the conversation between Thanh and Tuyet. Most important, I wanted the final focus to be on Chuck and Thu.

Bob found the ending of the novel depressing. So do I. The conquest of South Vietnam by the north and all the suffering caused by the U.S. withdrawal from and abandonment of the people who had fought by our side still saddens me. But, as in most of my writing, the book ends with a glimmer of hope. Chuck has found the little boy, Thu, a symbolic replacement for the son that Chuck lost to the war. I foresee that Chuck will adopt Thu as his own son.

Some readers have asked me if a sequel is in the cards. I could tell the story of Chuck and Thu living in the U.S. after the war. So far, that book is not on my to-do list. I’m currently pitching to editors another novel called Secretocracy, and I’m working on another so far unnamed book about a torrid affair between a man and woman in their eighties. Yet another book is taking shape in my head about two brothers so different from one another that neither approves of the other. And who knows what my muse may throw at me next

Speaking at the Veterans Resource Fair

Tomorrow evening I’ll be the keynote speaker at the Veteran Resource Fair at then 50+ Center in Ellicott City. I’ll also be doing a breakout session on Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). So I’ve been pondering at length what to say.

I want to tell the veterans how much respect I have for them. And I want to emphasize to them that they have each other. In preparing the speech, I wrote the following:

“Being with soldiers and Marines in combat taught me something I want to pass on to you: the strongest bond possible between two human beings comes into existence when they fight side by side against a common enemy. Soldiers and Marines don’t use the word love—that’s too sentimental for them. But it is love. The strongest love I’ve ever witnessed and felt myself. I grieve to this day for the men who fought beside me and died.”

In the breakout session on PTSI, I want the others to know that I’m one of them—I suffer from it, too. And I want them to know how widespread and serious PTSI is. Here’s part of what I wrote:

“I learned that, according to a VA estimate, nearly one out of every three Vietnam vets suffers from PTSI. The number for Iraq vets is one out of every five. Since I’ve seen evidence that untreated PTSI becomes more acute with the passage of time, my guess is that affected vets from Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually approach those for Vietnam vets.

“By one estimate, an average of 22 veterans take their own lives each day. Some people debate that number from the VA, says Steve Danyluk, who worked with wounded service members after returning from a tour in Iraq with the Marines, ‘but I think anybody that served in a combat unit can run through a list of people that they know that committed suicide.’”

People who have never been in the military or anywhere near combat have no comprehension of PTSI. But we vets, who are brothers and sisters to each other, we know. Our job is to help each other. Our job is to comfort and sustain. Our job is to find our way home and help others to find it, too.

Thank You and Welcome Home

Last night I attended the “Welcome Home—Vietnam Veterans Celebration: Warriors Remembered” in Greenbelt. I wasn’t prepared.

For years, when I returned from Vietnam with the troops through San Francisco, we were met by crowds who yelled “butcher” and “baby killer” at us. They spat on us. I was shamed to the depths of my soul, not for the troops who had fought bravely and followed commands even at the risk of theirs lives, but for America. Our people, the people we fought for, were blaming us for what they saw as an unjust war. I was sickened.

For years, I never mentioned my Vietnam experience. My Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) was worsened by my silence. No one wanted to talk about Vietnam. The war was shameful, and I was one of the perpetrators.

But Vietnam was bursting my seams. It dominated my writing. No one would publish my stories and novels. Vietnam was anathema.

Then, three years ago, I attended the first Welcome Home celebration for Vietnam vets. For the first time I heard the words, “Thank you for your service. And welcome home.” I cried.

Last night, when I walked into the ballroom where the celebration was underway, a young man in uniform smiled, shook my hand, and said “Thank you. And welcome home.” The tears came.

Toward the end of the gathering, the young soldiers, airmen, Naval Academy cadets, and ROTC members lined up and saluted us Vietnam veterans to thank us for our service. My tears embarrassed me again.

The last speaker, U.S. Army Sergeant Major Rodwell L. Forbes, told of his reluctance to admit his PTSI until a Vietnam vet called him a fool for not facing it. Forbes’ wife reiterated the insult. He submitted to therapy and found a well of torment aching to be freed. He expressed his gratitude to a Vietnam vet. Then he, too, thanked us and welcomed us home.

My Vietnam writings are being published now. These days many people thank me for my service. But I still choke up when I hear “Welcome home.” Those were words I yearned for. I grieve that so many of my comrades in arms did not live long enough to hear them.