Who Fired at the Helicopter I Escaped in?

I reported earlier in this blog that the Huey I escaped in during the fall of Saigon was almost shot down by ground fire. Who was shooting at us?

The obvious answer is the North Vietnamese. But by the time I flew out of Saigon on the night of 29 April 1975, the North Vietnamese had sixteen to eighteen divisions in or besieging the city. They could easily have shot down all the choppers brought in for the rescue. But not one helicopter was shot down.

Those facts lead me to believe that it was not the North Vietnamese but the friendlies, the South Vietnamese military, who fired on me. By the time I went out, it was obvious that the U.S. was abandoning the South Vietnamese, leaving them to the mercies of the victorious northerners. I suspect that in their frustration, they opened fire on us.

Within hours, all of them were killed or captured by the North Vietnamese. They knew what awaited them. I cannot condemn them for their last desperate acts against their former friends who deserted them on the battlefield.

Reactions to Yesterday’s Blog

A reader pointed out to me that my statement yesterday that the character of Ben, the son of the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, died in combat is inaccurate. As his father, Chuck, learns late in the novel, another American soldier killed Ben. I allowed that inaccuracy for the sake of brevity. My apologies. Here’s what Chuck is told by the officer who was Ben’s commander:

The smile vanished. Carver bared his teeth. “Big-ass gunjy Marine, right? Balls of brass. Yeah, I checked you out before I left the states. Okay, asshole. You want it gory? I’ll give it to you gory.” Carver paused long enough to slurp his drink. “A kid named Kerney killed your son. Multiple tracer rounds from his M-60 machine gun went into cans of gasoline strapped onto the jeep your son was driving. Jeep blew up. At the inquest, Kerney said he thought the VC had penetrated the perimeter and were attacking, killed your kid by mistake. He told me privately that Ben had come on to him for sex. That changed things. The army’s not big on coddling queers. Kerney wasn’t indicted.”

Chuck closed his eyes.

“’Course, reports of casualties from friendly fire get leaked to the press,” Carver said, “and if the homo angle had come to light, that could have hurt Kerney’s chances for promotion and made the U.S. Army look bad. So I reported it as a KIA. Honorable shit. You know the drill.”

End of quote. The full story of Ben’s death is never told in Last of the Annamese. It was irrelevant to the broader story line. But I did give all the details in a short story named “Trip Wires,” which was one of the inspirations for Annamese. In that story, the reader learns that Kerney was sexually attracted to Ben, not the other way around.

The Escape from Saigon

As I’ve noted before in this blog, I escaped under fire during the fall of Saigon on the night of 29 April 1975. I adapted my own memories of that escape to tell of the flight of Chuck Griffin, the protagonist of Last of the Annamese. Ben, mentioned in the excerpt, was Chuck’s son, killed in combat in Vietnam:

Hands helped him climb aboard. He settled near a window, and the bird lifted him into the air over the stricken city dotted by fires. Lights burned here and there as if the residents had forgotten they were under siege. Flashes from weapons made the face of the earth sparkle in the dark, but their sound was drowned in the roar of the helicopter. Tracers rose toward him. They were shooting at him, but his tilted consciousness went on marveling at the glittering lights, like those little lights Ben so loved as a child. Ben. Oh, Jesus. The city retreated into nothingness behind him. His heart contracted. Panic rose in his belly, the mindless terror of something urgent overlooked, left behind, forgotten. Nausea flooded him.

He tried to sit forward and discovered that he was strapped in. The deafening roar of rotor engines filled his ears. Where was he? Total darkness. No, a dashboard was gleaming maybe ten feet from him. The dials and gauges were a craziness of meaningless green lights, numbers, lines, spaces. He and a lot of other people were flying. The pressure in his head made him wonder if they were upside down. How could the pilot tell? He couldn’t get his brain to cooperate. He shook his head, forced his eyes open, slapped himself to keep awake. Memory clicked in a piece at a time. He was en route to the Seventh Fleet in the South China Sea. He hadn’t been airborne long. Had he blacked out?

End of quote. Chuck’s fictional experience and mine differed in several respects. First, Chuck escapes on a CH-53 helicopter, a large bird used for the evacuation. I went out on a little Huey, flown by an employee of Air America, a civilian corporation brought in the to help in the evacuation. Second, the chopper I was on took so much lead in the fuselage that I thought we were going to crash, but we made it. Third, I was flown not to the Midway but to the Oklahoma City, the flag ship of the Seventh Fleet. The pilot obviously had trouble landing in the dark and the rain on the floodlit helipad of the ship. He told me later that he had never before landed on a ship.

Injury, Not Disorder

As a consequence of my time providing intelligence support to army and Marine units during the Vietnam war and my surviving the fall of Saigon, I am subject to a condition common among those who have seen combat. A reader asked me again why I refer to the ailment as Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) and not Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The word “injury” connotes to me the idea of an externally inflicted wound; “disorder” suggests an internal malfunction. To me there is no question that what I and many others suffer from is an extrinsically delivered wound to the psyche, so severe that the injury is indelible.

The form of the affliction I’ve observed and am subject to is that which combatants face. But PTSI can result from any experience so brutal that the soul is permanently damaged. Rape victims, people who have survived or witnessed violent destruction, and those who lived through bloody catastrophes all show signs of an enduring wound to the soul.

It’s worth pointing out that reacting with horror to grisly events is healthy. Only a deformed soul could be unmoved or fail to react to experiences as ghastly as combat.

The wound is permanent. It’s incurable. The victim’s only recourse is to master the ability to cope. I’ve learned to mediate my emotions so that I can face the memories head on without breaking down—even though I still can’t talk about some of them. Among other things, I write about what I lived through. Last of the Annamese was created in part to vent my memories. Learning to live with the unbearable takes time and work, but it can be done.

What Comes Next?

One day soon, surely, I’ll be able to ramp down my hectic schedule of presentations and readings to promote Last of the Annamese. I hit an all-time high last month with twelve presentations in one month, including five in one week.

I admit to enjoying the presentations. I very much want people to know what happened during the fall of Saigon—the raw courage of my two communicators, Bob and Gary; Ambassador Martin’s wilful disregard of my warnings that Saigon was about to be attacked and the subsequent loss of life; the close calls I had when I escaped under fire as the city fell.

But I have other stories I want to tell. I’m currently hawking my novel Secretocracy based on my time on the National Intelligence Staff and my discovery of an illegal project undertaken by the administration then in power. This time I hope to find a literary agent to help me sell the book in hopes that I can land a deal with a major publisher who will take on the lion’s share of the promotion.

Beyond that, I’m currently working on two novels. One is about a couple in their eighties who are having an affair. The other is about a navy corpsman who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury.

As is so typical of me, it feels like these two projects are going to meld into a single book. I won’t know until I have time to write. That means uninterrupted stretches of time, four or five hours long, when I can go into a semi-meditative state and let the words tumble out onto the screen.

What works best for me is to alternate writing with weight lifting, piano playing, and chores around the house, so that my subconscious is untethered and flies free. That means free time. Right now I have none.

Sleep Anytime, Anywhere (2)

Continuing my paean to myself as the unchallenged champion of sleep:

Yesterday, in explaining how I came to be an expert sleeper, I described my life up through college, which ended with hospitalization for exhaustion as I graduated from the University of California.

In my thirties, I enrolled in graduate school at the George Washington University. I wanted to go on learning. The university admitted me provisionally because my undergraduate grades were poor. When I began taking classes, I found out I wasn’t so dumb after all. I outperformed all my fellow students, pulling down straight A’s all the way through to the dissertation and doctorate.

But I was working full time at the National Security Agency (NSA) and taking care of my family—eventually four children—and I overdid it. Doctors diagnosed me again with exhaustion.

The third case of exhaustion came during the fall of Saigon. I lost count of the days and nights my two communicators and I went without sleep and, toward the end, without food, before we were finally evacuated under fire. This time doctors told me I had amoebic dysentery, ear damage from the shelling, and pneumonia due to inadequate diet, insufficient sleep, and muscle fatigue.

So I learned to cherish sleep. I taught myself early to sleep every chance I got, even for fifteen minutes, even sitting up. As a friend gratuitously pointed out to me yesterday, I regularly fall asleep in the shower. Now that I am retired and a full-time author, I enjoy sleep more than I have at any other time of my life.

I read constantly when I’m not writing—I still love learning. My favourite spot for reading is a lounge chair in my sun room. If sleep overcomes me, I allow myself a fifteen-minute nap. My brain somehow keeps track of the time and wakens me when my time is up.

I sleep every afternoon for an hour, and I usually get close to eight hours sleep of every night. I luxuriate in a life that allows me to sleep as much as I want, whenever I want.

I don’t know anyone who enjoys sleep as much as I do. I don’t know anyone who is as good at it as I am. I may not be the master of my soul—Post-Traumatic Stress Injury from my time in combat in Vietnam prevents that—but I am the master of sleep. No one can outsleep me.