Every year between 1962 and 1975, I was in Vietnam at least four months. That meant I was making multiple trips each year between Nam and the world (what we called the U.S.). I usually travelled with the troops. Starting in 1968, when I landed in San Francisco with returning troops, we were often met by crowds who called us “butchers” and “baby killers” and spat on us. The experience sickened my already damaged soul.
I reacted with searing shame. I was proud of my work in Vietnam, as were my compatriot soldiers and Marines. But the behavior of my country’s people shamed me. For years after the fall of Saigon, I never mentioned Vietnam. I sweated through my flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, and irrational rages alone. We didn’t have a name for my condition back then. Now it’s called Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). I didn’t know that other veterans were afflicted with it, too.
As I wrote earlier in this blog, several years ago, I was invited to a gathering that honored Vietnam veterans. The words I had so longed to hear were spoken to me that night, accompanied by smiles and hugs: “Thank you. And welcome home.” I cried.
I’ve come a long way since that night. I’ve learned that I’m part of a large brotherhood of Vietnam vets with PTSI. The world has changed. Now people want to know what happened in Vietnam. I’ve given my presentation on the fall of Saigon more than forty times and I’m scheduled to do it more than a dozen times before the end of the year. Now audience members often say to me, “Thank you. And welcome home.” I still get tears in my eyes when I hear those words.
It’s clear that I’m going to be all right. The PTSI will never go away, but I’ve learned to live with it. And I can be publicly proud of my service to my country.
But what about other vets who died before the American people changed their view? They were never thanked or honored. They died alone in their shame. I grieve for them.
I’m struck by the number of former U.S. soldiers who visit Vietnam and come back impressed with how happy and prosperous the Vietnamese people are under the communist regime. I have no doubt the communist government arranges their itineraries so that they visit locations specifically prepared to display the regime’s supposed success and generosity. Once in a great while, I run into an American visitor to Vietnam with a different story. One such is a man who tries to help orphans in the highlands. He tells of deprivation and an absence of human rights. Especially targeted are Amerasian mixed-race people and the Montagnard tribesmen.
Why don’t Americans visiting Vietnam realize they are being duped? The Socialist Republic of Vietnam (Vietnamese: Cộng hòa xã hội chủ nghĩa Việt Nam), as the country now calls itself, is a police state devoid of basic freedoms that Americans take for granted. Stories regularly appear in the press about the arrest and incarceration of dissidents who criticize the regime for refusing to grant freedom of speech and assembly, for example. I learn by reading Time.Inc,, that according to Amnesty International, over the past two years Vietnam has placed “severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, of association and of peaceful assembly,” while “peaceful criticism of government policies continued to be silenced through judicial and extra-legal means.”
There are “more cases of government thugs beating up dissidents, longer and longer jail sentences, and now, more arrests,” Human Rights Watch’s John Sifton told AFP, calling 2017 a “terrible year” for Vietnam’s human rights record.
The Washington Post reported on Wednesday, 6 September, that “The police in communist-led Vietnam have been cracking down especially hard on free expression over social media for the past few months.”
Why do American vacationers fail to see what’s going on?
As I have reported before in this blog, the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, and I saw things very differently as the fall of Saigon approached in April 1975. I knew from intercepted North Vietnamese communications that the enemy was preparing to attack Saigon. The ambassador insisted that the North Vietnamese wanted to negotiate to form a coalition government rather to complete the conquest of South Vietnam. He’d been persuaded to that view, as he later reported to Congress, by a representative of a communist government allied to North Vietnam, the Hungarian member of the ICCS. As a result, he forbade me to evacuate my subordinates and their families.
I’ve reported earlier that I lied, cheated, and stole to get my people out of the country, using every ruse I could think of. By the time the city fell on 29 April 1975, all the families were gone and only two of my forty-three subordinates remained, the two communicators who had volunteered to stay with me to the end. Both of them were evacuated by helicopter on the afternoon of 29 April. I went out that night, escaping under fire.
I’ve struggled to come to an understanding of why the delusion of a “gentlemen’s tour” persisted despite clear intelligence that belied it. It’s clear that the civilian side of the U.S. government—the ambassador, the president, the State Department, and the CIA—continued to believe, in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence, that the North Vietnamese would refrain from attacking Saigon in favor of forming a coalition government. But the military side of the government—the Department of Defense and Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC)—foresaw the attack on Saigon and prepared for an evacuation.
I’ve concluded that the U.S. government, and particularly the State Department, clung to the fantasy that it had created with the signing of the cease-fire in 1973, that the U.S. had won the war by forcing the North Vietnamese into peace negotiations. The war was over. Hence the “gentleman’s tour.” That deluded way of thinking resulted in many thousands of deaths and very nearly cost me my life.
When I was assigned as the head of the NSA covert operation in South Vietnam in 1974, I knew very well that the war wasn’t over. The notion that the assignment was, as my predecessor called it, a “gentlemen’s tour,” struck me as wrong-headed. I was surprised that he gave so little attention to classified information that made clear North Vietnamese intentions to conquer the south.
But I didn’t realize how serious the situation was. The U.S. had withdrawn all military support and most of its financial support from South Vietnam, while North Vietnamese forces remained in place with the plentiful support of both China and the USSR. Moreover, the war had never ceased. The North Vietnamese continued their probes, both large and small.
I chide myself now for not seeing that South Vietnam was no place for a family in 1974. It quickly became apparent to me, and I began to look for ways to move my family and the families of my subordinates out of the country.
The North Vietnamese conquest of Phuoc Long Province and the seizure of its capital, Phuoc Binh, in January 1975 confirmed my suspicions that the war was entering its final phase. Through signals intelligence, I saw that the enemy was preparing a major offensive designed to take the northern half of the country. That offensive came in March. Not only did the North conquer the highlands and the northern provinces, but it also killed or captured the vast majority of the South Vietnamese military forces ranged against it in those areas.
It was time to get all the families and my subordinates out of Vietnam. But the ambassador forbade me to evacuate my people.
I can’t tell you the name of my predecessor as chief of the NSA covert operation in Saigon—it’s still classified. But I can pass on his advice to me. He told me when I arrived in Saigon in 1974 with my family that an assignment in Vietnam was now “a gentleman’s tour.” The war was over. The job of us NSAers was to advise the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, and to work with the South Vietnamese government to monitor the North Vietnamese.
Assignment to Vietnam no longer meant an unaccompanied tour. We were now encouraged to bring our families. Many of us, including me, did. For three of my children, it was their first time in Vietnam. For my eldest, it was her second time—she’d been with her mother and me from 1963 almost to 1965.
But Saigon, where my family lived, had changed. When I first arrived in 1962, Saigon really was the Paris of the Orient. Half the signs on shops and the street names were French, the French population was still large, and French was as commonly spoken as Vietnamese. The city had a leisurely feel. No one seemed to be in a hurry. The cafés, bistros, and night clubs were full.
By 1974, war had scarred Saigon. The French were gone. Disabled soldiers, dismembered and disfigured, begged on the street corners. Poverty, well hidden in earlier years, was now on full display. Terrorist incidents were on the rise, and the sound of shelling sometimes echoed over the city.
I blogged here some weeks ago about my encounters with corpsmen in Vietnam. I explained 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.”
What prompted my reflections on corpsmen was meeting one some months ago at a gathering celebrating Vietnam veterans. When one of my fellow vets introduced himself as Doc Noah, I knew immediately that he had been a corpsman—all corpsmen are called “Doc.” A few weeks later, he came across my review of J.M. Graham’s Arizona Moon (you can read the review at http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/arizona-moon-a-novel-of-vietnam). Graham was also a corpsman, and Doc Noah remembered him. He asked me if I knew how he could get in touch with Graham. I contacted the publisher and asked that Noah’s email address be sent to Graham, but Noah never heard from him.
Further email exchanges led to Noah recommending the Viti book I blogged about in my last post. Since I felt the urge to write a novel about a corpsman with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), I bought the book. Noah is prominently featured in the story. My comments on the book resulted in Noah putting me in touch with the author, Lucia Viti. She has offered to help me with my research on corpsmen.
I don’t yet know if all this will lead to a new novel. I don’t choose what I write about. The impulse to tell a story takes me over, and I can only find peace by writing down what my imagination dictates. That’s how Last of the Annamese came to be written. It looks like the pattern will play out again.
I’ve written several times in this blog about corpsmen I encountered in Vietnam and the two former corpsmen I met recently. One of the two, Dennis Noah, recommended that I read Lucia Viti’s Dr. Tom’s War: A Daughter’s Journey (Rogue Books, 2011). I’m now in the middle of it. This is a book I want everyone to read. It speaks unflinchingly about the grim and grisly truth of combat.
The book is Ms. Viti’s paean to her father, a navy doctor who cared for wounded Marines in Vietnam. Dr. Tom (Gaetano) Viti was courageous, funny, and creative. He took great risks to his own safety to help the Marines operating out of An Hoa in the central section of Vietnam. He and his corpsmen were greatly admired for their devotion and bravery.
One of the aspects that makes the book so gripping is that it is almost entirely in the words of the Marines who were engaged in combat and the corpsmen who struggled to save the lives of the wounded. These men make no effort to pretty up the brutality of combat. They tell it like it really was.
And that’s one of the major reasons I hope the book will be widely read. As I’ve stressed before, I want people to know how gruesome combat is. I want Americans, as a people, to understand the ghastliness of war before they commit to it.
I’ll have more to say about corpsmen, Ms. Viti’s book, and my own involvement in days to come.