Maryland Public Television (MPT) Travelling Exhibit

Yesterday, I went to the Howard County Central Library in Columbia to see again the MPT travelling exhibit celebrating Vietnam veterans from Maryland. The display consists of sixteen eight-foot banners, one for each veteran featured in MPT’s three-part documentary, “Maryland Vietnam War Stories” aired in June 2016. I was honored to be one of the sixteen.

Three aspects of the exhibit got my attention during this viewing, the first time I’ve seen the exhibit since last year.

One was that the banner on me depicts me as an army officer. As I explained in an earlier blog, when MPT interviewed me in 2014, my connection with the National Security Agency (NSA) during my years in Vietnam was still classified. Since I didn’t say who I worked for in Vietnam, MPT deduced from the photos they had of me in an army uniform (my cover was the uniform, army or Marine, of the combat unit I was supporting) that I was an army officer. If the observer looks closely at one of the pictures, he will see that my name tags read “GLENN” and “CIVILIAN” and that the collars of my fatigue shirt, where an officer’s rank would normally appear, sport the number “13”—I was a GS-13 at the time. The uniform, and others like it, was the result of a prank the men of one unit played on me.

Second was that several of the other men featured in banners were assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in 1967. They probably took part in the battle of Dak To. I was providing covert signals intelligence support to the 173rd during that battle, so we may have run into each other back then.

Third was the seventeenth banner. I came upon it after looking at the other sixteen. It’s an explanation that the other banners each represent one of the veterans MPT was honoring. Emblazoned in large letters toward the bottom are the words, “Thank you and welcome home.” As I explained in an earlier blog, those words make me cry. I cried again yesterday when I saw them.

Articles and Memories

In the last few days, two projects have consumed my time and attention. One was writing in this blog about abandonment and finding peace. The other was composing two pieces for submission to the New York Times and Vietnam magazine. Both endeavors forced me to remember and contemplate.

In the midst of my work, an email from a man who worked with me many years ago asked about the suicide of one of the men who was with me in Saigon. There were actually two men in Saigon at the end who later killed themselves.

One was a brilliant intelligence analyst. He had the rare gift of being able to look at the data and forecast what would happen next. He foretold the fall of Saigon almost a month before it occurred. It was he who asked me with tears in his eyes, “Did it have to end like this?” I attributed his words to Sparky in my retelling of the incident in Last of the Annamese.

The other was an equally talented linguist who worked in Vietnamese and French. All of us enjoyed his cynical humor and his imaginative and excellent writing. As the end of the war and defeat loomed, he became silent, even morose.

The deaths of both men, some time after the fall of Saigon, crushed me. They had contributed so much to our joint effort and asked nothing in return. Both were more quick-witted than me, and I suspect both qualified as geniuses. I’ve wondered vainly if their native intelligence was their undoing. Maybe if I’d understood at the depth they did, I might have been suicidal, too.

Oddly, I never was. The lowest point in my life came in the spring and summer of 1975 after I returned to the world (the U.S.) following the fall of Saigon. I was physically ill, suffering from the worst of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, left to manage on my own by my wife and my employer—as described in the blog posts over the past several days. I was grieving over the loss of Vietnam and so many good people I knew there. I was too sick in mind and body to see any hope in the future.

Maybe if I’d had the brilliant intellect and profound insight of the two men described above I’d have considered ending my life. All I know for sure is that my ultimate reaction was to gird my loins and fight back. I had writing and the support of other men who’d been in Vietnam, and I exploited those resources. I knew I’d done my best, given my all, during the collapse in Vietnam. I’d helped several Vietnamese families to escape. I’d saved the lives of the men who worked for me and their families in defiance of the ambassador. My honor was intact. Most of all, I knew I had it in me to recover.

The National Security Agency (NSA), my employer, years later, recognized my work during the fall of Saigon and awarded me the Civilian Meritorious Medal. I was right to hang in there. These days, as I said yesterday, people respect us Vietnam veterans. And we hear those cherished words, “Thank you. And welcome home.”

Abandonment (continued from yesterday)

I escaped under fire during the fall of Saigon on 29 April 1975. When I finally returned to NSA in late May 1975, I found that the war in Vietnam was seen as shameful, not to be discussed.

Over my earlier years, when I trundled regularly between Vietnam and the world (the U.S.), I and the returning troops were regularly greeted by mobs who called us butchers and baby killers and spat on us. Now, after I returned from the fall of Saigon, I felt that the whole of the U.S. was spitting on me.

Three things got me through. One was the bond I had with the men who had worked with me in Vietnam. We stuck together and helped one another. The second was my determination not to give in to adversity. The third was writing. I wrote about what happened.

For more than thirty years, I couldn’t get my stories and novels about Vietnam published. Then American attitudes changed. Today four of my novels and seventeen of my short stories are in print. The pinnacle so far is Last of the Annamese, published last March by the Naval Institute Press, which tells the story of the fall of Saigon. Although it’s fiction, it’s historically accurate and complete. What helped greatly was that in 2016 the declassification of my work in Vietnam was completed.

Annamese helped in another way. It allowed me to confront my memories of abandonment and survival. I found an imperfect peace.

That peace is rooted in self-reliance. I learned that even if the whole world turned against me, abandoned me, and left me to survive on my own, I could depend on myself. I discovered in myself a resilience I didn’t know I had.

So, yes, I and others like me were abandoned. But we were a determined bunch, not cowed by hostile saliva. We worked hard and clung to each other. We watched as other warriors from other wars came home to thanks and honor withheld from us. We gritted our teeth and hung on.

When Americans changed the way they saw the war in Vietnam, they looked at us with new eyes. The young folks wanted to know what really happened. In the last three years, I’ve been to gatherings where people actually honored me and others who survived Vietnam. We are again upright citizens. We stand with other veterans who served their country.

Now at last, Americans are thanking us. Despite our resilience, our determination, our toughness, we Vietnam vets are more moved than we will admit. “Thank you. And welcome home.” Those words make me cry.

Abandonment

I’ve talked at some length in various places in this blog about my feelings before, during, and after the fall of Saigon. What I haven’t wanted to talk about until now is my sense of abandonment.

As the North Vietnamese encroached on Saigon and I struggled to hold together what was left of my mission and my organization, I was doing it alone. I managed to get forty-one of my subordinates and their families out of the country, even though the ambassador had forbidden an evacuation. The embassy and CIA not only didn’t help me; they threw roadblocks in my path. I lied and cheated and stole to save the lives of my guys and their wives and children. I succeeded. The only help I received was from the two communicators, Bob and Gary, who volunteered to stay with me through the fall of Saigon. The three of us propped each other up through the days when we had nothing to eat and no time to sleep.

After I got Bob and Gary out, I escaped on a helicopter under fire. I flew to a ship of the U.S. 7th Fleet which eventually set sail for the Philippines. Though I didn’t know it until I got back to Maryland in mid-May, I was suffering from exhaustion, amoebic dysentery, and pneumonia brought on by muscle fatigue, inadequate diet, and sleep deprivation.

From Subic Bay I caught a flight to Honolulu. The senior National Security Agency (NSA) official in the Pacific region met my plane. I was a wreck—I’d lost weight and was still wearing the clothes I’d escaped in. I was unshaven, in desperate need of a haircut, and physically ill. Instead of asking how I was or suggesting I look for a doctor, he said, “You can’t be seen around here looking like that.” He turned me over to one of his subordinates who saw to it I looked respectable for my briefing at CINCPAC (Commander-in-Chief, Pacific).

I can’t tell you the name of the man who met my plane. It’s still classified.

Things went from bad to worse. I passed out when I sat down after coughing through my briefing at CINCPAC. I knew I was ill, but instead of going to a doctor, I booked a flight to Maryland. I can’t tell you how much I yearned just to go home.

When I got to Maryland I telephoned my wife. She and our children had flown out of Saigon twenty days before the city fell. At her insistence, they went on a grand tour through Asia and Europe, arriving back in the states about the same time I did. She knew that Saigon had fallen, but she didn’t know if I had gotten out alive, nor did she make any attempt to find out. When I got through by phone to her at her father’s house in Massachusetts and begged her to come to Maryland—I told her I was very sick and needed her—she turned me down. She returned in July after I’d gotten back our house which we’d leased to another family for the length of our tour in Vietnam.

It was the beginning of the end of the marriage.

More tomorrow.

My Brothers

For the past couple of days, I’ve been working on articles for the New York Times and Vietnam magazine. I’ve dredged up memories of my time in Vietnam, and, in the process, recalled the many men I served with in Vietnam.

I call them men. The soldiers and Marines were so young that, in my memory, they seem more like children. Yet they died on the battlefield. Does their death in combat qualify them as full-fledged men?

My kinship for veterans seems to grow stronger each year. Most vets I meet are so different from me that we have trouble finding things to talk about.

I’m a retired spy, a writer with a PhD. I have been comfortable speaking seven languages other than English. I have a degree in music and play Bach on the piano.

The vets I meet at the American Legion and veteran events are every-day guys, many of them blue-collar, down-to-earth, unassuming. They don’t have much money and don’t need much for the lives they lead.

We couldn’t be more dissimilar. And yet the bond I feel for them and from them is deeper and stronger than our differences. They know what it is to serve selflessly. These men have a quiet nobility that outshines any other qualities they may have.

These men are my brothers, and I will always honor them.

Fiction Craftsmanship

The Maryland Writers Association has invited me to do my presentation on fiction craftsmanship next Saturday at 1:00 p.m. at the Finksburg Library (2265 Old Westminster Pike, Finksburg, MD 21048). I’ve been preparing the presentation, and that got me to thinking about the subject.

I make a clear and precise distinction between creativity and craftsmanship (sometimes called technique). Both are required for successful and publishable fiction. Creativity can’t be learned; it’s inborn. But craftsmanship can. Even so, craftsmanship takes a lifetime of practice and learning, and it never ends—I’ll still be discovering new aspects of craftsmanship on my deathbed. And in my experience, it’s what so many young writers lack, and they don’t know they lack it.

The odd thing about craftsmanship is that it’s all but ignored in texts about writing. Early in my career, I took more than twenty classes in creative writing. Craftsmanship was only mentioned in passing. But every master writer has learned the craft to the point that it’s become second nature, always present, almost unconscious.

For me, the master craftsman in fiction is Hemingway. I profoundly disagree with his outlook on life, but nobody wrote better than he did. I still reread him from time to time just to study his technique.

So how do you learn craftsmanship? By reading, reading, and more reading. That means studying the way a fine fiction writer puts together her sentences and paragraphs and chapters; examining why sometimes a paragraph consisting of a single word can be a miracle; understanding the flow, word choices, sentence length that work. Then taking that learning and putting it into practice. That means writing, writing, and more writing.

It also means revising. I spend something like 10 percent of my writing time in drafting new text and 90 percent of it in revising. It means reading aloud what you’ve written and listening for the way the words, sentences, and paragraphs come together.

I know perhaps a hundred writers, most of them successful to one degree or another. Of those, perhaps three have what I call “the gift.” By that I mean the inborn genius for knowing how to put words together to create beauty. Two of those three are as yet unpublished. It’s because they haven’t mastered the craft. They haven’t inculcated in themselves the mechanics of fiction writing.

Until they do, their work won’t see the light of day in print.

Quonset Hut Redemption

Another one of my less grisly memories from the Vietnam war came from an assignment when I was working with a squad of military signals intelligence specialists in support of an army combat unit. As usual, I did everything I could to get the guys to accept me as one of them. This group, used to working in combat situations, was more resistant than most to accepting a civilian in their midst.

Working in Quonset huts hastily assembled to hide what we were doing, we were intercepting the communications of the North Vietnamese unit preparing to attack the Americans. Once I had broken the combat cipher used by the enemy, we perfected a system of operation whereby I would decrypt an intercepted North Vietnamese message while the intercept operator, listening to the enemy transmission, was still writing down the cipher text. As soon as the transmission was complete, I’d translate the message. Next came writing a report based on the message text—we had to do that because the North Vietnamese used cover terms in their text, and the originator and recipient had cover names. A direct translation would be meaningless to the supported unit.

One afternoon we intercepted a message about preparations for an attack on the U.S. unit we were supporting. It would begin, the intercepted message said, with an artillery barrage. The message gave time the barrage was to commence, only a few minutes from the time we began intercepting the message. Immediately after intercept, decoding, and translation, I hurriedly typed the report onto a paper tape that would be used to transmit our warning to the combat unit.

While I was typing, the artillery barrage began. All my military partners rushed to their battle stations. I was a civilian. I had no battle station. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. So I continued to poke away, grabbed the resulting tape, and transmitted it while the shells rained down on us. The GI assigned to guard the Quonset I was in watched in amazement.

The soldiers I was working with were enormously impressed. I didn’t tell them that I went on working on the report because I didn’t know what else to do. After that I was one of them, and our work together was among the most successful and effective of all I did during those years.