Toward the end of Last of the Annamese, as the fall of Saigon gets closer, the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, gives Tuyet (the woman he loves who is in a name-only marriage with his friend, Colonel Thanh) a pistol to defend herself in case the North Vietnamese trap her. Here is the text from the novel:
Chuck holstered his Beretta, thrust the .38 snub nose with a box of fifty rounds into his briefcase, and walked through the fusty heat to JGS—it would be faster than driving through the glutted streets. Still no monsoons. The heat and stench forced him to breathe through his mouth. . . .
[At Thanh’s office,] Chuck walked through the main entrance to the courtyard. Tuyet hastened around the corner of the house. As she came close, he saw the stress lines around her eyes and mouth. He took the .38 snub nose and the ammunition from his briefcase. “I don’t know what will happen at the end, but you must be able to protect yourself and Thu [her six-year old son].”
She eyed the revolver.
“Please,” he said.
Hesitantly, she took the pistol and ammunition and slid them into a pocket in her full skirt.
He sighed. “Thank you. It’s loaded and there’s no safety switch. Be careful.”
“Thanh taught me to fire guns when we lived in Da Nang. I know to be cautious.”
“I’ve got to go.”
She stepped toward him, stopped. “‘No war but this.’ You remember? . . . . As the fighting comes close to Saigon, the birds have gone away.”
Chuck lifted his face to the trees. It was true. No birds. “They were wise.”
End of quote.
As a result of the imbroglio over the medal for the South Vietnamese general, the leadership of NSA became more friendly toward me. Besides, I was doing very well as the leader—not manager—of a large group of employees on an important mission. And the fervor against Vietnam cooled. In time, the agency leadership reviewed what happened during the fall of Saigon and decided that I should be rewarded for getting all the NSA employees and their families safely out of the city before it fell and then escaping under fire myself.
So they awarded me the Civilian Meritorious Medal for my work during the fall of Saigon. I was again an employee in good repute. That medal today is one of my two most valued possessions.
Meanwhile, something like a year after the fall of Saigon, my guys who had worked with me there planned a dinner in Washington, D.C. where they could talk with one another and reminisce. They invited me to join them. At the end of the meal, they presented me with a plaque. It was titled the “Last Man Out Award.” The text inscribed on it expressed their thanks for my courage and leadership that got them all safely out of the country before it fell. That plaque is my other most prized possession.
I have a friend who talks constantly about money. He brags about how much money he and his children have and the high monetary value of his possessions. I smile and say nothing. Money couldn’t buy what I have—my medal and my plaque celebrating what I was able to do as Saigon fell. I’m richer than he is.
Over time, NSA and its leaders softened their disdain for the Vietnam war and their coldness toward me. One incident was crucial.
A South Vietnamese general I worked with in Vietnam—my counterpart—escaped at the end by getting to the U.S. embassy just before Saigon fell. He was evacuated safely while his subordinates remained in place awaiting his orders. They were still waiting for word from him when the North Vietnamese got to them. They were all either killed or captured. Those captured went to “re-education camps,” really concentration camps, where the death rate was very high. That general, in other words, abandoned his troops.
As the fall of Saigon grew nearer, I reported to my boss, General Lew Allen, the Director of NSA, on the emotional breakdown of that general. He had become hysterical, subject to crying jags. I was doing my best to keep the signals intelligence effort among the South Vietnamese going because it revealed what the North Vietnamese were doing. Because of the personal subject matter, my messages to General Allen were eyes-only, not to be shared with other NSA personnel.
Some time after the fall of Saigon, NSA hired that Vietnamese general. Since I held him responsible for the deaths or captivity of 2700 soldiers I’d worked with, I wanted nothing to do with him. NSA decided to present him with a medal. I was invited to the ceremony and refused to go. The NSA deputy director, Ann Caracristi, called me on the carpet. How dare I refuse to attend the ceremony? I told her about my messages to General Allen, who had moved on and was no longer director, about the South Vietnamese general’s despondency and final abandonment of his troops. She told me General Allen had destroyed all his eyes-only messages and had never told her about the South Vietnamese general’s behavior. She didn’t cancel the medal ceremony, but she allowed me to boycott the event.
I can’t tell you the name of that general. It’s still classified.
Once I was back in my own house with my own family, in July 1975, my physical health improved. Since I couldn’t seek therapy for my Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), I treated myself. I knew that I couldn’t bury my grisly memories. If I did, they’d come back to haunt me. I had to face them head on. So I forced myself to bring them into my conscious mind the hideous events I’d witnessed and participated in during all those years I was supporting army and Marine units on the battlefield. I relived the fall of Saigon with its unspeakable tragedies. I made myself remember the grim details about moments I still can’t talk about.
And I employed two coping mechanisms that eventually helped me come to terms with my past.
First, I wrote. I’d been writing stories since I was six years old, so writing down what had happened was natural for me. To describe the macabre episodes, I had to remember the gory details. It worked. I learned to manage my emotions. And all that writing ended up producing seventeen short stories and four novels now in print.
Second, I volunteered to take care of people worse off than I was. At the height of the AIDS crisis, I worked with men dying of the disease. Over a five-year period, I had seven patients. They were all gay; they all died. Then I worked with the homeless and finally spent seven years as a hospice volunteer, ministering to the dying. I learned that when I was focused on people who needed my help, my gruesome memories receded into the background. I learned that compassion heals.
My volunteer work had another benefit I wasn’t expecting. Caring for the dying moved me so deeply that I wrote a novel about a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS. It was published in 2014 as No-Accounts.
When I returned to the real world (the U.S.) after the fall of Saigon in May 1975, I was at an all-time low. I was ill with exhaustion, amoebic dysentery, and pneumonia and suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). My wife and children were in Massachusetts staying with her father. When I finally got to Maryland, I telephoned her, told her I was in bad shape, and desperately needed her. I begged her to come to Maryland and help me. She said no. She wouldn’t return until I got our house back. We had leased it to another family for our three-year tour in Vietnam, and we were back a year early. I finally was able to pay off the people in the house and regain possession of it in July. Only then was my wife willing to come back to Maryland.
So I was left on my own to struggle with my physical and psychological problems. I was able to get medical help, but I couldn’t seek psychological counseling. Back in those days, people lost their security clearances if they went for psychotherapy. I had top secret codeword-plus clearances. And even though my marriage was coming apart, I still had to support my wife and four children. So I gritted my teeth and endured the panic attacks, nightmares, irrational rages, and flashbacks.
I stayed in cheap motels—I had very little money—and as soon as I was physically able, I went back to work at NSA. The agency didn’t give me a warm welcome. The employees saw the war in Vietnam as shameful. They didn’t want to talk about it. I and the forty-three guys who had worked for me in Saigon were shunned as though we were tainted. I was moved from job to job within the agency. I told no one about experiences during the fall of Saigon. They didn’t want to hear about it.
So many readers have asked my why Ambassador Graham Martin didn’t believe the overwhelming evidence from signals intelligence that the North Vietnamese were about to attack Saigon. I can only speculate.
Martin’s son had died in combat in Vietnam. Perhaps he couldn’t bring himself to believe that the North Vietnamese would be victorious. To do so would mean accepting that his son had died in vain.
And Martin’s reporting to Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State, and to President Ford emphasized the positive—how well the South Vietnamese were doing—and downplayed the negative—that the North Vietnamese had already conquered more than half the country and were intent on achieving complete victory. He partly reflected and partly contributed to optimistic tone that the U.S. government was presenting to the public.
I still shake my head in wonder that we refused to face the defeat that was staring us in the face and failed to prepare for it. The consequences for me are life-long. The 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who had worked with NSA during my thirteen years on and off in Vietnam were all killed or captured by the North Vietnamese after we pulled out and abandoned them. I still grieve over their loss. These were men I knew and admired for their bravery and toughness.
Because the ambassador refused to allow me to evacuate my staff, I lied and cheated to get them and their families all safely out of the country, but I was still in Saigon when it fell to the North Vietnamese. My hearing was permanently damaged in the shelling at the end, and I was physically ill from exhaustion and inadequate diet when I finally escaped by helicopter under fire on the night of 29 April 1975—after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city.
So I don’t know why Ambassador Graham Martin failed to heed my warning. I only know the consequences.
I’ll never forget that late April 1975 car trip from the embassy in Saigon—following my failed briefing of the ambassador—back to my office at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of the city. I was driving alone, but in the novel Last of the Annamese, I wrote the description of the trip from the point of view of the protagonist, Chuck, who was chauffeured to and from the meeting:
Chuck ensconced himself in the sedan’s passenger seat to the right of the driver rather than sitting in the back on the return trip to Tan Son Nhat. His hand grasped the Beretta [pistol] hidden inside the briefcase. After less than a mile, the hordes of refugees filled the street and blockaded the sedan. As the crowd surrounded the car, the din grew louder. Faces outside the car windows were savage. Chuck heard the thump of fists beating on the sides and trunk of the car. The driver, terrified, tried to move forward, but now the mob swamped the sedan, screaming. The car was stymied.
Chuck sat straight and with a calmness that surprised him, drew the Beretta into the open. He aimed it through the windshield and drew his lips away from his teeth.
The thugs directly in front of the sedan drew back, startled.
“Drive through,” Chuck growled at the chauffeur. “Now.”
The car crept forward, gaining speed. After twenty feet, it was up to ten miles per hour. Chuck kept the Beretta on display for the rest of the trip.
End of quote. More tomorrow.