Veterans Day

Today is Veterans Day, when we celebrate those who have served in the military in defense of our country. As readers of this blog are aware, I support veterans and do all I can to help them.

Howard County, Maryland, where I live, is home to more than 20,000 veterans. As a veteran myself, I feel very much at home here.

Yesterday, Sunday, 10 November, I marched in a Veterans Day parade in Columbia, Maryland and then was in the audience for a tribute to veterans on the shores of Lake Kittamaqundi. The ceremony repeatedly brought tears to my eyes as speakers recounted the sacrifices veterans make for their country, including the last full measure of devotion, and musicians and singers sang patriotic songs. Last night, I attended a gala to celebrate veterans, especially Marines—10 November is the Marine Corps birthday.

Every month I attend the county Veterans Commission meeting where the progress of programs for veterans is reviewed and new initiatives are considered. The county goes out of its way to create respect for veterans and to honor them. And every month I meet with fellow veterans at our American Legion meeting. I am honored to be included. I would be a proud member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars except that I wasn’t officially in uniform during my many times in combat. I was under cover as a Marine or soldier, but I was still a civilian.

We veterans are becoming fewer. In 2016, 7 percent of U.S. adults were veterans, down from 18 percent in 1980, according to the Census Bureau. When the draft ended in 1973, people stopped joining the military voluntarily.

I think the dwindling number of veterans is America’s loss. I would favor reinstating the draft because military service is a superb learning experience for young men and women. I wouldn’t be the man I am today without my time in the army. I learned, among other things, what I’m capable of.

So let us celebrate veterans today. Go out of your way today to find a veteran and say to him the words I so yearned to hear after Vietnam: “Thank you for your service. And welcome home.”

Autumn Trees

The trees on the street where I live and a few around the pond in back of my house are at their autumn peak, their leaves brilliant yellow, red, and orange. I don’t recall a year in which they were this bright and colorful.

Directly behind my deck is a tree about half the height of the house. For several days it has shown itself in bright yellow-orange. It catches the morning light from the east (to the right of the deck) and the afternoon sun from the west. Despite the cold (it’s been freezing at night), I bundle up and sit on the deck and take in the glory.

For all that, most of the trees around the pond are still green. Maybe when they turn, they will be equally amazing.

Maybe the trees have always been this bright. In earlier years, I was so focused on my work that I barely noticed. I commonly worked twelve-hour days and weekends. I worked for the National Security Agency (NSA) and was intent on watching the communications of nations unfriendly or even hostile to the U.S. I didn’t have time to take in the beauty of nature all around me.

That’s all changed now. I’m a full-time writer, able to alter my schedule and allow myself time to bask in nature’s beauty. I’ve missed a lot. It’s time to drink my fill of the glory all around me. And the autumn trees are a glory in and of themselves.

Combat

I’ve been preparing a presentation on Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). That has led me to remember afresh how hideous combat is and how little Americans appreciate the long-term effects it has on the psyche. I recently came across a quote I remember from long ago from James Jones, the war novelist who died in 1977:

“I don’t think that combat has ever been written about truthfully; it has always been described in terms of bravery and cowardice. I won’t even accept these words as terms of human reference any more. And anyway, hell, they don’t even apply to what, in actual fact, modern warfare has become.”

It comforted me to see that another combat veteran, Jones, saw what I saw—that combat is rarely portrayed as the carnage it is.

The gruesome savagery of combat is why we have soldiers and Marines who suffer from PTSI. Combat inflicts a wound to the soul. Some fare better than others, but no one who has participated in it is unaffected.

We Americans don’t understand how gruesome combat is. A tiny fraction of one percent of currently living Americans have ever experienced it. On the battlefield, men are ripped to pieces, burned alive, shattered. Heads are torn off, innards splattered, limbs scattered.

Citizens of most other countries have clear memories of living through wars, but we haven’t had a war on our own territory since the civil war. One of my missions these days is to portray in my writing combat in all its ugliness so that Americans will understand what they are asking their young men and women to go through in time of war. I want us to think carefully the costs of war before we commit to it.

Suicide Among Veterans and Active Duty Military

I’m deeply disturbed by statistics that show high suicide rates among veterans and active duty military. Twenty veterans a day die by suicide. Wikipedia offers the following chart:

Annual number of suicides per 100,000 population. 2000-2010.
Never served
in military
Veterans and
active service
Women 5.2 28.7
Men 20.9 32.1

Why do more people who have seen military service die by their own hands? The sources don’t offer reasons, but I think I know.

Men and women who have put their lives on the line for their country know what it means to face death. Those who were in combat witnessed death up close in its ghastliest form. Those memories never fade. And as one ages, the memories we’ve been able to consign to our subconscious come back to haunt us as flashbacks, panic attacks, and nightmares.

I suffer from those memories from my repeated combat experiences. I know what it’s like to be at the point of saying I can’t stand any more. I’ve never been suicidal, but I tried to drown memories in alcohol. It doesn’t work. All one can do is cope, come to terms with the past, learn to live with the memories.

What’s helped me and what I use with other veterans is to arouse pride. We can all be proud of our service to our country, especially if we lived through combat. We offered the last full measure of devotion.

And if called upon, we’d do it again. Greater love hath no man.

Vietnam and My Children (3)

I was committed to doing all I could to win the war, but my children suffered because of my commitment. During my Vietnam years (and sometimes after 1975 as well, though all that is still classified), I was away from my children more than I was with them. They all accepted that and have never complained.

But I felt the loss even if they didn’t mention it. I missed so many birthdays and holidays, like Christmas, New Years, and Thanksgiving. I was absent from their Halloween fun. I wasn’t there to take them to the beach during the summer and skating during the winter. The leaves grew brilliant in the fall and new in the spring without me there to point them out.

When I was home, I overdid taking care of them. I bathed them, fed them, put them to bed, played with them until they were laughed out. I woke them in the morning, got them breakfast, helped them dress, got them off to school.

It wasn’t enough. Nothing could make up for my long absences and the time they had to do without a father. It is one of the regrets of my life.

Knowing all that, would I do it all again? Yes. I still believe, even today, that my first duty is to my country. My family, like those of so many of soldiers and spies, were called upon to sacrifice. They did it for the good of the country. I love them all the more for that. And I pray that they forgive me.

Vietnam and My Children (2)

My oldest daughter, Susan, also remembers a little of her toddler years in Saigon in 1963 and 1964. We had three servants, a cook, a house-cleaner, and a nanny for Susan. From them, Susan learned Vietnamese and French, but she knew very well that English was the language of her mother and father. My wife and I both spoke Vietnamese and French, but she wouldn’t answer us unless we spoke English to her.

Susan enjoyed her second stint in Vietnam as a teenager in 1974 and 1975. Transportation around Saigon was quick and cheap, and she and her friends came and went alone or in groups making the most of their freedom. She and the other children (except for my son, Paul, who was only three when we arrived) attended the excellent American school and had plenty of time for play.

But the younger children, more than Susan, were aware of the underside of life in Saigon. They disliked the stink of the city which I had grown so used to that I no longer noticed it. The growing poverty in the streets distressed them as did the ever-present beggars, many dismembered by the war. By the time the North Vietnamese were at the ramparts and the signs of war were becoming a daily occurrence, they were anxious to leave.

I kept returning to Vietnam because I was needed. I knew North Vietnamese communications well. I’d been intercepting them and exploiting them since 1960. I spoke Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam. And I was willing to go into combat with the troops, army and Marines, and share their life on the battlefield. That made me all but unique. If I didn’t do the job, nobody would. It was all voluntary—no one forced me to go. I felt it was my patriotic duty. The real losers were my children.

More next time.

Vietnam and My Children

Between 1962 and 1975, I was in Vietnam at least four months every year. I had two PCS (permanent change of station, meaning at least two years) tours there and so many shorter trips (called TDYs, temporary duty, usually four to six months long) that I lost count. That meant that I was absent from my four children for long periods. In some respects, it was for them like growing up without a father.

But both of my PCS tours in Vietnam were accompanied—I had my family with me. They lived in Saigon while I was in the field with the troops. On the first, from 1963 to 1965, I only had one child, my oldest daughter, Susan. But she and her mother were forced to return to the states in 1964 when the war heated up and U.S. troops were committed in large numbers. On the second PCS, beginning in 1974, all four of my kids and their mother were with me until twenty days before Saigon fell when I evacuated them surreptitiously (the ambassador had forbidden evacuations, sure that the North Vietnamese would not attack Saigon) by sending them to Bangkok for a “vacation.”

I was allowed to have my family with me starting in 1974 because the fiction deliberately perpetrated by Henry Kissinger was that the war was over. South Vietnam was now a “gentleman’s tour,” gracious, even luxurious, and devoid of danger. I knew better, but I reasoned that Saigon was safe enough.

It wasn’t. Terrorist incidents through the city became rife. As the North Vietnamese came closer, we could hear shelling in the distance. I got my family out as soon as I could.

Hence, all four of my children remember Vietnam. Susan, who was a teenager during my second PCS has the best memories. She and her American friends had parties and gatherings and spent endless hours at the embassy pool. She reminded me recently that she and her girlfriends spotted Frank Snepp (whom I’ve written of in recent posts) there. He was a strikingly handsome man, and the teenage girls idolized him. I knew nothing of that at the time, or I would have been alarmed. Frank was well known for his womanizing.

More next time.