I’m asked periodically what it was like when I escaped under fire during the fall of Saigon. I flew by helicopter from the city to a ship of the 7th Fleet, cruising in the South China Sea. I described my sensations during the flight in Last of the Annamese. The protagonist, Chuck Griffin, returned to Vietnam after the cease-fire in 1973 to try to win the war so that the death of his son, Ben, in Vietnam will not have been in vain. When Chuck escapes as Saigon is falling, he is suffering, as I was at the time, from amoebic dysentery and pneumonia brought on by lack of sleep, inadequate diet, and muscle fatigue. The description in Annamese reads:
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.
End of quote. The principal difference between my experience and that of Chuck in the novel is that I was on a little Huey, not a big Marine CH-53 helicopter. My bird was fired upon. We took so much lead in the fuselage that I thought we were going down, but we made it. We flew directly, in the dark and rain, to the Oklahoma City, the flag ship of the 7th Fleet. Once there, the pilot circled and circled over the ship before finally, very slowly, descending and landing on the flood-lit helipad. He told me later that he, a civilian pilot for Air America, had never before landed on a ship.
Howard County, Maryland, where I live, has more than 20,000 veterans, about 7 percent of the population. The county has decided to erect a monument to its veterans. It will be near the fountain at Lake Kittamaqundi in downtown Columbia, next to Whole Foods Market. I attended a public dedication of the site on June 3. A bevy of VIPs were present:
Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman
Jon Weinstein, Chairperson, Howard County Council (U.S. Army Veteran)
Greg Fitchitt, Executive Vice President, Howard Hughes Corporation
Milton Matthews, President & CEO, Columbia Association
Robert Gillette, President, Howard County Veterans Foundation
Major General Howard Mooney, Jr. (Retired), Co-Chair, Howard County Commission for Veterans and Military Families
Lisa Terry, Manager, Howard County Office of Veterans and Military Families
Jackie Scott, Acting Director, Howard County Department of Community Resources and Services
Also present were many members of my American Legion Post. I was proud to be a part of a ceremony celebrating veterans and their families. After the years of being dishonored because of my Vietnam service, I especially welcome recognition for all my fellow veterans, regardless of service or war.
Yesterday, I gave my presentation “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon” at the U.S. Army Center for Military History at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. The small audience—all but one member was male—was attentive. Though everyone present was in civilian clothes, I suspect that the men were all army officers, as indicated by their bearing, haircut, and dress. None were old enough to be Vietnam veterans, but, as indicated by their questions, all were knowledgeable of Vietnam war history. It was refreshing and even bracing to have such an educated audience.
And yet much that I said surprised them. They didn’t know that the civilian side of the U.S. government (State Department, the president, the CIA) had clung to the belief that the North Vietnamese would not attack Saigon. My struggle to get my people out of the country before the fall despite the ambassador’s refusal to allow evacuation raised eyebrows. And I saw shocked looks when I told of the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers we abandoned and South Vietnamese officers who killed their families and themselves rather than surrender to the communists.
But when I told of my rescue by Al Gray, all faces lit up. They knew who he is.
The experience with these military historians reinforced my satisfaction at having told the story of what happened during the fall of Saigon in Last of the Annamese. I’m making some headway in getting the truth known.
Yesterday, I joined other American Legion members for lunch at Mission BBQ, a restaurant that caters to veterans. The occasion was the sixteenth anniversary of the atrocities of 11 September 2001. My fellow veterans and I were the guests of the restaurant.
The experience was vivid for me for several reasons. First, I was with other Vietnam vets. We share a brotherhood that often remains unspoken. No words are needed.
Second, my memories of the disaster sixteen years ago are still agonizing. May we never forget that monstrous day.
Third, a bagpipe ensemble of fifteen or so people accompanied the presentation of the colors outside the restaurant before the meal. We were called to attention and saluted as the colors arrived and were displayed. The salute was resumed during the “Star Spangled Banner.” I was deeply moved by the shared feelings.
Fourth, I still relish being honored for my service in Vietnam after decades of silence. Gone are the days when I and other Vietnam vets were cursed and spat upon. Now we hear the words that still make me cry: “Thank you. And welcome home.”
Dozens of people visiting the flea market at Maryland Public Television on Saturday stopped by my table and talked to me. Many, when they saw the sales copies of Last of the Annamese, asked the meaning of “Annamese.” I explained that An Nam is the old name for Vietnam. A remarkable number of people talked about their connections with Vietnam. They had served there or had family members who did. One woman told me that the man she loved died there. Another talked about the death of her father in Vietnam.
I’m coming to understand that so many Americans of my generation and the generation after me respond emotionally to the word “Vietnam.” Some opposed the war, but so many more were directly touched by it. I keep running into those people when I do public appearances in support of my writing. More often than not, their stories are sad. It was a war that hurt everybody.
It hurts to hear what they have to say. I see more and more that my job in life is to listen.
I spent the day yesterday in Studio A at Maryland Public Television (MPT) in Owings Mills, Maryland. I was there to participate in MPT’s first-ever flea-market. At a table prominently positioned near the entrance, my books were on display, with Last of the Annamese front and center.
Every MPT staff member I encountered knew me and greeted me by name. I was astonished. I finally asked one young woman how she knew who I was. She told me she had accompanied the MPT exhibit on Marylanders in the Vietnam war as it toured throughout the state. It was created to celebrate MPT’s three-hour documentary first aired in 2016 rebroadcast last night. I was one of the sixteen Maryland Vietnam veterans featured in the film. The young woman recognized me from the eight-foot banner on me and my time in Vietnam—each vet was honored with a banner.
I’ve told the story before here about how MPT misidentified me: “When they first interviewed me in 2014, my connection with the National Security Agency during my years in Vietnam was still classified. So I simply didn’t mention who my parent organization was. MPT found photos of me in various uniforms [I was operating under cover and posed as a soldier or Marine] and finally concluded that I must have been an army officer. They produced eight-foot banners on each of us vets to be displayed in their travelling exhibit. Mine shows two of those shots of me in an army uniform and proclaims that I was an army intelligence officer.
“After the final declassification of my work in Vietnam in 2016, I informed MPT of my true status. It was too late. The documentary was already scheduled for broadcast in June. The traveling exhibit, still touring throughout Maryland, shows me as an army officer.”
Several of the visitors who stopped by the table recognized me. As far as they knew, I was an army officer in Vietnam. I didn’t disabuse them.
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.