Declining Years

I’m an old man. No point in denying it. It’s here.

And I’m keenly aware of all the debilities. I’m no longer surefooted. My hearing, damaged in combat, is deteriorating. My eyesight is weakening. I’m growing feeble—in weightlifting, I can’t manage the poundage I used to be able to. I lack energy and sleep long hours. And my memory is failing—I have trouble remembering names, I have to write down things I want to buy in the grocery store, and while composing text, I have to use the thesaurus to nail down the word I’m looking for. In short, my body, including my brain, are slowing down.

Thus the curses of aging.

But in the midst of all the downsides, I find that my ability to think is better than it has ever been. I am better able to penetrate elusive concepts. I can focus on the immaterial better than ever. I can take on universal constructs with new clarity. That means that my writing is actually improving. My ability to express myself in words has never been better.

I keep hearing that the aged have the gift of wisdom. Does that include me? Maybe. I see and understand and appreciate at levels far beyond anything possible to me as a younger man. Maybe in my maturity I am more complete.

To the degree that that is true, my fulfillment as a man is only now being reached. How outlandish to learn that actualization arrives only when the body is failing.


As a fulltime writer, I do readings and presentations as often as I can. When I talk publicly about my experiences as a civilian signals intelligence expert, a civilian acting under cover as military, alerting troops on the battlefield to what the enemy is doing, I open to public observation the depths of my soul. I do it willingly, even enthusiastically, because I want people to know what happens in combat.

I do four presentations, all with slides. The most popular, done more than seventy times before I stopped counting, is on the fall of Saigon which I endured, escaping under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city. Next is “The Battle of Dak To: The Cassandra Effect” on the 1967 battle in the Vietnamese western highlands—I was in the middle of it. Then comes “Post-Traumatic Stress Injury—a Warrior’s Malady.” I suffer from the disorder and want people to understand what a combat veteran is subject to. And the last is “The Forgotten Discipline: Fiction Craftsmanship,” intended as a workshop for fiction authors.

I remind the reader that I am an introvert, uncomfortable with interaction. But stronger than my shyness is my desire for my fellow Americans to understand the barbarism of combat—what our servicemen go through to protect our country. We all owe a great debt of gratitude to those who have defended us on the battlefield.

A lesser issue is that I want to sell my six published books. At each presentation, my books are on display. I happily autograph copies for buyers.

So I am always more than open to invitations to do my presentations. Let me know if you’re interested:

When Intelligence Contradicts Policy (3)

In Saigon in April 1975, because I knew—and reported repeatedly—that the North Vietnamese were about to attack the city, I disobeyed Ambassador Graham Martin’s orders not to evacuate my 43 guys and their families and did everything I could to get them safely out of the country before the attack began. To keep the ambassador from discovering what I was up to, I lied and cheated and stole. I sent my people out on phony business travel, fake vacations, and trumped-up home leave. By April 27, only three of the original 43 were left—a communicator who keep me in touch with NSA, a technician who keep the communications equipment working, and me. On April 29, I got my last two guys on a helicopter flight to the 7th Fleet cruising out in the South China Sea in the middle of the afternoon. I went out that night under fire. By then, Saigon was already in the hands of the North Vietnamese.

The ultimate defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam and particularly the fall of Saigon are lasting shames. It was the first war the U.S. ever lost, and our abandonment of Saigon to the North Vietnamese remains a disgraceful blemish, in part because we left behind so many South Vietnamese compatriots to die at the hands of the conquering North Vietnamese.

So I know up close and personal what it means when intelligence contradicts policy. It nearly cost me my life in 1975.

When Intelligence Contradicts Policy (2)

In 1968, I warned repeatedly that the North Vietnamese were preparing for a nation-wide offensive—later called the Tết Offensive—but U.S. policy makers assured the American public that we were winning the war and had nothing to worry about. When the North Vietnamese struck at the end of January 1968, U.S. forces were not prepared. They responded somewhat belatedly and eventually defeated the attackers. Friendly casualties, however, were high.

Then, in 1973, the U.S. and North Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords, a peace treaty. Official U.S. policy was that the war was over. That ignored the fact that the North Vietnamese were still assaulting and conquering territory until, by April 1975, they surrounded Saigon. I knew from signals intelligence that they were preparing to attack the city.

In April 1975, my employer the National Security Agency (NSA), at my behest, issued a series of reports warning that the North Vietnamese blitz against Saigon was imminent. But the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, assured the White House and the State Department that the enemy had no intention of striking Saigon—they wanted to form a coalition government with all patriotic forces and rule jointly. That fit U.S. policy that the war was over.

I pleaded with Martin to evacuate vulnerable civilians and at-risk Vietnamese nationals as soon as possible. He didn’t listen. With the blessing of the State Department and the White House, he dismissed my warmings. And he forbade me from evacuating the people working for me and their families.

More next time.

When Intelligence Contradicts Policy

We in the intelligence business know that we are required to report the truth and nothing but the truth. We are bound to stick to the facts. Our feelings and opinion are of no importance. Back in my day, we even had a standard way of expressing the likelihood that what we were reporting was accurate—A% meant unquestionably true; B% meant probably true; C% meant possible true; D% meant reliability unknown.

Government officials were in a different category. Their job was to make things happen. They often expressed themselves in terms of what was desirable and what they were doing to bring about a happy future. And they created policy: a statement of condition or a description of the current situation or the situation they were trying to create.

Rarely, intelligence contradicts policy statements. If policy makers are describing the current status in insupportably optimistic terms or portraying as real conditions that do not yet exist, intelligence might not support them. But while policy is public and unclassified, intelligence is usually secret. Hence the public is unaware of the conflict.

During the Vietnam war, differing depictions of the truth from intelligence experts and from policy makers occurred so often that I was uncomfortable. The two worst times were before and during the 1968 Tết Offensive and the 1975 fall of Saigon. I was in Vietnam during both events.

More next time.

Ideal Climate

I have written in this blog before that during the thirteen years between 1962 and 1975 during which I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the U.S., I acclimatized to the tropical climate of Southeast Asia and never readjusted after my return to the U.S. That meant that I always found the temperatures in the U.S. too cool. Winters were the worst when I bundled up against the cold. But summers were rarely warm enough. I did the best I could.

Starting several days ago, temperatures here in Columbia, Maryland have been in and out of the nineties. I feel like I’m back home again. I’m most comfortable when I’m sitting on my deck at the back of my house facing the pond, shirtless, reveling in the warmth. This is my time. I’m at home.

Most people I know find my taste in temperature uncomfortable. I keep my thermostat that controls the air conditioning in my house set to 82 degrees. Many find that too warm. I find it a little too cool.

That’s partly because my office, in the lowest level of my split-level house, is cooler than the upper floors. It often gets down to 70 degrees. I adjust by wearing sweat clothes that cover my body. Then, when I go back upstairs, and especially when I go out on my deck, I strip down to as little as possible—just enough clothing to be judged as minimally decent. I could probably go nude, but I’m leery about being caught.

I’ll probably never reacclimatize to the U.S. I’ll always have to compensate. No problem. I cherish the time I spent in the tropics. Getting used to the U.S. is small potatoes.

Man of the Year

Delivered to my door yesterday was yet another plaque declaring me a winner. This one is from Top 100 Registry. It reads, “2022 Man of the Year. Presented to Tom Glenn in recognition of your outstanding efforts and achievements in the field of writing.”

I have hung this latest award with all the others on the wall of my dining room. The plaques collection now reaches from the ceiling to the floor.

I am both proud and humbled.

The Downside of Combat Experience

Yesterday, I wrote about the value of having served in combat to defend the nation. But as a reader pointed out, it’s not all benefits; there are some wounds, too. To the soul.

Among the presentations I do is one called “Post-Traumatic Stress Injury: A Warrior’s Malady.” It tells of the wounds to the soul I will always suffer from as a result of having served in combat. I don’t call it a disorder because it’s not a case of an internal malfunctioning—it’s an external wound inflicted by experiences too ghastly to talk about. It’s what happens to the psyche when the man fighting by your side is killed horribly. Its symptoms are panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, and irrational rages.

My case of PTSI reached the unbearable level after I escaped under fire when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975. But because I had top secret codeword security clearances, I could not seek relief through psychotherapy. I had to cope on my own. I learned that the only way I could manage my excruciating memories was to bring them into my conscious mind and train myself not to become hysterical. Writing down what happened was the most effective way of forcing myself to face the memories head-on. It helped that I was a born writer, dedicated to expressing myself through words.

Another help was the pride I spoke of yesterday, knowing that I had been willing to give up my life for my country and to save the life of the man fighting by my side. Ultimately, the sacrifice and my continuing struggle with PTSI are tolerable because I know that I served my country with honor. Nothing in my life has compared with that knowledge.

But arguably the most effective balm for PTSI is helping others. I found that when I was devoting myself to people who needed me, the agonizing memories faded into the background. So at the height of the AIDS epidemic, I volunteered to work with men dying of the disease. Five years later, after helping seven men die with peace and dignity, we found ways to treat the disease so that it was no longer fatal. I went on to volunteer work at a hospice. I kept at it until I was too old to lift my patients and had to step aside.

So, yes, the aftereffects of combat can be terrifying. But I have no regrets. I did what needed to be done for my country. I live with the damage to my soul. And if I were able and the need arose, I’d do it all again.

“I Never Served”

I’ve mentioned several times in this blog my sense of being in a rapidly diminishing population of those who have served in combat in the defense of our country. Combat veterans are now a tiny fraction of a percent of the population. Nearly every man I meet these days reacts to my history of time in combat by saying, “I never served.”

My sense, as recently expressed in my blog post about restoring the draft, is that service in the military makes us better men. It certainly made me a better man. My tendency is to feel sorry for men who never served. They were deprived of the advantages I have as a result of my time in the military and especially deriving from my time in combat. They will never know the honor of having defended their homeland. And they will never experience the bond between men who fight side for side for their country, the strongest bond I have ever felt.

So for those of you who have never served, forgive me if I pity you. You have missed one of the great experiences of life.