In cleaning out my old files, I came across one I had forgotten, an interview Nancy Yamada did with me several years ago on the TV program called “State Circle” on Maryland Public Television. In some ways, the interview is an embarrassment. I was so emotional as I talked about my time in Vietnam. I pulled no punches in addressing the ghastliness of combat.
In retrospect, I’m glad I did the interview and that I was so open about my feelings. One of my life goals as I age is to get people to understand the grisliness of the battlefield. The interview is a step in that direction.
And I am honored that MPT interviewed me and told my story. For decades I was shamed for my work during the Vietnam war. That exacerbated my Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). Being thanked and praised for my role in that war has gone a long way in helping me heal. I’m grateful.
You can view the interview at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bg1UDKl57PA Let me know your reaction by commenting here.
A year or two ago, I posted here words about a song on a subject close to my heart: Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. Today I’m posting it again, as originally written. I can’t improve on what I wrote some time ago:
A friend sent me the URL for a video from Canada about soldiers in the aftermath of war suffering, and sometimes dying, from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI).
The video calls it “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD). As long-time readers of this blog know, I use the word “injury” instead of “disorder” because the illness is the result of an external wound to the psyche, not the mind simply having gone awry. I suffer from it from my thirteen years involved in Vietnam during the war. I always will.
The importance of the video derives from understanding what happens to the human soul when it is subjected to the unspeakable horrors of combat. One of my life missions is to help Americans understand the ghastliness of combat so that they can better decide about going to war, knowing what it will do to the young men and women on the battlefield.
The video made me cry. I hope it will make you cry, too. Maybe, working together, we can reach out to our young soldiers and Marines and help them survive their soul-destroying memories.
View the video at https://www.youtube.com/embed/Wq0X0bwMprQ?feature=player_embedded
End of quote. If you reacted as I did to the video, please add comments here. The more of us that try to get people to understand this malady, the better.
Revision and polishing take up the majority of my writing time. I often go through as many as ten drafts before I’m satisfied that I can’t improve a story any further. That means that I’m a slow writer. Fortunately, I’m also, these days, a full-time writer. I have the time I need to do the best I’m capable of.
Despite all that, I find that as I read my published work, I occasionally come across passages I’d like to improve on, especially in work done some time ago. But I have yet to revise and republish earlier work. I have too many new stories in my head demanding to be written.
Two more of my books will be published next year. Both are drawn from my own experience—fiction in name only again. They’re called Secretocracy and Coming to Terms. The first is based on happenings long after Vietnam. The second, a collection of short stories, does not mention Vietnam, but my experience during the war looms over the stories told.
And two more novels are in my head hassling me to write them down. One, provisionally named Josh at the Door, tells of a couple in their eighties having a passionate affair. The other, so far unnamed, takes place during the 1967 battle of Dak To in the Vietnam highlands. Both are impatient to find life in print. I won’t find peace until they on paper.
I read that other fiction writers start with an outline which they flesh out and revise before they put words to paper. Not me. My way of finding and creating stories is far too intuitive for a process that orderly. I sometimes think that the way I approach putting pen to paper is bringing order to the chaos my imagination presents me with. Yet everything I write about really did happen.
I don’t understand how it works. I don’t need to. That it works is enough.
The way I write is mysterious. I don’t pretend to understand it. I put myself into a meditative state and let the story come to me, as if someone other than me (a muse, for example) is telling me what to write. That means that the characters (who appear to me as if from the void) sometimes do things I’m not expecting. I never know the end of a story until I write it.
In that meditative state, my unconscious talks to me. It brings into my conscious mind memories I have forgotten or suppressed. I relive the unspeakable experience of combat during which men by my side were killed in ways so grisly that I can’t talk about their deaths, even today. I see and hear people from my past. Events long forgotten reappear.
What inspires a story is a vivid moment that captures my imagination. I envision what must have led up to that moment and what followed it. As I write, the story unfolds before me as if some force outside myself were dictating it to me.
Once I have a completed first draft of a story or novel, I put it aside to cool. My mind needs time away from the text so that I can return to it with fresh eyes. With a short story, the cooling time can be as little as a month. With a novel, it is longer, as much as a year.
Up to that point the writing process has been using the right side of my brain, the creative, intuitive, emotional organ. Then comes revision. That’s the province of the left side of the brain, the rational, intellectual, even mathematical function. Revising consists of cutting unneeded words, finding more succinct ways of expressing an idea, replacing long sentences with short ones. I rearrange paragraphs, reshape chapters, look for natural breaks in the story to see if it needs to be divided into sections.
I write for a variety of reasons. Any one of them would be sufficient to push me toward writing. Their combination makes writing inescapable.
First of all, I write because I have to. I discovered at age six I was born to write stories. Not writing would invite damnation because I would be refusing to accept my mission.
I tried to escape my fate. Early in life, I tried my hand at other callings. I trained to be a dancer. I took a BA in music because I wanted to compose. I studied acting and theater. I learned foreign languages and became a spy. As it turned out, spying pays well, while writing doesn’t. I had a way to support myself and my family while I wrote.
Another reason I write is that I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury as a result of the combat I went through in Vietnam and from other experiences after 1975 that are still classified. The only way to cope with PTSI is to bring into the conscious mind the unbearable memories and force one’s self to react rationally. That means training the emotions not to overreact. I learned early on that writing down what happened was the best way for me to face my memories. Over time, that led to my novels and short stories.
A third reason to write is to tell people the truth about subjects of great importance to me. I wrote Last of the Annamese because I wanted the American public to understand what really happened during the fall of Saigon. I wrote The Trion Syndrome because I wanted people to know what PTSI is. Friendly Casualties tells the dark side of the Vietnam war. And No-Accounts tells the truth about men dying of AIDS at the height of the crisis.
Reviewers note that my books are fiction in name only—everything in the stories I tell really did happen. I don’t know how to create a tale that isn’t true. Fantasy is not my thing.
This is the last of a series of blog posts on how luck shaped my life:
I had a natural talent for leadership, not management. Leadership felt normal to me. Management felt foreign. In other words, I knew instinctively that my job was not to manage—that is, control—my subordinates but to uplift them and give them all the support they needed to do a superior job. They loved me for that and rewarded me with astonishing achievements. As a result, I moved quickly through the executive ranks until I was an SES-04, only two steps down from the top civilian rank, SES-06, given only to the deputy director (the director was a lieutenant general or vice admiral).
Meanwhile, I wrote stories. I’d learned at age six that I was born to write. Writing didn’t pay. I had a wife and four children to support, so I continued to operate as a spy to earn a living. And my writing didn’t sell. Nearly all of it was about Vietnam, for decades considered a dirty war. The less said about it, the better.
Nevertheless, I retired as early as I could to write full time. Because I had been promoted to a high executive rank, my pension was generous. I didn’t have to get another job to survive. Luck was with me again.
Then the American attitude about the Vietnam war changed. A new generation of Americans wanted to know what happened in Vietnam. Gradually, my writing began to sell. I now have four books and 17 short stories in print with two more books to be published early next year. Once again, I was lucky.
Through it all, I have consistently sought to do what interested me, not what might profit me. I never considered how to get ahead. I worked as hard as anyone I know, but I did it because I loved what I was doing.
In other words, I didn’t plan and pursue a career. The career came to me unbidden. I was lucky.
More about how luck shaped my life:
In 1961, when my army enlistment ended, I was already comfortable in Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam. The National Security Agency (NSA) immediately hired me as a GS-11, a high grade for a new hire, and sent me to Vietnam in 1962. I had, almost by accident, become a professional spy.
None of my decisions up to that point had been for the purpose of establishing a lucrative career path. In fact, I hadn’t made any decisions. I was simply pursuing what interested me, mindless of what the future might hold. I didn’t seize opportunities. Opportunities seized me. I was lucky.
Once in Vietnam, I loved the work. I was unique among NSA people there in that I spoke all three languages commonly used in Vietnam and was adept at intercepting and exploiting North Vietnamese radio communications. For the next thirteen years, I was in Vietnam at least four months every year. I had two PCS (permanent change of station) tours there and so many TDYs (temporary duty trips, lasting four to six months each) that I lost count. My job most often was on the battlefield supporting army and Marine units in combat with signals intelligence against North Vietnamese forces. My last job there, starting in 1974 as a GS-15 (the highest rank in the GS system at that time), was to head the covert NSA operation. For my work during the fall of Saigon, I was awarded the Civilian Meritorious Medal, one of the few medals given to civilians.
I can’t speak of my assignments after 1975. They’re all still classified. Suffice it to say that I spoke or read Vietnamese, Chinese, French, German, Italian, and Latin (Spanish came later). You’re free to guess where I might have been assigned. Once again, opportunities came looking for me. I was lucky.
More next time.