The flag of the now defunct Republic of Vietnam is three horizontal red stripes on a field of yellow. When the Naval Institute Press prepared to publish Last of the Annamese, the story of the end of the Republic of Vietnam, the artistic staff designed the dust jacket to echo the republic’s flag. The upper half of the cover, against a field of yellow, shows the name of the book. The lower half is a dark red field with yellow stripes shown diagonally, seeming to disappear in the distance. Where the stripes come together, at the center left, is the small figure of a woman in an áo dài (literally “long dress”), the traditional Vietnamese feminine gown, and a nón lá (literally “leaf hat”), the conical hat worn throughout Vietnam. The woman’s back is to the viewer, and she appears to be moving away.
The woman, to my mind, represents Tuyet, the nominal heroine. She is walking toward the end of the stripes, symbolically toward the end of An Nam, as Vietnam was once called. As one character in the story observes watching South Vietnam fall to the North Vietnamese, “An Nam is no more.”
I wrote earlier in this blog about meeting former navy corpsmen recently and how moved I was by their stories. The more I learn about corpsmen and what these men experienced, the more troubled I am. I just learned that the number of corpsmen killed in Vietnam was 639.
The corpsmen are naval personnel assigned to operate as medics with Marine combat units. I encountered them when I was providing signals intelligence support to the Marines in Vietnam. As I described in previous blog posts, my experience in combat damaged my psyche permanently; my memory still holds things I can’t talk about.
But my experience pales in comparison to what corpsmen went through. My job was to learn what the enemy was doing and to target hostile units. The corpsmen were there to take care of the wounded. They saved lives by their work. But they also had to face repeatedly, time after time, in every battle, the ghastly things that combat does to the human body.
I have tried, through my writing, to inform readers about the unspeakably gruesome catastrophes inherent in combat. I’ve talked about survivor’s guilt—why was the guy next to me hideously killed and I escaped unharmed? The daily lot of corpsmen is to cope directly with the savagery of combat. That’s their job. How any of them survive sane is miraculous. They are better, stronger, braver men than I have ever been.
Both of the former corpsmen I’ve met struggle with from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). My guess is that all corpsmen do. How could anyone go through what they go through and not suffer an unhealable wound to the soul?
I’m a member of the Marine Corps Association. I joined it out of respect and admiration for the Marines I’ve known and worked with, particularly General Al Gray. My bias in favor of Marines is undisguised. I supported them with intelligence on and off for thirteen years in Vietnam. Three of the principal characters in Last of the Annamese are Marines.
Because I’m a member of the association, I have access to the Marine Shop, an online merchant. A little over a year ago, I spotted in the Marine Shop catalogue a brilliant red sports jacket with brass buttons showing the words “Semper Fidelis” and “Marine Corps” above and below the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor, the official emblem and insignia of the United States Marine Corps. My taste in clothes runs to the subdued with dark colors, like black and navy blue. But this jacket fascinated me. So I bought one.
Every time I wear the jacket—usually out to dinner—I am the center of attention. A surprising number of people recognize the Marine Corps connection. When I wore it to the American Legion Christmas party last year, the color represented both the season and the Corps.
I tend to be a quiet, shy person, not very talkative in gatherings. I’m learning what it’s like for people to turn and stare at me. I think I like it.
A former Midshipman, now a retired navy officer, emailed me after discovering this blog. He reminded me that the Glenn family, my four children, my wife, and I, sponsored Midshipmen from the Naval Academy from 1976 to 1979. We invited the mids to our house for weekends away from the gruel of academy life as they prepared to become navy officers upon graduation.
It was a rough time in my life. I was struggling with Port-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) from my years in Vietnam supporting units in combat and escaping under fire when Saigon fell in April 1975. My family had lived in Saigon and escaped twenty days before the city fell. They talked freely with the mids about their life in Vietnam. I didn’t. I still couldn’t talk about what I had lived through.
I wanted to invite the mids into our home because of my love for military men and women, a feeling that still lives in me today. And these young men, aged 18 to 22, were among the finest I had ever met. I still remember my heartbreak when one of them was killed in an auto accident.
Working with the mids was the beginning of my volunteering. In subsequent years I helps AIDS patients, the homeless, dying people in a hospice, and sick and dying soldiers in a VA hospital. I learned, starting with the mids, that when I focused my attention on others, my unbearable memories receded. It still works today.
In yesterday’s blog post, I failed to mention that Maryland Public Television misidentifies me in the travelling exhibit soon to be in Denton and Crisfield, Maryland. In an earlier post, I explained what happened:
In 2013, Maryland Public Television (MPT) chose me to be among the sixteen veterans they featured in the three-part Vietnam war documentary to be aired in 2016. 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 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 two different uniforms 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.
End of quote. I have trouble to this day explaining that during the thirteen years I was trundling between the U.S. and Vietnam, I was an NSA civilian operating under cover. I posed as soldier sometimes, a Marine at other times. After the withdrawal of military forces in 1973, my cover, at various times, was as a foreign service officer working for the State Department and as an employee of CIA. As far as I know, neither uncleared friendlies nor the enemy ever discovered my real identity.
During my Vietnam years, I never used a phony name. That came later, but those stories are still classified.
The MPT exhibit celebrating sixteen Vietnam veterans (I’m one) is completing its long tour of Maryland, although it will reappear coincident with Ken Burns special on Vietnam on MPT. The current schedule is as follows:
July 26 – August 19, 2017
Caroline County Public Libraries – Central Branch
100 Market St., Denton, MD 21629
Monday – Wednesday & Friday: 10am – 6pm
Thursday: 10am – 8pm
Saturday: 10am – 3pm
August 22 – September 30, 2017
Somerset County Library – Chrisfield Branch
100 Collins St., Crisfield, MD 21817
Monday – Thursday: 11am – 7pm
Friday: 11am – 5pm
Saturday: 10am – 5pm
If you get a chance and you’re in the area, take a look.
Some months ago in this blog, I explained that one origin of the novel, Last of the Annamese, is a short story called “Trip Wires” (published in the Antietam Review, Spring, 1999, and in my book Friendly Casualties, 2012). In that story, I told of the murder of one soldier by another in Vietnam.
At the time I wrote the story, I was a father of young children, all now adults. I shuddered at the thought that my son might someday face combat and death. I imagined how the father of the dead soldier in my story must have felt. From that imagining came the character of Chuck Griffin, the father of Ben Griffin, the soldier killed in “Trip Wires.” Chuck is the protagonist of Last of the Annamese.
After the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam in 1973, Chuck, a retired Marine officer, returns to Vietnam as an intelligence analyst, determined to do all he can to win the war. He has been told that Ben died in combat, and he can’t tolerate the idea that if the North Vietnamese win the war, his son will have given up his life for nothing. During the course of the novel, Chuck learns that Ben didn’t die in combat but was killed by another American soldier. So his reason for returning to Vietnam, where he himself had seen combat, becomes meaningless. His discovery of the facts surrounding Ben’s death are one of the many dark ironies in the novel.
But Chuck never learns the full story of Ben’s death. Those facts never appear in Last of the Annamese. Only a reader who knows “Trip Wires” has the pertinent details on why Ben was murdered. In writing first the story and then the novel, I created the paradox that some readers know more than others and even know more than the protagonist about an essential factor in the story.