A second factor that helped me recover from cancer was that I never stopped working. Even on my worst days, I wrote. When the Naval Institute Press (NIP) accepted Last of the Annamese for publication in 2016, I redoubled my efforts. I worked on the proofs of Annamese and struggled through the editing process with a genuinely excellent editor from NIP to get the book ready for publication in March 2017. At the same time, I continued work on Secretocracy, a novel based on my years in intelligence. That book is due for publication this month by Adelaide, a New York publisher.
Recovery from the cancer has taken much longer than I expected. I realize now that the cancer came close to doing me in. And it took five years to get completely back on my feet. I have come to understand that there was a third factor that led to my recovery: utter bullheadedness. After years of risking my life on the battlefields in Vietnam, I wasn’t about to let a little thing like cancer take me out.
These days, until recently, I stuck to my demanding work routine. Besides writing, I was up to my elbows in promoting my books with presentations and readings. I was working ten-hour days and loving every minute. Then, with the onset of the coronavirus scare, venues where I give presentations, do readings, and conduct classes have all closed down. I suddenly find myself, for the first time in memory, isolated with time on my hands. I’m disciplining myself to use the extra time to work on the two novels I have sketched out.
So three factors led to my survival and recovery from cancer: my underlying excellent health, my devotion to my work, and my undiluted pigheadedness.
And I’m deeply grateful for my good luck.
A friend who follows this blog asked me why I never mention my battle with cancer. Somehow, it seems irrelevant. But just to set the record straight, here’s the story:
In 2013, I coughed up blood. My primary care physician said it was nothing to worry about. He diagnosed me with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Early in 2015, I brought up blood again. Since my doctor had told me not to worry about it, I didn’t go see him until time for my regular checkup in May. He sent me for a chest x-ray. I had a large tumor.
I underwent maximum chemotherapy and radiation for almost half a year, and then, in November 2015, a surgeon removed the upper lobe from my right lung. Initial recovery took about a year, and I still was not completely fit. I had a bad cough, and I lacked energy. But the tumor was gone. Repeated tests since then show no lingering signs of cancer.
I tried a number of times to resume weight lifting after my recovery from cancer but could never summon the sheer strength required. Then, earlier this year, I was finally able to do it. I started with very low weights, gradually increasing the load and number of repeats. Now I’m to the point that I’m doing twelve different lifts, three sets each, with respectable loads. I do the routine every other day. It takes about two hours. I’m looking better, and I feel great.
My surgeon and oncologist in 2015 were frankly thrilled at my ability to withstand the treatments and the surgery. I was, in every other respect, a pinnacle of health. I was a runner until my right knee gave out in 2013, and I’ve always been a devoted weight lifter. That meant that I had to watch my diet to be sure I stayed trim enough to run and work out. The end result was that I survived both the cancer and the treatment (chemotherapy and radiation) with flying colors. And I’ve never returned to the physician who failed to diagnose the cancer in 2013.
A blog reader questioned me about the gift of the protagonist of Last of the Annamese for foreseeing the future. How could that be? How did it work?
In Last of the Annamese, I tell of the ability of Chuck Griffin to foretell coming events. I describe how “he’d let his consciousness rove over patterns and trends and the flow of events until he knew what was going to happen next.” That depiction is derived from my own experience.
How does it work? I have no idea. My experience during the Vietnam war was that I discovered how to let my mind blur while I studied events. I’d let it wander over the data. Then, sometimes suddenly, I’d know what would happen next. I don’t know how I did it. Others with the same gift were equally puzzled.
One result was that we developed over the years a series of indicators. When the North Vietnamese did x, y followed. The system was too vague to be called scientific; it was intuition at work. I’ve always thought that the best analogy was the sense of smell: it was almost as if when a certain combination of scents appeared, I’d foresee the next event. My guess is that the gift springs from an ability to be in touch with one’s unconscious. That ability dominates my writing.
Before Bob and Gary and I left our office, we destroyed our crypto and comms equipment. Then we went to the evacuation staging area. Bob and Gary flew out on a helicopter at 1400 hours the afternoon of 29 April 1975. I followed that night carrying the two flags that had stood beside my desk, the stars and stripes and gold and orange banner of the now defunct Republic of Vietnam. Those two flags are now in the Cryptologic Museum at Fort Meade, Maryland.
My thoughts often return to those South Vietnamese officers. They were right. The U.S. was planning to abandon them to their fate, leave them behind to face the conquering North Vietnamese. As a result of their rebellious action, they were in fact safely evacuated. Other officers, who trusted the U.S. and took no action, were left behind. They were all killed or imprisoned by the North Vietnamese.
I knew some of those left behind. I had worked with them, shared time in the field with them. They had invited to me to their homes where I met their wives and children. To this day, I mourn their loss.
In the final pages of my novel, Last of the Annamese, the protagonist, Chuck Griffin learns that South Vietnamese Air Force officers have forced their way into the DAO building (on the northern edge of Saigon at Tan Son Nhat) and are demanding safe evacuation from Vietnam at gun point—the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese is imminent. Chuck and his office mates receive orders to proceed immediately to the U.S. evacuation staging area.
The event described really happened. In the early hours of the morning on 29 April 1975, Bob, Gary, and I—the only ones left of the 43 men who had been assigned to my office in Saigon—received a telephone call telling us that the officers were roaming the halls, guns drawn. We were to leave our office suite and go immediately to the evacuation staging area, another office the U.S. Marines had secured. So we sent our last message. It’s a personal message from me to my boss, General Lew Allen, the Director of NSA. It’s now declassified so I can quote it:
- HAVE JUST RECEIVED WORD TO EVACUATE. AM NOW DESTROYING REMAINING CLASSIFIED MATERIAL. WILL CEASE TRANSMISSIONS IMMEDIATELY AFTER THIS MESSAGE.
- WE’RE TIRED BUT OTHERWISE ALL RIGHT. LOOKS LIKE THE BATTLE FOR SAIGON IS ON FOR REAL.
- FROM GLENN: I COMMEND TO YOU MY PEOPLE WHO DESERVE THE BEST NSA CAN GIVE THEM FOR WHAT THEY HAVE BEEN THROUGH BUT ESPECIALLY FOR WHAT THEY HAVE ACHIEVED.
I added “from Glenn” before the final paragraph to assure that General Allen would know these words were from me personally.
After I learned that the Naval Institute Press would be publishing my novel, Last of the Annamese, in 2017, I sent copies of the ARC (advance review copy) to men who had seen combat in Vietnam. I wanted to know how they’d react.
They fed back to me a little at a time. I was moved by the mix of pride and pain they showed in their responses—pride that they stood their ground for their country and risked their lives for what they believed was right; and pain at remembering the gruesome experiences they went through in combat and the ugly welcome they received when they returned to the U.S. They, like me, were met by mobs who cursed them and spit on them.
They’re all younger than me. Almost all of them were 18 or 19 when they arrived in Vietnam. By the time I got there in 1962, I was already 25 with a wife and my first child. I’d finished my military service and was a civilian operating under cover as military. Most of the guys I knew went to Vietnam after 1964. When Saigon fell in 1975 (I was 38), most of them were still in their twenties.
So I was more mature than the guys I served beside on the battlefield. I looked so young that they assumed I was their contemporary when I was actually old enough that I qualified for the name “Pops” as they called men serving with them who were already in their mid-twenties. Worse, in civilian-to-military equivalency, I outranked their commanders. Nevertheless, once they saw that I was going to be with them through it all, even in combat, they accepted me and we worked together.
What I came to understand is how rough it must have been on them. I was older, more experienced. By the mid-sixties, I’d already been through combat; they hadn’t. Besides, they were fighters. I was there to support them with intelligence and was armed, at most, with a pistol. They were there to kill or be killed. I struggle with my own memories and my recurring attacks of Port-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). How much worse it must be for them.
I do sense their pain, and I understand their unwillingness to talk about their memories. But I also feel—and share in—their pride. To paraphrase Ike in Last of the Annamese, they did what they had to do, whatever it took. I salute them and honor their pride.
When Creighton Abrams took over the command of U.S. forces in Vietnam in 1968, he altered the way the U.S. fought to stress working with the population, shifting the focus from body counts to population security, that is protecting the people from the Communists. He emphasized small unit operations aimed at defending villages and hamlets, forcing the North Vietnamese to attack U.S. forces in places and at times advantageous to the U.S.
His approach showed promise. But by then the U.S. population had turned against the war, and, after the peace accords of 1973, Congress eventually stopped even our air support to the South Vietnamese and withheld weapons, supplies, and funds from the South Vietnamese military, who were totally dependent upon us for resources. That assured that the North Vietnamese would win the war.
Whether the U.S. could have had the wisdom to shape Vietnamese politics so as to assure democracy and the rule of law in South Vietnam is another question entirely. And on that question hinges whether we could have achieved political victory. But militarily, we were turning things around when the people of the U.S. decided the war must end, even if that meant shame and defeat.
That said, if we as a nation have learned nothing else from our failure, let us learn not to abandon the allies who have fought at our side and leave them to the mercy of our joint enemy. Our actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—where we abandoned the Kurds who had fought by our side for years—suggest to me that we have not learned that lesson.
What does it take for us to learn the lessons of our failures?