The Long Silence of Vietnam Veterans (2)

Yesterday, I described my years of silence about my time in Vietnam and my sense of shame about the war and the way Americans reacted to it.

Though I didn’t know it for decades, I was not alone. Countless other Vietnam vets went through the same travail I did. They, too, were silent. But, as noted in yesterday’s blog, the American public has changed the way it sees Vietnam. Now people want to know what happened. Now we vets speak openly about our war experience. When I do presentations or readings on my time in Vietnam, men who did time in-country hurry to talk to me. We compare notes about where we were and what we did. We share a kinship that others who were not there can’t understand.

But most of the time when I’m with other Vietnam vets, we don’t talk much. There’s a deep understanding among us about what we’ve been through. We each know that the others feel what we feel. A handshake, a look in the eyes . . . it’s enough.

Next month, the circle will close. I’ve been invited to give my presentation about the fall of Saigon to a chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America in Vienna, Virginia. We will speak publicly to one another about our hurtful memories. And I’ll be at home with my brothers.

The Long Silence of Vietnam Veterans

When I returned to the world (the U.S.) after the fall of Saigon, I didn’t talk about my years in Vietnam. It had been a shameful war, and no one wanted to hear about it. I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury with all the symptoms—panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, and irrational rages, but I couldn’t seek therapy because I held top secret codeword-plus security clearances. Talking to a therapist would have led to the withdrawal of my access to classified information, and I would have been fired. So I talked to no one about my hideous memories. It was the lowest point in my life.

Eventually, I realized that other Vietnam vets were as silent as I was. They’d been jeered as butchers and baby-killers and spat upon when they returned to the world. Now it was best for them to say nothing. These were men who’d risked their lives for their country. And now they were shamed.

The attitude of the American public toward war began to change a few years ago. My stories and novels drawn from my thirteen years in and out of Vietnam began to sell. I now have seventeen short stories and four novels in print. People want to know what happened in Nam.

About four years ago, I was invited to a welcome home celebration for Vietnam vets, something I’d never heard of before. When I attended, young people greeted me and shook my hand. I heard the words that I had always so yearned to hear: “Thank you. And welcome home.” I cried.

More tomorrow.

Grit (2)

The story of Angela Duckworth’s book Grit is my story: a neglected child labelled as a slow learner who nevertheless wouldn’t quit. Discouraged from going to college because I wasn’t smart enough, I did it anyway. At the Army Language School, I graduated first in my class because I worked harder than anybody else. During the fall of Saigon, I wouldn’t leave until I got all 43 of my subordinates and their families safely out of the country despite an order from the ambassador not to evacuate my people. Struck with lung cancer that should have been fatal, I refused to die. In short, I did all these things because I had to. The alternative was giving up.

My worst days with cancer are illustrative: After regaining consciousness from the surgery that removed the upper lobe of my right lung, I saw myself lying beside a dark stream. I knew I could end my suffering by reaching out and putting my hand in that black flow. I could choose to die. Instead, I redoubled my determination to go on living, no matter how much it hurt. I did survive and am now well on my way to returning to complete health.

That experience informed a conversation I had a couple of days ago with another veteran who has colon and prostate cancer. We agreed that survival so often depends on the will to live. I’m persuaded that if this man lives, it will be because he is fiercely determined to cling to life. I’m doing all I can to encourage him.

Judgments of others to the contrary notwithstanding, I firmly believe that I started out with no better than average intelligence. Granted, I have a distinct flare for languages and writing. But my success as a writer is due more to my passion and fierce determination than to talent. Something like 10 percent of my writing time is spent drafting new text; 90 percent is taken up with revising. I typically go through ten drafts—sometimes more—of each of my books before I consider them finished. That takes me, on average, fourteen years per book, although I am usually working on more than one book at a time. I realize that as I age, I won’t be able to afford that long for the books I’m writing now. I’ll have to improve my writing speed. I’ll do it because I have to.

 

Grit

Per my promise some days back in the blog about scrappiness that I would write about the book Grit (Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Scribner, 2016), here are my thoughts.

I’ll start with my criticism and get that out of the way: Duckworth takes subject worth 150 pages and writes about it for 300. She is not an economical writer, nor does she eliminate extraneous or unimportant clutter. The writing made me impatient, but I persevered.

Now for the good part: I felt that I saw myself described on every page; reading the text turned into a personal experience for me. Duckworth defines “grit” as “the power of passion and perseverance,” almost precisely what I mean by “scrappiness.” The only change I would make in the definition is to add the idea of fierceness.

One of the main points of the book is that we Americans tend to credit natural ability—talent, intelligence, innate understanding—rather than hard work as the reason for success. As Duckworth makes clear through dozens of examples, determination and unwillingness to accept failure are far more essential ingredients. Success means taking the inborn resources you have and exploiting them to the hilt. It means never accepting failure, despite its recurrence. It means profiting from failed attempts. It means learning and learning and learning, about the nature of the task and goal and improving one’s own abilities. Above all, it means working as hard as you can.

Some quotes in the book that caught my eye: “Greatness is doable.” “To do anything really well, you have to overextend yourself.” And “Improve, Adapt, Overcome.”

As I came to see while reading Duckworth’s work, grit is the underlying quality of all five principal characters in Last of the Annamese.

More tomorrow.

Memories

On 9 January, I offered the fall of Saigon presentation at the Central Branch of the Howard County (Maryland) Library System. I was introduced by Beth Haynes—the best and most flattering introduction I’ve ever received. She quoted from this blog about the pain that memories of Vietnam always bring with them: “Wounds to the soul never heal. Only forgetting would allay my pain. And forgetting would be unforgivable.”

That made me think again about remembering. I’ll never forget the soldiers and Marines who died by my side in combat. My memories of the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who worked with my organization will never fade. They were all killed or captured during and after the fall of Saigon. And the two Marines killed at our gate during North Vietnamese shelling of our compound on the morning of 29 April 1975, Judge and McMahon, will always be with me.

Yes, it will always hurt. But these are sacred memories. I must always keep them alive.

U.S. Marines and the Fall of Saigon (2)

Continuing the story of how our Marines got me and the two communicators who had volunteered to stay with me out of Saigon when the North Vietnamese attacked in April 1975:

The U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, had refused to call for an evacuation. He was persuaded by the Hungarian member of the ICCS (the International Commission for Control and Supervision set up in 1973 to monitor the cease-fire) that the North Vietnamese had no intention of attacking Saigon; they wanted to form a coalition government with “all patriotic forces” and rule jointly. The signals intelligence results I was responsible for made it unmistakably clear that the North Vietnamese were preparing to attack. The ambassador chose to not to accept my warning but to believe the assurances of a representative of a communist government allied to North Vietnam.

The bombardment of our compound began the evening of 28 April—first rockets, then about four in the morning on the 29th, the artillery attack started. The building next to us was destroyed, a C-130 transport aircraft on the runway behind us blew up, and two of the Marine guards at one of our compound gates were killed. As the artillery bombardment continued, we got in a message telling us that FREQUENT WIND PHASE FOUR had been declared. That was the code name for the evacuation. Washington—presumably President Ford—had countermanded the Ambassador.

The two communicators were evacuated around 1400 (2:00 p.m.) on the afternoon of 29 April. I went out that night on a little Air America Huey that had been drafted to help with the evacuation. Our helicopter took heavy ground fire, but we escaped. By the time we reached the 7th Fleet out in the South China Sea, it was pitch black and raining hard. The helicopter pilot circled and circled before landing on the flood-lit helipad of the U.S.S. Oklahoma City, the flag ship of the 7th Fleet. He told me afterwards that he, a civilian pilot working for Air America, had never before landed on a ship.

That was when the current commander of my American Legion Post, Ed Hall, and I first crossed paths. He was with the Marines who saved my life.

The article I quoted from earlier in this series of posts is “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon.” You can read it at http://atticusreview.org/bitter-memories-the-fall-of-saigon/  When you reach the end of part 1, click the “2” to access the second part of the article.

U.S. Marines and the Fall of Saigon

Yesterday, I told how toward the end of April 1975, U.S. Marines, under the command of Colonel Al Gray, were flying into Saigon from the U.S. 7th Fleet, cruising in the South China Sea out of sight from land, to prepare for the evacuation of the remaining U.S. citizens and as many Vietnamese as possible. I continue the story with a quote from my article, “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon”:

But the Ambassador was doing everything he could to throw roadblocks in Al’s way. He wouldn’t allow Al’s Marines to dress in uniform, fly their own helicopters into the country, or stay overnight. So Al and his troops, in civilian clothes, had to fly in and out each day from the 7th Fleet, cruising in the South China Sea, via Air America slicks, the little Hueys, the UH-1 choppers that could only carry eight to fourteen people.
It didn’t matter. Ambassador or no Ambassador, the Marines had landed. They’d be ready for the evacuation the instant it was ordered.

During my next daylight recon of the compound, I saw 55-gallon drums ranged along the perimeter fence. I asked one of Al’s buzzcuts why they were there. He said the drums were filled with combustible material, probably gasoline, and wired: if the North Vietnamese penetrated the perimeter, the barrels would be detonated to wipe them out.
Another tour of the parking lot took me into a surreal world. Marines and civilians were cramming cars, my small white sedan among them, onto the side of the building by driving them into one another so that they formed a compacted mass. That done, the drivers turned their attention to the half-dozen cars still in the parking lot, large black sedans (including mine) and one jeep. These they used as ramming devices, crushing the heap of cars more tightly together. Then they turned the now-mangled sedans on the tennis courts. Again and again, they backed their vehicles to the perimeter and burned rubber to smash into the poles holding the fence around the courts until they tore out of the pavement. Next they used the cars as battering rams, flattening the nets and court fencing against the building. Lastly, they ground the vehicles they were driving into the jumble of mashed automobiles. The area between the fence and the wall of the building was now clear.

It dawned on me what was going on. The small Air America slicks had been able to get into and out of the compound one at a time, without hitting parked cars or the tennis courts, but the much larger Marine CH-53’s—each could carry 55 troops loaded for combat—needed more unobstructed space, especially if two or three were in the compound at the same time. One more obstacle to our escape had been removed.

End of quote. More tomorrow.