No Final Scene between Tuyet and Thanh

My friend and colleague, the master linguist Bob Headley, pointed out to me that Last of the Annamese lacks the final scene between Tuyet and Thanh. I believe that’s a valid criticism of the novel. As I explained to Bob, I chose not to include it for a variety of reasons. One, once I’d arrived at the dénouement, I didn’t want to delay the end of the text. Besides, Thanh is in such bad shape that he can’t talk. And I wanted the full irony at the end of Tuyet using the snub nose pistol that Chuck had given her. Given all that, I couldn’t think of a way to write the scene of the conversation between Thanh and Tuyet. Most important, I wanted the final focus to be on Chuck and Thu.

Bob found the ending of the novel depressing. So do I. The conquest of South Vietnam by the north and all the suffering caused by the U.S. withdrawal from and abandonment of the people who had fought by our side still saddens me. But, as in most of my writing, the book ends with a glimmer of hope. Chuck has found the little boy, Thu, a symbolic replacement for the son that Chuck lost to the war. I foresee that Chuck will adopt Thu as his own son.

Some readers have asked me if a sequel is in the cards. I could tell the story of Chuck and Thu living in the U.S. after the war. So far, that book is not on my to-do list. I’m currently pitching to editors another novel called Secretocracy, and I’m working on another so far unnamed book about a torrid affair between a man and woman in their eighties. Yet another book is taking shape in my head about two brothers so different from one another that neither approves of the other. And who knows what my muse may throw at me next

Speaking at the Veterans Resource Fair

Tomorrow evening I’ll be the keynote speaker at the Veteran Resource Fair at then 50+ Center in Ellicott City. I’ll also be doing a breakout session on Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). So I’ve been pondering at length what to say.

I want to tell the veterans how much respect I have for them. And I want to emphasize to them that they have each other. In preparing the speech, I wrote the following:

“Being with soldiers and Marines in combat taught me something I want to pass on to you: the strongest bond possible between two human beings comes into existence when they fight side by side against a common enemy. Soldiers and Marines don’t use the word love—that’s too sentimental for them. But it is love. The strongest love I’ve ever witnessed and felt myself. I grieve to this day for the men who fought beside me and died.”

In the breakout session on PTSI, I want the others to know that I’m one of them—I suffer from it, too. And I want them to know how widespread and serious PTSI is. Here’s part of what I wrote:

“I learned that, according to a VA estimate, nearly one out of every three Vietnam vets suffers from PTSI. The number for Iraq vets is one out of every five. Since I’ve seen evidence that untreated PTSI becomes more acute with the passage of time, my guess is that affected vets from Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually approach those for Vietnam vets.

“By one estimate, an average of 22 veterans take their own lives each day. Some people debate that number from the VA, says Steve Danyluk, who worked with wounded service members after returning from a tour in Iraq with the Marines, ‘but I think anybody that served in a combat unit can run through a list of people that they know that committed suicide.’”

People who have never been in the military or anywhere near combat have no comprehension of PTSI. But we vets, who are brothers and sisters to each other, we know. Our job is to help each other. Our job is to comfort and sustain. Our job is to find our way home and help others to find it, too.

Thank You and Welcome Home

Last night I attended the “Welcome Home—Vietnam Veterans Celebration: Warriors Remembered” in Greenbelt. I wasn’t prepared.

For years, when I returned from Vietnam with the troops through San Francisco, we were met by crowds who yelled “butcher” and “baby killer” at us. They spat on us. I was shamed to the depths of my soul, not for the troops who had fought bravely and followed commands even at the risk of theirs lives, but for America. Our people, the people we fought for, were blaming us for what they saw as an unjust war. I was sickened.

For years, I never mentioned my Vietnam experience. My Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) was worsened by my silence. No one wanted to talk about Vietnam. The war was shameful, and I was one of the perpetrators.

But Vietnam was bursting my seams. It dominated my writing. No one would publish my stories and novels. Vietnam was anathema.

Then, three years ago, I attended the first Welcome Home celebration for Vietnam vets. For the first time I heard the words, “Thank you for your service. And welcome home.” I cried.

Last night, when I walked into the ballroom where the celebration was underway, a young man in uniform smiled, shook my hand, and said “Thank you. And welcome home.” The tears came.

Toward the end of the gathering, the young soldiers, airmen, Naval Academy cadets, and ROTC members lined up and saluted us Vietnam veterans to thank us for our service. My tears embarrassed me again.

The last speaker, U.S. Army Sergeant Major Rodwell L. Forbes, told of his reluctance to admit his PTSI until a Vietnam vet called him a fool for not facing it. Forbes’ wife reiterated the insult. He submitted to therapy and found a well of torment aching to be freed. He expressed his gratitude to a Vietnam vet. Then he, too, thanked us and welcomed us home.

My Vietnam writings are being published now. These days many people thank me for my service. But I still choke up when I hear “Welcome home.” Those were words I yearned for. I grieve that so many of my comrades in arms did not live long enough to hear them.

The End of An Nam

As the fall of Saigon grew close, the city went into chaos. I saw none of it because I and my two communicators had moved out of our residences and were staying 24 hours a day in our office suite at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of the city. But we read press reports and embassy cables. The following passage from Last of the Annamese quotes, to the best of my memory, one such cable:

“The panic is spreading. Take a look at this.”

[Troiano handed Chuck] an Embassy cable, date time group of an hour ago. “Looting has started in Saigon. Boutiques on Tu Do Street have been vandalized, display windows smashed. Shoe stores on Le Thanh Ton, the street of shoes, report that hooligans, referred to as ‘cowboys,’ and renegade soldiers are forcing shopkeepers to give up their goods. Merchants specializing in televisions and stereos have been stripped of their wares.”

Chuck handed the cable back to Troiano. “And so it begins. The end of An Nam.”

Troiano’s bloodshot eyes looked up at Chuck.

“An Nam, sir. The old name for Vietnam. It means ‘peace in the south.’”

Thanh Keeps Coming Back

I’ve written in this blog about the South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh, one of the three principal characters in Last of the Annamese. Reviewers of the book and ordinary readers are more taken with Thanh than with the other characters.

Maybe there’s justice in that. Thanh is really the soul of the story. He insists that he Annamese, not Vietnamese—native to the core of his people, better described as peace makers (from An Nam, “peace in the south”) than troublemakers (from Viet Nam, “troublemakers in the south”). He is the shaper of the tale, the man who stands serene as his country crumbles about him.

I can’t claim the credit for inventing Thanh. He came to me, as all my characters do, fully formed. At first he kept parts of himself hidden from me. He allowed me to know his history as a monk, then a warrior, slowly as I wrote about him. When I wanted him to be angry with Tuyet for her betrayal, he instead found peace from within himself. When I tried to write him as showing strength after the fall of Phuoc Binh, he became despondent, then had to restore himself to greater strength through his own internal harmony.

As irrational as it sounds, I don’t feel like I created Thanh. Rather, he revealed himself to me at his own pace and in his own way. He is a far greater man than I could ever hope to be. And he is more real to me than most of the men I know.

Number of NSA Men in Saigon at the End

I’ve confused my readers. I’ve said that I safely evacuated all 43 men working for me before the North Vietnamese took Saigon in April 1975. That’s true. At other times, I mentioned getting 41 out. The difference is that two of my guys, Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman, volunteered to stay with me through the attack on the city. Before that, I got 41 men and all the families out safely. The three of us—Bob, Gary, and me—were still there when the attack began on 28 April. We were shelled throughout the night, the building next door to us blew up, and two Marine guards at our gate were killed. Bob and Gary were evacuated by helicopter on the afternoon of 29 April. That added up to 43 guys out. I went out that night under fire.

French Journalist Killed, March 1975

A little past the middle of book, Last of the Annamese records the death of a French journalist, shot to death by the Saigon police. It was one sign of the panic that was overtaking Saigon as the end approached.

As I piece together the story of what happened, Paul Leandri, a journalist for Agence France Presse, was questioned by the Saigon police on 14 March 1975 about a story he had published on the fall of Ban Me Thuot to the North Vietnamese. As he was leaving police headquarters, he was shot in the head and killed instantly after “refusing orders to stop.” The police were trying to find out the sources he used for his story on the battle in the highlands.

That battle forms an important part of the story of Last of the Annamese. The South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh takes Chuck Griffin with him on a visit to the highlands. Their last stop is Ban Me Thuot where both know that the North Vietnamese are about to attack. They escape under fire by plane from the runway as the North Vietnamese onslaught begins.

That episode is based on my own experience travelling with a South Vietnamese general. We took off in his C-47 from Ban Me Thuot just as the airstrip came under fire. The town fell with a day or two, followed by the whole of the northern half of South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese then turned their eyes south to Saigon which fell a month and a half later.

Leandri’s death was one of many signs that the order imposed by the South Vietnamese was collapsing. I remember at the time, having just returned from the trip to Ban Me Thuot, thinking that his killing was one more indication that South Vietnam’s days were numbered.