The Ghost of Vietnam

I read an interesting article in the New York Times titled Will the Vietnam War Ever Go Away. It made me think of the many memories I have associated with the war and how, even today, my life has a connection to it.

“The Vietnam war left an indelible mark on America. Not since the American Civil War has a conflict so divided her people. More than a generation after the war in Vietnam ended; many Americans remain haunted by its memory.” From  James G. Zumwalt’s Bare Feet, Iron Will – Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields.

I have to add that, in many ways, it left a distinct mark on me. I was in Army JROTC 1974/75 and there was much speculation on what went wrong with US involvement. I remember the senior instructor, a Lt. Col., who (I believe, if memory serves) had done two tours, ’65/66 and ’69/70. He sat at his desk shaking his head. Stone-faced, but I could see the emotion in his eyes, watching the TV news coverage and now iconic photos of helicopters lifting people out of Saigon as it fell to the Việt Cộng and the North Vietnamese Army (PAVN).

“When the evacuation is ordered, the code will be read out on Armed Forces Radio. The code is: ‘The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising.’ This will be followed by the playing of, I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” [For an interesting read lookup Operation Frequent Wind, the almost unbelievable evacuation plan executed by US forces on 29-30 April when more than 7,000 people were evacuated by helicopter from various points in Saigon.]

In 1974, I also had a new brother-in-law. He’d been an air cavalry door gunner, who had come home from Vietnam in early 1973. I looked at the pictures Tommy had brought home and thought, he and those guys aren’t much older than me. And they weren’t.

When I joined the Navy in 1978 one of my instructors at Great Lakes Naval Training Center was a SEAL who had seen combat in Vietnam. I remember when working out at the gym, seeing him come out of the showers, towel around his waist, scars on his torso front and back. The largest ran diagonally across his stomach from below where the towel covered; a long, deep, purple, puckered scar that wrapped up to his left rib cage and around. I thought, God how in the Hell did he survive that. He never talked about it and if you brought it up and pushed, he’d fix you with a look that you did not want to receive.

In my Operations Specialist A School I roomed with a man named John M. from Texas. John was ex-Army and had been wounded in Vietnam and came home with three scars, healed ragged holes, in his right thigh. Two were through and through–he had equivalent scars on the back side of his leg. He’d DEROSsed in 1972 and spent close to six years trying to figure out how to live as a civilian. He couldn’t and joined the service again but a different branch, the Navy. “Fuck humping a ruck and carrying a rifle,” he told me. One Saturday we’d been drinking heavily and a Jane Fonda movie came on. John picked up an ashtray and threw it into the TV shattering its screen/tube. I won’t get into why he hated Jane Fonda… if you don’t know you can Google her and Vietnam, and find out what she did that was so misguided and abhorrent to many that served and bled in Vietnam.

When I went into the Navy in 1978 there was still, in some ways, a distinct animus towards the military and servicemen; the legacy of the public dissatisfaction with the Vietnam war. It was nothing like what some received when they returned from serving in Vietnam. Many did not receive appreciation for their service from some of the same people who older and wiser now recognize and appreciate–as we all should–our veterans and active duty military.

Seven years ago, I helped a retired Lieutenant Colonel, USMC, my friend Jim Zumwalt, finish and publish his book on the Vietnam war. Bare Feet and Iron Will — Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields was released in time for the 35th anniversary and we got it profiled on PBS NewsHour (I was in the studio with Jim beside the cameraman). It was written in an attempt to come to grips with the anger he felt inside from what happened during the war and to deal with the loss of so many friends and family (including his older  brother due to Agent Orange related disease). He had made 50 trips to Vietnam while writing it. He’d interviewed hundreds of Vietnamese veterans of the war; officers and enlisted members of the North Vietnamese Army and Việt Cộng forces, as well as Vietnamese civilians caught up in the conflict. He’d been jerked around by a publishing company for a couple of years only for them to turn chicken-shit and decide not to publish his book. Jim let it sit and was about to give up on it. We’d known each other for a while through our business careers. When he heard I’d written and published my first book, he asked if I could help publish his book. So we did and it is a beautiful heart-wrenching book. It touched my heart and more than one of the stories brought tears to my eyes and made me see what happened in Vietnam in a different perspective. It’s publication was something I’m very proud of.

Over the past couple of years I’ve helped a client with two novels about a young American reporter, during the Vietnam war, who falls in love with a girl he meets at the university in Saigon. [Below I’ll put the full blurb for the two novels for those who might be interested.] And earlier this year completed a memoir project with a client, General Richard ‘Butch’ Neal, USMC (Ret.). His journey from a young lieutenant in combat in Vietnam to a 4-star general includes the riveting telling of the Battle for Getlin’s Corner, where his company–hopelessly outnumbered–faced 700+NVA . It was the defining experience of his life.

I’ve also been approached to travel with a prospective client to Vietnam for research on his story. He came to the US as a refugee and is now a wealthy entrepreneur.

So the war that loomed so largely over me as a teenager remains a part of my life as a writer and publisher. I know/knew so many that were wounded (physically and emotionally) and lost friends and family in the Vietnam war. It broke my heart to watch Iraq and Afghanistan unfold as they did (and have) and to see all the young veterans and civilians who were wounded and survived but will never be the same as before… and to think of all those that died.

And I think of the closing of Jim’s book… it’s apt. In late 1968, during a Viet Cong mortar attack against Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, a memorial chapel was destroyed. A few days later as a chaplain passed by its ruins, his eye caught the glimmer of an object among the rubble. It was a board upon which was inscribed a poem of unknown origin:

Not for fame or reward,

Not for place or rank,

Not lured by ambition

or goaded by necessity,

But in simple obedience

as they understood it.

These men suffered all,

dared all, and died.

Lest we forget…lest we forget…

THE TWO NOVELS I MENTIONED ABOVE

Behind the Smoke Curtain - a novel set in Vietnam 1967-75My client (author) is an attorney who in October 1983 successfully escaped his war torn country after 12 failed prior attempts. Arriving at a refugee camp he was hired by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to work as the Resettlement Office Coordinator for the region. He now practices law in California. This project was the re-write of a draft novel set in his native country from 1968 – 1978. About the story: Mai was a beautiful young girl and a student at the university. Scott was a young American reporter trying to establish himself as a freelance writer and journalist. Where better to seek that chance than in a war-torn country full of stories every day. They met and fell in love just before it became shockingly clear to the United States that the conflict they were embroiled in was far from over. Caught up in the lies, intrigue, betrayals and violence of the war. Mai and Scott suffered the impact caused by countries, behind their not so benign or altruistic curtain of diplomacy, that pulled the strings of a nation in turmoil. It is a sad and tragic truth that older men start the wars that the youth must fight in and many die. Told as only a person who lived in the country during that time can tell it; this is the story of Mai and Scott as they try to live and love while their world disintegrates around them.

When the Heart Cries but Never Break by Duyen NguyenThe sequel to Behind the Smoke Curtain: The total number of Vietnamese evacuated by Frequent Wind or self-evacuated that ended up processing as refugees to enter the United States totaled 138,869. But hundreds of thousands were left behind that then faced ‘re-education’ by the victors. The re-education camps, modeled on Soviet Gulags (and in some cases operated similarly as a Nazi concentration camp) soon became full. The New Economic Zone programs announced for those not sent to re-education camps were thinly veiled justification for the confiscation of all assets held by the South Vietnamese people and then forcibly relocating them from their urban and suburban homes to rural areas.

The smoke had cleared over Vietnam but the country still ran with tears and blood.

This is the continuing saga, started in Behind the Smoke Curtain of American journalist Scott Reynolds, wounded and left behind as Saigon fell. Imprisoned—tortured and held secretly in solitary confinement—he and another prisoner, Tuan, a young former South Vietnamese army officer, escape during a camp uprising. A female guard at the camp who has fallen in love with Tuan reluctantly helps them. Traveling at night and hiding during the day, not long after their escape they find Lan, a teenage girl who is escaping her own Hell having killed the New Economic Zone Commander that had tried to rape her. Together they evade patrols and informers and try to make their way to the coast to find a boat to escape Vietnam. This is their story.

ABOUT BUTCH NEAL’S MEMOIR

What Now Lieutenant - front cover 10-6-2016Wars, fought on a grand scale with global consequences, are made up of countless smaller battles and events. For the men who fought, bled and died in them they are not small—those little pieces of war—and the personal aftermath and their effect is beyond measure. I’m going to tell you a little bit about one such battle (covered in full detail later on). It pitted a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalion of 700+ men against the men (approximately 175) of Company I, Third Battalion, Ninth Marines, Third Marine Division. Of the seven officers in the field at the beginning, only three walked out. Butch was one of them.