Today, November 10, the day before Veterans Day, marks the 237th birthday of the United States Marine Corps and coincidentally the 30th anniversary of my active involvement in veterans' issues, primarily those concerning Vietnam where I served as a Marine helicopter crewman and machine gunner.
This weekend also marks a departure of sorts because from here on I intend to focus on those who served or are serving in Afghanistan in the ongoing War on Terror. I'll provide details at the end of this article.
By way of background, on Veterans Day 1982 I traveled to Washington, D.C., to cover the dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial for the Hartford Courant newspaper where I was employed as a reporter. I had no idea at the time, but an advance article I wrote on members of my helicopter squadron who died in combat and whose names are on The Wall would become the impetus for my first book; Masters of the Art, A Fighting Marine's Memoir of Vietnam.
I also couldn't foresee that when I wrote Masters of the Art it would become a launching pad for three decades of research into the Vietnam War; revealing how the military never lost a single major battle but were betrayed by politicians and bureaucrats back home, and falsely blamed for the deaths of millions of Southeast Asians at the hands of rampaging communists after Saigon fell in 1975.
My intent in writing that work of nonfiction was to offset the negative publicity that at the time dominated discussions of Vietnam. We were variously called Baby Killers, Murderers, Walking Time Bombs and much worse, and it seemed that few in the world of media or publishing wanted to know the truth.
In fact, the first hardcover edition of Masters of the Art was published by Carlton Press in New York in late 1989, with me paying the freight, after I discovered to my chagrin that few others were interested in my book. If you wrote that Vietnam was a travesty and ruined your life forever you were golden; but the truth? Never.
Nonetheless, after I made back my investment, the hardcover edition of Masters of the Art provided enough income for me to travel across the country; meeting other veterans, speaking to interested groups of vets and non-vets alike, learning their stories, compiling and eventually teaching history, piecing together a picture of the war that isn't found in the Mainstream Media. In time Random House made an offer to republish it in paperback form, which I gladly accepted, and it still sells today, with the electronic version now the format of choice.
(I quickly learned that most book writers have to get out and work at their trade to make a living. The best way to obtain income on your books is to buy them wholesale from the publisher and sell signed copies from your website in conjunction with schlepping them all over creation to places where you can talk about them and sell them. You can earn a living, but you do have to work.)
It has been a difficult but gratifying experience to say the least, and while much of what I talk about is from a birds-eye perspective, there also have been some very personal moments of triumph. For instance, I know a US Army infantry Vietnam veteran who for decades said little to nothing about his tour.
But a year ago I learned of him surviving a bloody day in late 1966 along the Cambodian border. His squad was walking point on a brigade-sized offensive and they were caught in a company-sized ambush – meaning he and about 14 other troops were being fired upon by more than 200 enemy.
In mere seconds most of his squad was dead, and he survived only because he flattened himself on the ground to return fire and others who already were dead fell on him. He survived, physically unscathed, but he carried an undeserved burden of guilt for the events of that day for four decades.
I researched the history of his unit and found that he fought in a day full of heroics, in which the horrors of the opening salvo were returned overwhelmingly by others in his brigade. The advancing troops rescued the remaining wounded from the initial ambush, repulsed the communist troops and ultimately dominated the battle. A platoon commander was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for exposing himself repeatedly to enemy fire while he dragged other wounded troops to safety.
My friend knew none of this until I put it all together in a report and gave it to him at the post one night. He began reading it and then the unexpected occurred; he began to talk about Vietnam and what he did there.
We were comparing notes and I told him that even though my job involved flying in combat, I spent many nights in foxholes or fighting trenches on the perimeter of the airstrip at Quang Tri as a member of the reactionary platoon. I noted that sometimes snakes would be in the foxholes or they would fill up with water in the monsoons.
"At least you had a foxhole," he responded, adding that his unit often moved at night and when he was given time to catch few winks of sleep he did it sitting on the hard ground with his poncho over his head to keep the mosquitoes at bay. You can learn a lot in a very few minutes if the right person is talking and you are willing to listen.
Another vet told me later that "I've known this guy ever since high school and he's talked more about Vietnam tonight than he did in the last 40 years." My friend never should have borne that burden; he did enough by going there and fighting for our rights and freedoms. Hopefully he will keep talking about Vietnam right up to his last breath.
While Vietnam was "my" war, the decision to turn my focus toward Afghanistan was influenced in part by an article I read that said according to recent surveys something like 90 percent of Americans hold Vietnam veterans in high esteem. Offsetting the media and political negativity toward us was my basic goal all along, and I do feel a sense of accomplishment after being a small part of the effort to provide an accurate portrayal of Vietnam veterans.
In retrospect, Vietnam vets actually became cool; everyone now wants to be in Special Ops, camouflage and jungle boots became a fashion statement; books were written; songs were sung about us; and we even have a few good movies on Vietnam led by Mel Gibson's We Were Soldiers. We had Rambo for God's sake!
The 2010 census said that something like 13 million Americans claimed they are Vietnam vets even though a total of 9 million served in the military during the entirety of the Vietnam War, and 2.5 million actually were on the ground there; so now we have millions of posers and wannabes!
But I also believe it is our duty as veterans to ensure that our Afghanistan counterparts don't go through what we went through; and I feel this way primarily because we know so little about what is really going on over there. The media blanketed Vietnam with negative coverage, but there is hardly any coverage of the Afghan fighting.
Soon our troops are to be withdrawn from Afghanistan, and like their Vietnam counterparts, they will be scattered to the four winds with no way to collectively assess their experiences. Thus I have decided to make a new push on book sales of Masters of the Art,as well as Granny Snatching which is on a completely different subject, but should be of interest to Baby Boomers or people with parents that age, and my latest accomplishment, a novel that I just completed, and use the proceeds to reach out to this new generation of vets. (I am looking for a publisher and new agent if anyone knows someone they can point in my direction.)
I am not ignoring veterans of the fighting in Iraq, by the way, but at least they were able to declare victory. We simply don't have a corresponding information flow from Afghanistan and I believe we need it. I suggest to every Vietnam vet I meet that they should tell their stories, write books if they can, do articles, poems, songs, papers, and letters; print them and give them to their families even if they couldn't get them published.
It is my intent now to reach out to the Afghanistan vets with the same message, encourage them to communicate, tell their stories and make sure their accomplishments are recorded.
They should not spend decades reliving the brutality and horrors of the battlefield alone, in silence, with no means of putting their service into proper perspective. They are veterans of the US military who served their country in combat and they deserve to be honored for their sacrifices.