Saturday, March 30, 2013

Don't Believe the Media: This is NOT the 40-Year Anniversary of the End of the Vietnam War!!

Evacuating Saigon 1975
Multiple news reports are declaring this week the 40-year anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. But that isn't really true. While March, 1973 did mark the so-called "end of combat operations in Vietnam," it certainly wasn't the end of the war for all U.S. troops. 

The real end didn't come until nearly two years later, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and the remaining American service members in country got the hell out. In addition to many prisoners of war and troops still missing in action, there were many U.S. troops still in Vietnam and still in harm's way long after the end of "combat operations."

They included a group of American Marines who bravely stayed behind at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon to the very end. 

Do you remember the dramatic footage of these American Marines and South Vietnamese citizens evacuating from the embassy roof on April 30, 1975? As a kid, I watched those riveting news accounts of that evacuation and wondered who was on the very last helicopter to leave the embassy roof. Who were the very last American troops to officially leave Vietnam? 

That question lingered in my mind for two decades. And in 1994, as a correspondent for People magazine, I embarked on a journalistic mission to become the first person to identify the men on that very last chopper.

These men were a part of history, yet no journalist had ever bothered to find these guys, and thank them. And the U.S. military never compiled an official list of their names or held any ceremony in their honor. It wasn’t easy tracking them all down; it took a bit of detective work. But I was resolute. After nearly a month, I found them. 

The magazine flew every member of that crew who could make it to San Diego for a highly emotional reunion that I was honored to hostThat was the first time these Marines - most of them guards at the embassy - had been together since that horrific day on the embassy roof. 

What I did not know until I started interviewing them was that they all thought they'd been left behind and that they would likely die on that roof that night. They waited for hours for that final helicopter to come while the embassy beneath them and the city around them crumbled.

When the producers of the play Miss Saigon read my story in People, they called me and invited all these Marines, and me, to the Washington DC premiere of the play at the Kennedy Center. The play, which puts the Madame Butterfly story into a Vietnam context, has a scene at the end that poignantly depicts the helicopter escape by these American Marines.

It was, appropriately, my first visit to Washington. I could not have felt more patriotic and more proud to bring these guys together, again. We all met up before the play at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, better known as The Wall, which most of them had surprisingly not seen. There wasn't a dry eye among these tough Marines at The Wall as they read the names of buddies lost, or when they watched the final scene of Miss Saigon. 

Miss Saigon 
They were watching their own life up on that stage. Afterward, the ranking and most vociferous member of the group, Maj. Jim Kean, commented on the fact that one of his men on that helicopter, S.Sgt. Robert Frain, had reportedly killed himself in 1993 after a battle with depression. My assumption is that Frain may have had post-traumatic stress (PTSD) from his Vietnam days. But I don’t know that for certain. 

"I really miss Bobby," Kean told me that day at The Wall, his voice cracking. "I wish he was here with us."

Now here we are again, in another protracted war that many insist is not winnable. The war in Afghanistan is the longest in American history, and whether you think we should stay or go, it's hard not to think about the possibility of the Taliban violently storming the country just as the North Vietnamese did when the Americans left Vietnam. 

As I've written before, our brave and confident troops think they can train the Afghans in time to restore order and keep the Taliban down by the time we leave next year. When the last American warriors do leave Afghanistan, I'll be thinking about those men in Saigon 35 years ago, the last to leave Vietnam, and what they saw as they looked out that heli's window: a city, and country, in ruins and being taken over by the bad guys. 

The hope among American military and its allies, and all of us, is that we will leave Afghanistan in a much better state than what we left behind in Vietnam. Regardless, we've been there long enough. It’s time to bring our men and women home. All of them. And, most importantly, we must support them after they come home.


  1. Jamie:
    A very timely and well written commentary on the Vietnam War. Having served in both theaters, I can tell you we did much better in Vietnam that Afghanistan. In Vietnam, we actually got a peace treaty and we, the U.S., achieved all of the stated goals we set out to achieve. Unfortunately, two years after the Paris Peace Accords were signed, the North Vietnamese realized that the U.S. had a very weak President in the form of Gerald Ford and decided to test him by directly violating the terms of the peace treaty. At that point, Ford had every justification to send the B-52 bombers over Hanoi and level the city, thus ending the "spring offensive" against the South. Instead, the poor, pathetic figure of a President did nothing and the North Vietnamese realized they had made the correct call. Unfortunately, Gerald Ford was no Richard Nixon and that's the great untold story of the Vietnam War. In Afghanistan, we were never in a position to win because we never had the courage to confront Hamid Karzai on any key points. As a result, Afghanistan was a failure from the very beginning.

    John Cook.

  2. What an extraordinary story behind the story... Thank you for all you did. And may all those still living find peace.

    1. anthony, thanks for this. i hadn't seen this comment when the story ran three years ago