Haunting Legacy

Deborah Kalb is an accomplished journalist and the co-author of the influential nonfiction book Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama. Her co-author was none other than her father, Bernard Kalb, who covered the Vietnam War.

So I was thrilled when Deborah interviewed me for her book blog.

She reached out to me because I’m participating in the annual Temple Sinai Authors’ Roundtable on February 27th, along with three wonderful writers:

  • Michelle Brafman, Washing the Dead
  • Maureen Corrigan, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures
  • Sarah Wildman, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind

The panel discussion will be moderated by Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of DC’s venerable independent bookstore Politics and Prose.

So yes, it’s going to be book-lovers’ heaven here in Washington, DC next Saturday. If you’re in the area, please come join us.

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The real thing

Photo: Chris Banigan

Photo: Chris Banigan

When you write a novel about a nurse who served in Vietnam – based entirely on research and imagination – it’s a thrill to receive a letter from a real Vietnam veteran nurse telling you what she thought about the book. I received such a letter last week. 

I don’t know the nurse, or even her name. She sent the letter to a friend, who sent it to another friend, who forwarded it to another friend, who sent it to me. (Interestingly, all of the women in this friend chain are named Susan.) I’m sharing the letter with the writer’s permission.

Oh, and that exhausted nurse in the photo? That’s not the letter writer. (At least, not as far as I know!) The photo was taken by the late Capt. Chris Banigan, during one of her two tours of Vietnam. (You can see more of her photos here.)

Enjoy the letter.

Her Own Vietnam] brought back many memories. My experience was better than many nurses simply because I was a newlywed who followed her husband, and the armies were standing down. I was opposed to the war before I joined the Army and participated in the 1969 anti-war rally in DC. (See Forrest Gump.) However, I always supported the troops.

I remember the [draft] lottery and flying over [to Vietnam] in summer greens and pumps on a commercial flight. You know you’re going into a combat zone when they make sure your dental records are updated to ID you in case of death, and you travel to your base in an armed convoy.

My husband and I were stationed together. He worked in a drug treatment center while I was in the medical wing of the 24th Evacuation Hospital [in Long Binh]. I truly have mostly good memories about my experiences: the soldiers from the bush who loved seeing “round-eyed” girls, our colleagues from all over the country, the general who allowed a best friend to stay with his dying buddy. Even Bob Hope came.

We did, however, have an armed guard at our (air-conditioned) barracks – not to defend against the Viet Cong but to keep the drunk GIs out. I was only accosted once.

We worked 12 hour shifts 6 days a week, and I was especially tired as I got pregnant (oops) the night I arrived. I, too, felt I could keep my brother out of Vietnam by being there.  I met a private in personnel who had served several tours just to keep her brothers safe.

I was found out during routine drug screening (I think they did pregnancy tests on all the women) and med-evaced out of the country and forced to leave the Army. There were several of us pregnant women on the plane (where one of the Air Force nurses was wearing a maternity uniform!) but the vast majority of the patients were drug addicts. Quite different from the protagonist’s experience, and I certainly experienced no PTSD.

The absolute hardest thing was to leave my husband in a combat zone. I was afraid one of us would die and the baby would be the only remembrance for the survivor. Luckily, he came home six weeks early in time for her birth.

Like the author, I was totally opposed to the Iraq war. It’s easy to support something in which you make no sacrifice. It all seemed like more useless death and maiming.

At any rate, thank you so much for the book. It was a good read, and I felt drawn back to my five months in country.

A week of remembrance

Photo: Zach Pierce mu-43dotcom

Photo: Zach Pierce mu-43dotcom

I usually write about books on this blog, but today I’m writing about war and protest. This has been a week of remembrance. The past several days have brought the 45th anniversary of the killings at Kent State and Jackson State and the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam.

Guns vs. students

In May of 1970, the Vietnam war was raging both overseas and at home. Already about 34,000 American service members had been killed. The public had just learned that President Nixon had ordered the military to invade neutral Cambodia, an action so illegal he had issued the order in secret. The news inflamed protests on hundreds of college campuses nationwide.

On May 4th in Ohio, the state’s National Guard fired on Kent State University students as they protested peacefully on their own campus, killing four students and wounding nine others.

The iconic Kent State photo by John Filo

The iconic Kent State photo by John Filo

Ten days later in Mississippi, local police responded to protests on the campus of Jackson State by shooting hundreds of rounds into a women’s dorm. The fusillade killed two students and wounded twelve more.


Broken windows and bullet holes at Jackson State

Broken windows and bullet holes at Jackson State

In a dynamic that a generation later would give rise to a movement, few people outside of Mississippi ever heard about the killings at the historically black university. The massacre of white students at Kent State drew headlines nationwide, and added fuel to the anti-war protests that embroiled an estimated 4 million college students that spring and closed down 800 campuses across the country.

Bring the boys home

Five years later, on April 30, 1975, the Vietnam war officially ended. I was a junior in college, and the war that had cast its shadow across my youth was over. “Bring the boys home,” we had chanted, and now it was finally happening.

If I was even aware that some 10,000 American women had served in Vietnam, they did not cross my mind on that day 40 years ago. I never could have imagined that I would spend more than a decade in the middle of my life writing a novel about them.

Looking back at a movement that has ended

Last weekend I attended a national conference called Vietnam: The Power of Protest, designed to reunite the Vietnam anti-war movement and examine what we’ve learned. (I am saying “we” although I was only a casual participant in the anti-war movement.)

While our nation often looks back at pivotal events, such as the recent commemoration of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, rarely do we get the chance to examine and assess a movement that has actually ended.

This is not to suggest that the peace movement is over; indeed, it is needed more than ever now that the U.S. operates in a permanent state of war. But the anti-Vietnam war movement is history. And the young, fiery activists who fought for peace now have decades of experience to call on as they consider what it all meant.

Opening session of Vietnam: Power of Protest

Opening session of Vietnam: Power of Protest


Learning the lessons

So what did the Vietnam era anti-war movement achieve? Some say the movement ended the war; others say it merely shortened the war. Some think it merely ended the draft; others think it drove one President out of office (Johnson) and launched another (Nixon) into a downhill slide from which he never recovered. I believe all of these outcomes resulted from the movement’s most spectacular accomplishment: it turned public opinion against the war.

Tom Hayden is a political activist who co-founded the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was one of the Chicago Seven convicted of “conspiracy to incite violence” after the police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention, served for a decade in the California state assembly, and wrote several books. After all that, he is probably best known for having been married to Jane Fonda.

Hayden and Fonda Photo: 1stcavmedic.com

Hayden and Fonda
Photo: 1stcavmedic.com

Hayden was a keynote speaker at the conference, and he had a singular perspective on what the movement had achieved. “We can take credit,” he said, “For creating the constituencies that elected Bobby Kennedy, Bella Abzug, Ron Dellums, and Patricia Schroeder – all elected at the height of radicalism in 1972.”

Radicals in Congress

Former Congress members Pat Schroeder (D-CO) and Ron Dellums (D-CA) also spoke at the Power of Protest conference. Schroeder recalled advocating against the war from within Congress, a seat she had won with campaign donations that averaged $7. Her campaign poster was a photo of a military cemetery with a quote from Richard Nixon saying, “Many of our soldiers have already been withdrawn.”

Pat Schroeder

Pat Schroeder


Dellums, the former mayor of Oakland and longtime member of Congress, sounded a somber note. “When the war in Vietnam was over,” he said, “a lot of people went home and left us [African Americans] to deal with poverty and injustice. What would America look like now if Martin Luther King had been alive to say, ‘The war is over. Let’s move on to end racism’?”

Ron Dellums

Powerful testimony

We heard personal testimony from a diverse range of anti-Vietnam activists, all of whom are still involved in social justice movements: Susan Schnall, a Navy nurse who was sentenced to six months hard labor for distributing anti-war leaflets while in uniform; David Harris, who served three years in federal prison for refusing the draft; Wayne Smith, a Vietnam veteran who has spent the past 40 years “helping to heal the wounds of war by addressing the causes and consequences of war.”

Mark Rudd, a leader in SDS and founder of the Weather Underground, spent seven years underground himself, a fugitive from the federal government. He personified the gamut of feelings about the anti-war movement.

Mark Rudd then and now. Photo: histoireengagee.ca

Mark Rudd then and now. Photo: histoireengagee.ca


“It was the greatest thing in my life,” he said, “to be part of a mass movement that won.” But then he questioned what exactly we had won.

“I’m going to die soon, never having tasted any power at all. Why are we so allergic to power? The right-wing doesn’t feel that way. They’re idiots! They don’t believe in global warming! But they run the country. All of our strategies and tactics should lead toward political power,” Rudd said. “The only way to do it is to organize mass movements.”

The journalist Juan Gonzalez provided a perfect definition. “Movements are made by tens of thousand of people who make individual decisions that they will risk the disapproval of their families, losing friends, losing jobs, losing their freedom, even losing their lives – because something has to change.”

But it was Heather Booth, progressive organizer and strategist, who added a grace note to the long day. Looking back at herself and her colleagues in the Vietnam anti-war movement, she recalled, “We were young, headstrong, reckless, arrogant, foolish – and we were right.”

Antiwar poster


About forgiveness

When Della Brown was 22 years old, she had just returned from a hellish year serving as a U.S. Army nurse in a combat hospital in Vietnam. During that time she had learned and lost much. She had made mistakes: errors of judgment, of inexperience. One mistake may have ended the life of a grievously injured soldier. Another cost Della her best friend. Thirty years later, Della was forced to confront those mistakes and find out whether she could learn to forgive: her country, her family, and most of all, herself.

Della is a fictional character in my novel Her Own Vietnam. But her dilemma is real. Many of us have made our own lives more difficult by holding onto grievances and regrets.

Looking back at your 22-year-old self, what would you counsel her about forgiveness?

This is how my guest blog on TNBBC’s The Next Best Book Blog begins. And then a dozen women answer the question in fascinating ways.

What would you say?

Read their answers here.