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Vietnam vets remember fall of Saigon



Published: Sat, April 30, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Only a few dozen Marines were involved in the evacuation, but they have dealt with their memories in many ways.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SAN DIEGO -- Outside the window of the general's conference room, a new class of young Marines is going through training exercises -- shouting, marching, dropping to do 20 when the drill instructor sees fit.

Inside, two retired Marines can hear the racket but are distracted by the past, by a painful episode of military history that none of the new recruits was even alive to witness.

One of the men is John Valdez, 67, a career Marine whose life for three decades has been defined by one overarching distinction: On April 30, 1975, he was the last man to climb on board the last helicopter out of Saigon, an act that marked the end of America's official military presence in Vietnam, though combat had been turned over to the South Vietnamese two years earlier.

The other man, Colin Broussard, 54, is one of a handful of Marines who once was assigned to the personal security detail of Graham Martin, the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam.

On that final day in Saigon, Broussard risked his life to keep the ambassador safe in a bizarre mad dash out of the city that involved a secret tunnel, a pact with the French and direct orders from the president of the United States.

Valdez and Broussard saw and did things on that historic day that haunt them still:

They left behind loyal Vietnamese employees they feel certain were killed by the communists shortly after the hurried U.S. evacuation.

They left behind the bodies of two fallen comrades, an omission of unspeakable regret because there is nothing a Marine holds more dear than the vow to never leave another killed or wounded Marine on the battlefield.

And, maybe worst of all, they left behind an advancing enemy they believed the American military could have defeated if only the political forces of the day had not influenced things.

"It was horrific to watch," Valdez said. "We came damn close to becoming the new American Alamo -- and we would have been the guys to die defending it."

Dealing with memories

Valdez and Broussard, Californians and founding members of the Fall of Saigon Marine Association, remain close friends.

But as they sit side by side inside the conference room at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego on a recent spring morning, it is clear in an instant how differently the events of April 30, 1975, affected them.

Broussard, who retired as a master sergeant, cannot make it through the telling of his story without weeping, taking long breaks, holding his face in his hands and whispering again and again, "What is wrong with me? What is wrong with me?"

Valdez, who retired as a master gunnery sergeant, has no trouble talking about that day or even the decisions he made as the top enlisted man on the ground that put people in battle positions where they eventually would die.

In those final 24 hours before the United States at long last abandoned its effort to stem the spread of communism in Vietnam, just 52 Marines remained to guard the soon-to-be-overrun American Embassy and the Defense Attache Office near the Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon.

How close they came to not making it out alive has become a story for the history books, for the military documentarians, even for the Broadway musical "Miss Saigon."

But the men's story is not confined to that one day.

The story of the Vietnam War -- its battles and its conclusion -- continues, in men like Valdez and Broussard. Their mixed feelings over the decades-old conflict mirror a nation still so divided that Vietnam became an issue in a tight presidential race last year.

Their struggles to recover from combat mirror the struggle so many troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are experiencing today.

"If you talked to all of us who remained on that day, everyone's reactions would run the gamut. Some guys are great. Some are messes. Some have killed themselves because they couldn't get over what happened there," said Valdez, ever the direct talker after more than 30 years in the Marines. "People could probably learn something from us, using us as a case study."

Reunion

Many of the Marines from that final day, including Broussard and Valdez, planned to reunite again this weekend. They planned to gather in front of the Vietnam Memorial Wall on Saturday to award a Purple Heart to a comrade wounded on that last day but never honored.

"The guys from that day really have slipped through the cracks," Valdez said. "None of the paperwork made it out so if they were wounded in those final weeks, the Army doesn't have proof of it."

Tourists who see Valdez and Broussard and their buddies there will almost certainly realize they are veterans of that decades-old war. But few will know the role those now-graying men played the day they made it out of Saigon, or that it marked America's final gasp in the still-controversial war.

Broussard said he thinks President Ford summed it up best in his letter to the Fall of Saigon Marines.

"We did the best we could," the former president wrote. "History will judge whether we could have done better. One thing, however, is beyond question -- the heroism of the Marines who guarded the embassy during its darkest hours."

The Fall of Saigon Marine Association is an exclusive group; only the several dozen Marines who were still in Saigon on April 29 and 30 of 1975 are eligible for membership.

Almost without exception, the men are pro-military Marines, and they feel a bond with anyone who served in that conflict.

But they say they also feel as though their experience -- the attempt to evacuate an embassy and its American and Vietnamese staff in less than 24 hours -- is unique, and that few outsiders could fully fathom it.

Web site messages

On the association's Web site is a letter from Ford that seems to recognize that sentiment. His opening lines say: "April 1975 was indeed the cruelest month. The passage of time has not dulled the ache of those days, the saddest of my public life." Ford wrote the letter after the 25th anniversary of the evacuation.

When the association was founded, it established an Internet site, and soon the Marines who were in Saigon at the end of April 1975 were reuniting online. They sent messages about the memories they had, the nightmares that sometimes still came.

Valdez, the association's president, opened up early, setting an example that many men would follow and thus establishing a collection of written firsthand accounts of that day.

On the association's Web site, Valdez wrote of the last letter he mailed from Vietnam. It was to the family of Cpl. Charles McMahon, of Woburn, Mass., to tell them their son had made it safely into Vietnam and would now be serving at the embassy.

But within days, as the North Vietnamese began to target the Saigon airport, Valdez, who was in charge of all work assignments as the highest-ranking enlisted man, tasked young McMahon with heading there to pull security.

That assignment lasted just days. Along with 19-year-old Lance Cpl. Darwin Judge, of Marshalltown, Iowa, McMahon, 23, was killed on April 29, becoming the final two U.S. troops officially to be killed in the war.

Valdez spent April 29 and 30 orchestrating the final chaotic exodus from the embassy. Thousands of Vietnamese, many of whom had been promised safe passage to the United States, swarmed around the gates.

When it became clear that the small 20-person helicopters landing on the embassy's lawn and roof couldn't get all these people out, Valdez ordered his Marines to retreat inside the compound.

Only 11 Marines, including Valdez, remained by 3 a.m. on April 30. They climbed to the roof of the embassy, locking the doors to each floor behind them, with no means to call for help.

Four hours later, many of the men assumed they would either be killed by the communist troops surrounding the city or by the frenzied crowds that by then had broken through the embassy's gate and were breaking their way through each locked door between the floor and the roof.

"I thought, 'This is where it ends. This is what it feels like to be cornered,'" Valdez said.

But, then, off in the distance, Valdez spotted that final helicopter. One by one, he got his young Marines on board and then climbed in himself.

As the helicopter flew off, bound for a U.S. Navy carrier offshore, Valdez barely looked back at the embassy. Today, as a man nearing 70, he recognizes the drama of that moment and wishes he had appreciated what he was witnessing.

"If I had known the historical significance of that moment, I would have taken notes to document it," he said.

Broussard, who says he still "deals with the memories every day," wrote one of the more dramatic accounts of that final day in Saigon.

On April 29, after the airport was heavily bombed in the attack that killed Judge and McMahon, Ambassador Martin demanded to go there to assess the damage and see if an evacuation using fixed-wing aircraft, which had been the longstanding plan, was still possible.

Broussard, assigned to the ambassador's personal security detail, led the trip.

"It was an absolute mess," he said. "We knew immediately when we saw the airfield that the fixed-wing operation was done. We knew we couldn't get out any more Vietnamese. Now we could only get out a few people at a time on small helicopters that could land at the embassy."

Indelible images

At the embassy, Broussard saw images he has never been able to shake: a mother throwing her child over the tall outside wall in the hope that the Marines inside would fly him to a better life in the United States, a family who had worked for years for the embassy who made it to the gate, their bags packed, only to be told their flight was no longer going.

Soon the ambassador got a "flash top secret" notice from the president: Evacuate everyone still in Saigon immediately.

Martin said before he could do that he had to go to his residence several blocks away to destroy confidential documents. The crowds, Broussard told the ambassador, would kill them if they left out the gates.

So, using a secret passageway between the U.S. Embassy and the adjacent French Embassy, the ambassador sneaked out with Broussard and Staff Sgt. Jim Daisy. The three made it to the residence, burned the materials and made it back to the French Embassy even as gunfire raged in the streets around them.

Daisy remained one of Broussard's friends long after they evacuated with the ambassador on one of the last helicopters out of Saigon. The two saw each other at an association reunion several years ago where many men saw one another and relived for the first time those final events.

Not long after, Daisy committed suicide.

One of the principal missions of the Fall of Saigon Association revolves around the memories of Judge and McMahon, whose bodies were not recovered for nearly a year after the chaos of the exit.

The association has helped establish memorial parks in the hometowns of each man and each year gives high school students from those local high schools college scholarships in McMahon and Judge's name.

It lobbied to get the two fallen Marines, who had never gotten posthumous medals, Purple Hearts, which were awarded April 30, 2000, the 25th anniversary of the evacuation of Saigon.

All these years later, Broussard weeps the hardest when he talks of these young men.

"I should have been killed, not Judge or McMahon. They were so young, new and innocent," Broussard said.

Today, Broussard goes every chance he can to Camp Pendleton north of San Diego. Marines there have been through some of the diciest days of Iraq -- hand-to-hand combat in Najaf, the battle for control of always-restive Fallujah.

Over the past two years, he said he has informally counseled hundreds of them.

"I just approach them and tell them a little about my experience and the way it has stayed with me all these years," he said. "And they start to open up pretty quickly."




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