As part of CSM’s Connections Literary Series
What does it take to ease a man's conscience when he is haunted by war? On March18, 1969, a young American infantry lieutenant named Homer Steedly turned a bend on a trail in Kontum Province and came face to face with a North Vietnamese soldier. In the split-second that life-altering decisions are made both men reached for the guns and, as recounted by author and College of Southern Maryland Professor Wayne Karlin, Steedly shot first, killing the 24-year-old medic Hoang Ngoc Dam with a single shot through the heart.
Searching the body, Steedly found several small notebooks and papers which he took and sent home to his mother in South Carolina. A year later, he returned home and tried to forget the war, but while Dam's papers stayed hidden Steedly's memories of the war and the encounter on the trail lingered.
Thirty years later, Karlin, a friend of Steedly and himself a Vietnam veteran, located Dam's family and traveled to Vietnam to return the notebooks and documents. His recounting of that journey and its impact on the lives of Steedly and Dam's family was published in “War, Literature & the Arts,” the literary journal of the Air Force Academy, and was the subject of an NPR radio program.
As part of CSM's Connections Literary Series, Karlin will present “Wandering Souls,” a multi-media presentation on the return of Dam's documents, acts of self-healing and the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The presentation will begin at 7:30 p.m., March 2, at CSM's Leonardtown Campus, Building A, Auditorium.
In preparation for CSM's Connections program, Karlin, who is working on a new novel, a film script and a series of programs for radio, responds to questions about his friendship with Steedly, the heartbreak of war, and how soldiers are reaching out to build communities through acts of self-healing.
CSM: How did you meet Homer Steedly and how did the idea of returning Dam's personal papers come about?
Karlin: I know Homer through another writer, Tom Lacombe, who wrote a novel about infantrymen in the Vietnamese Central Highlands (Light Rucksack). Tom and Homer knew I had contacts in Vietnam as I have been promoting the work of Vietnamese writers and film makers here in the states and the work of American writers there in Vietnam. Homer was a very young infantry company commander who fought a very rough war, and he has suffered greatly from post-traumatic stress disorder. Thanks to the encouragement of his wife, Tibby, Homer came to a point in his life where he wanted to confront his memories and make something positive out of themnot by changing or denying the things that happened, but through confronting them and doing redemptive acts. Because Homer's first kill in the war had been someone he had seen face-to-face and whose papers he had taken, Homer felt he had to do everything he could to find the man's family and return the possessions he had taken. As I helped him in the process, we became good friends.
CSM: Homer Steedly is not the first time you have seen one of your fellow vets taking on acts of self-healing, could you discuss why the process is so valuable?
Karlin:The first casualty of any war is the combatant's own heart. In order to keep one's own sanity and life during war, it is sometimes necessary to dehumanize the enemy. Yet, the process of dehumanizing the enemy also means dehumanizing yourself. Men and women may have to become killers in times of war, but one of the only ways to heal is to reconnect to one's own humanity, one's own heart, by seeing the humanity denied to your former enemy. Perhaps it is a type of healing that can only happen when a war is over.
Back then, Homer saw Hoang Ngoc Dam, the man he killed, only as a threat and a targetbut looking at Dam's diaries years later, Homer suddenly saw a human being like himself. For over 30 years, Homer tried to avoid this fact but he finally realized that the only way to reconnect with his own humanity was to recognize Dam's and to accept his own experiences.
Upon returning from war, the veteran's need is to return to his family and community, not just physically, but psychologically and spiritually as well. Yet his or her participation in the killing of other human beingsno matter how justified this may be regardedsets the veteran apart. The veteran has seen and/or done things he feels no one, who hasn't been though the experience, can understand. Moreover, the veteran feels that because of the things he has seen and done, others won't be able to accept or love him.
Psychologists tell us that trauma victims need to be able to tell their story to people who can be true listenerslisten without the need to deny the story if it makes them uncomfortable and people who are ready to be changed by the story and its wisdom. In his wife, Homer found a real listener, and through his website, www.swampfox.info, he tells his story everyday so others might learn from it.
CSM: You are predominately known for writing about war; what does it mean to be a “war” writer in a time of war? Do you find it frustrating to see the mistakes of previous generations repeated?
Karlin: I don't see myself as primarily a war writer, in the traditional sense. Some of my books have been about the aftermath of war rather than about war itselfwhat I'm concerned with as a writer is the terrible and never-ending costs of war, how it ripples for years in the lives of participants, their families and countries. The underlying theme I'd hope people get from all the writing and teaching I and other veterans like Homer have done is that war is so damaging that it should be avoided wherever possible. Because I was in and have studied the Vietnam war, I am more than frustrated to see the same mistakes being made again, the same damage occurring. It's not so much that the mistakes of the previous generation are being repeated, it is that the hard-won wisdom of so many of that generationfrom those who protested the war to the professional soldiers who fought ithas been ignored. It's sickening to see the information and analysis of experts ignored in order to justify decisions that have already been made by our government. It's heart-breaking to see the collateral damage in Iraq – the killing of innocents that's inevitable when much of the population hates your presence and becomes the enemy. It's heart-breaking to see the bodies coming back, and the broken walking again among us. It's heart-breaking to see young bodies used again as bait. And it's heart-breaking to see a young soldier at home shot to death as he stands armed in his own doorway, unclear as to who his enemy has becomea scene far too familiar to those of us who remember the Vietnam era.
CSM: You have traveled to Vietnam several times; do these trips change your world view, or provide you with insights you didn't have about the nature of people, war, history, etc.?
Karlin: I have been overwhelmed by the warmth and hospitality of the Vietnamese. For me, as for many veterans who have gone back, the Vietnamese are the people who we knew would understand because they had shared the experience and did not feel the need to deny it. This trip reinforced for me how alike those of us who had fought in the waron both sideswere. It also reinforced how little we knew of the history and culture of these people and their world-view, and how knowing thatseeing the world though their eyes might have prevented bloodshed. Bringing those documents back to Dam's family was life-changingwatching the hospitality and gratitude displayed by the family and the village to this representative of the former enemy an enemy that had taken the life of their brother and the lives of two hundred others from that village, soldiers whose remains were never foundtaught me about the true power of grace and reconciliation.
CSM: The world is inundated with stories of the brutalities of war and yet many soldiers find it is a time of true companionship, friendship and loyalty. Would you like to share any of your memories of friendship (then or now)?
Karlin: Last week, a friend of mine, John Borman, who also served as a helicopter gunner in my unit during the war, came for a visit. John, with several others who had been in that unit including myself, have been involved in funding and building schools in the Quang Tri province in Vietnam. During the war, this was a very bloody area for us; we lost many helicopters and Marines there. Currently, it is a very poor area of the country; its people are plagued both by lack of educational opportunities and by many injuries and deaths caused by all the unexploded ordnance still in the ground. At John's instigation, our unit has funded and now has built a school that serves five districts and has the first in-door plumbing ever seen in the area. All of the donations came through ex-Marines and sailors, including our flight surgeon who immediately wrote a check for $20,000. There is a small plaque on the school, naming our unit as benefactor and while the plaque is kind of a monument to those of us who fought and the lives that were lost in that place, the real monument and the true healing comes from the school building itself. True healing comes from confronting truth and engaging in acts that heal and help others. At this point, 30 schools have been built by American veterans in Quang Tri through John's fund; and through the Vietnam Veterans of American initiative, over 9,000 captured documents have been returned to families in Vietnam, with the Vietnamese making a mutual effort to locate the remains of American MIAs.