A Conversation With an American Veteran

This article, based on a filmed interview, was published in Báo Phụ Nữ,  a popular women’s newspaper in Vietnam, on 30 April 2020, the 45th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. It was translated in the U.S. by Nguyen Ba Chung. Medic has corrected errors and omissions made in the original Vietnamese to English video transcription.

One day in the fall of 2018, poet-translator Nguyen Ba Chung drove me and director Nguyen Hoang to Marc Levy’s apartment in Salem, Massachusetts.

I was truly impressed by his sad face. Many American veterans had difficulties with PTSD when they left Vietnam and returned to the United States. The William Joiner Center provided them a way to heal through writing.

Tram Huong: Back to your story, what brought you to Vietnam?

Marc Levy: My parents were emotionally disturbed. I was not a good student in high school. I didn’t know much about politics and lacked moral principles. I didn’t think for myself and believed the Army recruit posters, TV ads. I dropped out of college and drifted. To escape a crummy home life, to find an identity, I enlisted to be a medic.

I took basic training at Fort Dix in the winter of 1969. The training was really bad. It was geared toward WWII, not guerilla warfare. Who were the Viet Cong? The NVA? There was almost nothing about Vietnamese history, culture, language. After basic I trained for nine weeks as a medic at Fort Sam. Medic training had nothing to do with the actual conditions in Vietnam. I arrived there in November 1969. I left in November 1970.

TH: What was your experience with wounded soldiers in the war?

ML: Three NVA were ambushed by a platoon from my company. The GIs picked them off like fish in a barrel. When my platoon arrived, I stood about 30 feet away and watched it happen. A couple of Claymore’s had blown off their legs. They were desperate. Screaming. Poking their AK barrels beneath a log, trying to shoot us. I knelt down, leaned against my rifle and began to sob. I asked myself how we could do that to other human beings. Two or three months later, I changed.

1969 was a bad year for Delta 1-7 First Cavalry Division. They were known as Dying Delta. 1970 was relatively quiet. Morale was low, contact was limited to small firefights, the occasional ambush, a rocket or mortar attack. In Cambodia there was contact almost daily. Not big battles, only skirmishes, small fire fights. That said, LZ Ranch was overrun when Delta had perimeter guard. Between the artillery crews and Delta grunts, there were 5 KIA and 26 wounded. It was terrifying. Afterward, no-man’s-land was expanded to better prevent sappers from crawling over the berm.

TH: Have you ever returned to Vietnam?

ML: In 1994, after I worked a year in New Zealand I flew to Singapore, then traveled in Laos for several weeks up the Mekong. From there I flew to Hanoi. As the plane made its descent I saw bomb craters everywhere; I had terrible anxiety. On a crowded street in Hanoi I stood and watched hundreds of people on bicycles ride past. The soft whir of tires on the paved road, the tingling bells, human voices filling the air. Even though I was hot and sweating, these sights and sounds were lovely. On the other side of the street a group of men in NVA uniforms sat on their haunches. I got very anxious and angry. A nearby church bell suddenly rang out. It was like an explosion. I panicked, rushed back to my little room in the Spring Hotel, whose plaster walls, I believed, were 10 inches thick. I locked the door, jumped into bed, pulled a pillow over my head and slept for hours. I slept and I cried. It took a while before I could sit up.

A week or two later I met an American backpacker. We traveled down the coast. From Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, to Da Nang, to Pleiku, to Qui Nhon. We had many adventures, but he needed to stick to the guide book and I wanted to take chances, explore places. We had a big argument, them parted on good terms. I traveled to Saigon, then An Loc, where I had fought, and to the more remote Loc Ninh.

TH: What were you looking for in An Loc?

ML: I wanted to go there to find LZ Compton, my first firebase in the war. From there, a few weeks at a time, we patrolled around An Loc, especially in the rubber, then pulled perimeter guard on the LZ. I didn’t know about the Eastertide Offensive [“Mùa hè đỏ lửa–the Fire-red Summer] in 1972. I didn’t know that every year the Americans often re-occupied the area they once left, or the ARVN often held on to, then gave up, something like that. I wanted to return to the places where we had patrolled. Where we were ambushed a few times in late 1969 and early 1970. I wanted to walk the grounds of LZ Compton.

I caught a rickety civilian bus from Saigon’s Long Distance Bus Station to An Loc. When I got off the bus a group of villagers surrounded me. I learned later that nine months earlier they had been equally surprised by a backpacking Dutchman. A short slim man came near me. He spoke English. His name was Thanh. I told him I needed a guide. He said okay. We agreed on a price.  “Great,” I said, “I need a place to stay.” Thanh led me to the nearby Binh Long, a large wood building. A real fire trap, it might have been meant for workers, not tourists. I spent a week in that miserable $2.50 a night hole.

Thanh told me he used to work for the Americans. He was a friend of Ba, the hotel owner. They were both survivors of re-education camps, which at the time I didn’t know about, and which they didn’t want to talk about.

One day, Ba gave me a children’s bike. The seat was small and low. I peddled around An Loc to reach the rubber plantation, where I hung my GI hammock for an hour, and was attacked by hordes of mosquitoes. I stumbled upon the remains of An Loc’s main hospital, almost completely destroyed. The ruins were scarred with shrapnel and bullet holes. I walked around and jotted down notes. On the afternoon of my fourth day in An Loc the police came to my room. They pounded on the door. “Who’s that?” I asked. “This is the police,” they said. “I am sleeping,” I told them. “I don’t want to be bothered.”

TH: What year was that?

ML: 1994. They left. Ba came to the room. “Tomorrow you have to go to the police station. Otherwise there will be big trouble.” “Why?” I asked. “Just go,” he said. The next morning Thanh drove me on his Honda Cup to the small police station. They made me sit in a students chair. There was a rack of M16 sand other rifles on the wall. The cops asked me questions: “Why are you here? Where is your passport? How long will you stay? Do you have a camera? Did you take pictures?” I  said, “I came here because I fought here. This is my passport. I want to take pictures.”

I had to fill out the forms in triplicate. It took nearly an hour.  During my time in An Loc, traveling around with Thanh–I returned to Quan Loi—we become friends, and cried when I boarded the bus for Loc Ninh. The woman who rented me a huge room had been hit in the head by shrapnel during a rocket attack. Her infant daughter had also died. I was followed when I walked around the center of Loc Ninh. I asked a man with a motorcycle to be my guide. We traveled around. Then the police showed up. I spoke to a sergeant, then a lieutenant, then the commander. Each one told me, “You have to get out of here. Get out!” Each time, I said, “I’m not going. I fought here. I just want to look around.” The commander, actually the chief of police, got angry. “You don’t understand. Get out! Leave now!” he said. My guide, who’d been translating for us, gave me a look that meant ‘be careful.’ I told the police chief I would leave tomorrow. I gave him a copy of my passport. “Here,” I said. “Keep it.” “Leave on the first bus,” he scowled. I walked away. He stamped his feet and left.

Many years later I learned about the Eastertide Offensive, where thousands of NVA, armed with Chinese and Russian tanks and artillery, fought pitched battles against the ARVN, supported by American artillery, tanks, and Special Forces advisors. An Loc and Loc Ninh were completely destroyed. The civilian and combatant casualties were immense.

TH: Could you share with us your life after the Vietnam war?

ML: When I returned to the United States I had a year left in the army, and should have been a sergeant, but the lieutenant who would have promoted me was killed in a mortar attack in Phouc Vinh. On my third or fourth day at Fort Devens I was assigned guard duty, but I wouldn’t do it. They thought I was becoming …

TH: Troublesome?

ML: Correct. I had a few medals so they thought I was showing off. But I wasn’t. I had self-respect. I didn’t fear authority. It was bad winter that year. A lot of snow. And cold. The first sergeant came to my room. “You have guard duty. Get ready. I’ll be back in a half hour.” I told him I didn’t pull guard duty. When he came back, I was dressed in civilian clothes. He asked where I was going. I said, “I’m going to Boston, Sarge. See you in three days.” He was a lifer. He couldn’t believe I ignored him and left. Three days later I returned. He gave me an Article 15, kind of a traffic ticket.

Not long afterward a different sergeant told me, “You have KP.” I told him I don’t pull KP. He said a cook from the mess hall would come to my barrack at 2AM and wake me up. He said to tie a towel in a knot on my bunk so the cook could find me. When the cook came I told him, “I don’t pull KP.” I got another Article 15. I realized I had to quit the army so I stopped getting hair cuts. I didn’t salute officers. I wrote to my congressman. I went up the chain-of-command, all the way up to General Irzyk, whose aide-de camp threw me out of his office. I got involved with the Common Sense Book Store, a place where active duty GIs against the war hung out. I took part in Radio Free Devens, the only active duty GI antiwar radio in the army, broadcast from WAAF in Worcester, Massachusetts. The army of course didn’t like any of this stuff. I had a Summary court martial, which is kind of serious, then a Special court martial, which is serious, for refusing orders. I lost rank and pay in the Summary. For the Special, the Common Sense Bookstore referred me to Stan Lapon, a very good attorney in Boston.

Stan called me one night when I was home, AWOL. “Plead guilty and they’ll give you five days in jail and a General discharge. Otherwise you’ll get three months hard labor and a Dishonorable.” I took his advice.

There was a cute young stenographer at the two hour trial. When it was over she approached me and gave me a hit of speed. I couldn’t believe it. I went to prison with an amphetamine in my pocket and two MPs either side of me.

The first thing these two guys did was to take me to the prison barber. “Are you gonna co-operate or are we gonna have to hold you down?” I co-operated. The barber cut my hair down to my skull. After prison (I gave the speed to another inmate. I also shook hands with the prison commander–I had packed his pilonidal cyst with Iodaform gauze while working at the Devens hospital), I learned the army fined me 114 dollars and stripped me of all rank. The discharge paperwork took two weeks. I left the army the way I came in: Private E -1 Levy. My General discharge is the same as an Honorable.*

TH: After being discharged from the army, how do you make a living?

ML: I worked on a ground crew, as a security guard, a door man at a movie theater, and other odd jobs. Then I went to Seton Hall college in South Orange, New Jersey. From 1972 to 1976 I studied world religions. I had two groups of friends: smart and mature, and violent sociopaths.

Tram Huong: What about women?

ML: At Seton Hall I went out with many women but didn’t become emotionally involved with them. I didn’t know what it meant to empathize with someone. Except for one woman, my first love, I didn’t know what it meant to be in a relationship. I just wanted sex. When I traveled in Central America in 1992 I fell in love with a woman in Honduras. She was poor. Her goal was to use me to leave Honduras, like her sister had done with Dutchman three times her age. When the affair ended I was crushed. There were other woman I became involved with, but marriage…that never happened. And Vietnam was always on my mind.

TH: Is there any relationship between a free person, PTSD, and a writer?

ML: After college I got a state job working with veterans. I went to graduate school for a degree in social work. I made a little more money but I had problems with authority and argued with my bosses. In New York I joined two activist groups opposed to US policy in Central America. I sympathized with the people of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala because of what the American government was doing to them. In 1992 I backpacked in Central America for eight months. I drifted through 1993, then worked a year in New Zealand as a social worker. In 1994 I backpacked eight months in Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Europe. I had many adventures, but also a lot of anxiety and depression. I didn’t realize that many of my personal problems were related to war stress.

After I returned from those travels I spent 7 weeks at a VA hospital for war stress. From 1996 to 1998 I moved 12 times. When I settled down I began to write about my travels and war experience, and attended a writers workshop at the William Joiner Center. After 15 years I had enough material for a book.

TH: Your impressions and experiences of war… do you use them in your work?

ML: I have tried my hand at writing war stories but almost all my successful fiction takes place after Vietnam. I don’t read war literature. It tends to wind me up. It’s easier to write a story that takes place after Vietnam. I’ve written a few good war poems.

TH: Would you care to read something for us?

ML: Okay. I’ll read this poem. It’s called Forty-Five Days:

Toss me a grenade, he shouts
So I do that, he pulls the pin
Ping, he counts three throws the thing
BOOM they must be dead.
But now the dread snap
Their Chicom makes
When they pull the string to activate
The chemical fuse in the wood handle
That flies from the woodline,
Falls short, twists the machine gun
Wilson, Dorio, Roy, Beck raise up,
Wilson yells “Look to the left
They’ll try to outflank us.”
So I do that, the grunts shoot back
Then snap BANG dirt and dust
Everyone hit…
After the medevacs lift them away
After we recon for blood trails
And meat we leave this place,
Patrols ambush jungle monsoon–
Not how we wanted
Not how we dreamed.
No popped smoke in the open field
For birds inbound to lift us out,
No cooling air till the birds touch down–
None of that.
All day we trudge the dark wet trails,
Slip and climb the muddy hills,
Wade the dark and narrow streams
Steps so weary, with one last heave
We drop our rucks into the killing heat
And curse you love you
Vietnam. . .Vietnam.


Báo Phụ Nữ’s headline indicates the need to distinguish Medic from a popular French writer well known in Vietnam.

Top photo: a frame taken from a 1967 CBS news broadcast containing interviews of Marines trapped at Con Thien. Source: National Archives.

Tram Huong is a writer and screenwriter based in Ho Chi Minh City. She is a member of the Ho Chi Minh Writers Association.

Nguyen Hoang is a documentary film directory at Ho Chi Minh Television in Ho Chi Minh City.

Nguyen Ba Chung is a writer, poet, and translator. He is the co-translator of Thoi Xa Vang (A Time Far Past); Mountain River: Vietnamese Poetry from the Wars, 1948–1993; Distant Road: Selected Poems of Nguyen Duy; Six Vietnamese Poets; Zen Poems from Early Vietnam; and others. For many years he was a research associate at the William Joiner Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

* See How I Nearly Lost the War for a full account of this story.

45 Days first published in Chiron Review in 2017.