Don thinks of himself as a storyteller learning to be a writer.


Interview with Don Meyer

The following interview with memoirist Don Meyer on his book The Protected Will Never Know was originally published July 2004 in Magazine Americana at AmericanPopularCulture.com.


Did you know you were going to write a memoir when you were in
Vietnam?


No, I did not. All I thought about was staying alive and getting back home.

When did you decide to write this book?

In a college English class, we had to write an impromptu short story, and I wrote about an incident in Vietnam that happened to me. From that short story and others I had told I had the basis of my book.

How long did it take you to write it?

It took about three weeks, at night and on weekends, to pound out (on a manual typewriter) that first draft. I spent another six to eight months polishing and rewriting.

What resources did you have?

I had a journal that I kept, letters to my future ex-wife, letters to another girl I kept in contact with, and letters back to the office where I worked. But most of all I had my memories. Those came flooding back to me as soon as I hit the keys of that old manual typewriter.

You tucked the manuscript away for decades. Then your daughter encouraged you to do something with it. Tell us about her in relation to this project.

My daughter, Carroll, read an early draft when she was in high school and encouraged me to "do something with it,” but I let it be. After high school, she joined the Air Force and spent eight years there, including being caught up in this current mess. While we were discussing our armed service connection, she again inquired about the manuscript and again encouraged me to get it out of the box and get it out there for others to read. I finally dug it out, pounded it into the computer, sent it off to my editor, and got it published, if for no other reason than to be done with it. With her military background, I believe she understood the importance of getting this book out. The book also helped her to understand more about what her father endured during the Vietnam War (excuse me, conflict) and what others of her generation knew or didn't know about that time.

You recount your first contact with the enemy in gruesome detail. Tell us about that experience.

Usually, we were harassed by sniper fire, or a mortar attack, or a hit and run, but to be pinned down during an all out firefight was quite different. When the initial burst of gunfire erupted, we went through the normal reaction and waited for it to subside because, in guerrilla warfare, they use hit and run tactics. Once I realized they weren’t going away, and I was in this for the long haul, a different feeling set in, and I shifted to survivor mode: “What will it take to get out of this situation and how can I do that?”

The understanding that you are caught, and men are dying and getting wounded, brings home a gruesome reality that this may be it. Fortunately, a survival instinct takes over, and you do what you can to save yourself and your buddies. Heroes aren't born; they ‘re created by extraordinary circumstances during extraordinary events. You don't think about what you’re going to do, you just do it. Survival. What all of us did on that hill that day was simply that: survival. You realize you are up against a superior force that has the high ground with no help on the way. You retreat and regroup to fight another day. And you get the living and wounded out of harm's way. Next time, maybe you’ll have the superior force.

Much of the soldier's time is spent waiting. Talk to us about the tedium, the boredom.

In a search and destroy mission, you’re constantly looking for the enemy, so you move to an area and run patrols out of your position. While one group is out, you wait for your turn. Or sometimes you just move into a position and hold ground, so to speak. During these lulls, there really isn't much to do. You do maintenance, you clean your weapon, and, in my case, I also serviced my radio. After that, you wait. We played card games, talked, took moments to ourselves. Being out in the bush didn't give us much chance to do anything else. Often times you hoped for some action just to get the adrenaline pumping or the juices flowing. No one wanted to get "rusty."

And, to make matters worse, there were insects to contend with.

Were there ever. Mosquitoes were the worst. In addition to being down right brutal, they also carried malaria. Leeches, ticks, red ants, scorpions...

You really missed your best friend Jack after he was wounded and went home.

Yeah, Jack was a mentor, a friend and a confidant. You try not to get close to anyone for fear of losing them, so typically you take a standoffish attitude. But, with Jack, I grew close and dependent. I didn’t take to anyone after he left and certainly didn't bond with anyone new coming in. I kept my distance after that.

Then it was your turn to get wounded and go home.

Yes, my unit was part of Nixon's incursion into Cambodia in May 1970. We ran into stiff resistance there fighting the NVA regulars. A week after we crossed the border, I and several others were wounded in a hit and run attack. The bullet penetrated the inside of my left ankle and exited through the top of my foot. In addition to destroying my ankle bone, the bullet pierced an artery and severed most of the nerves leading to my foot. I had emergency surgery in Vietnam, then I was shipped off to Japan for a secondary operation. After three weeks in the hospital there, I was sent to Great Lakes Naval Station (near my home in Chicago) for another operation. Three months in the hospital there, then off to Fort Hood, Texas, where I underwent a year of physical therapy to learn how to walk again.

You were awarded medals for your service.

Well, in a situation like that, you don't think about medals, they just sort of happen. Only afterward can you fully appreciate the impact of the "fruit salad" on your uniform. They are benchmarks of your time in service and actions thereof. Not something you dwell on (nor should you).

In your book, you keep repeating the phrase, "Will the real enemy please
stand up?" Talk to us about that refrain and what it means to you.


Hmmm, that’s a tough one. Let me see if I can simplify it. Your first order of business is to kill the enemy before they kill you, simple. Anything that stands in your way or affects your mindset or distracts you from doing what you must will probably get you killed. Gung-ho officers, glory hungry or obsessed officers taking you down the wrong road becomes a concern. Rear support people with stupid ideas or orders or no clue of what it is really like out there in the boonies can become a problem. News from back home about the protests, (and they escalated when we crossed over into Cambodia at places like Kent State), distracts you from your job. All you have is the guys in the field with you, the guys who will watch your back while you watch theirs. It’s tough enough to fight the actual enemy without all of the other baggage.

Although you only recently published your memoir, you wrote the first draft as a twenty-something kid. What are your thoughts about the war today?

The toughest thing was not to update the book to reflect what I know now. The concept of the book was to tell my story as I lived it as a twenty-year-old kid thrust into an unimaginable situation. As a student of the war and that period, I have done a lot of research and read quite a bit regarding that time, so my outlook would be quite different today.

All you have to do is follow the news to understand how I feel now. I truly believed my generation put an end to such things, but watching my daughter get caught up in this mess today sent shivers down my spine. Fortunately, she did her time, plus a little extra, served where she had to and is home and out of the service.

We were a rebellious generation back then. At eighteen, men were forced to register for the draft and, unless you could buy your way out of it (like the National Guard) or afford to go to college, you most certainly were going to Vietnam. 2.5 million men passed through Vietnam. Yes, you were going. However, at eighteen, we couldn’t legally drink, nor could we vote! Think about that. We had no say, we had to register for the draft, and we had to go. Amidst all of the protests and marches and mistreatment of the returning soldiers, it was our fighting and dying that protected the right to do that. Ironic, huh? But not really.

It took a few years to understand that the protestors were right, and we were not fighting for rights. In fact, no one is really sure what we were fighting and dying for. As a combat wounded veteran, you really have to remove yourself from that concept. Otherwise, you’ll go stark raving mad (and quite a few did). It still amazes me today when I sit in a meeting with my three piece suit at a table with others in three piece suits and find out one or two of the others in three piece suits were in Vietnam, always with a class of '69 or class of '70 or... some such response…followed by a brief chat about where we were (I was in the central highlands) etc. 2.5 million men passed through Vietnam, and we’re still out there, but you hardly ever hear about us or realize the person you’re talking to may have been there. I think that says more about that war than anything else.

What I think about the Vietnam War now really doesn't matter. Sure, I’m more knowledgeable and more cognizant of the war, the times, and the politics of it all, but in the grander scheme of things, what does it really matter? A phrase we used quite often over there was "but, it don't mean nothin." I think that phrase says it best.

I lived it, I survived it, I told my story the only way it could be told: from the point of view of the naïve twenty-year-old. I've moved on, I've grown up.
... and I watch it happen all over again on the news everyday.

 

 

©2011 Don Meyer
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