A Shau Valley and Vietnam

Why did you write this book?

Fearful Odds is a memoir of my experiences during my tour in Vietnam. It is about my lifelong struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder after the war. It is my hope that veterans with PTSD and their families will read this and know that it is possible to fight through the disorder and lead a productive life.

How long did it take you to write Fearful Odds?
I began writing when I started professional treatment in 1982. In the decades that followed, I have worked methodically to understand and articulate the defense mechanisms that I developed to cope with everyday life. It started as a much larger manuscript that included a comprehensive family history and the development of the venture capital business. As the story developed, we were able to acquire the daily staff journals and combat histories of the August 1968 combat action which were extremely helpful in the course of writing the book.
Have you been back to Vietnam? Would you consider a trip back in the future?
I have not been back to Vietnam nor do I intend to return. In many ways, the process of completing Fearful Odds has been a series of trips back to the middle of the combat action with the soldiers I served with there. Vietnam has changed significantly. I am not sure that a visit back would serve any purpose since there are too many dark memories.
Do you keep in touch with veterans of the 327th or others you served with in Vietnam?

I have not attended veteran gatherings over the years. Various drafts of the book have been sent to many individuals that I served with including John Neely, Jack Pollard and Peter Quirin. As the book was being completed, we have reached out to members of the American Legion in Stickney, North Dakota and learned that the Legion post there is named for Ronald Noldner. We have also been in touch with faculty and staff at Edison High School in Philadelphia where Lee Blevins attended. I’m open to hearing from more veterans who can contact me through this website.

How did you keep your spirits up? What gave you hope? Was it possible to keep any sense of humor?

A day did not go by that I was not thinking about my plans for a future with Marsi. That gave me hope and kept my spirits up. It was vitally important to keep my mind active and have multiple scenarios so that I could adapt to whatever situation came along. Soldiers establish an immediate brotherhood, particularly in combat. Anyone who has been in the middle of a combat action knows that with extreme danger there is a heightened sense of irony. You ask yourself: “How did I get into this situation?” and “How am I ever going to get out?” That sort of thing. Humor can really help get you through tough times, but it doesn’t help you deal with a sucking chest wound when your buddy’s life is on the line. In that moment, your military training is key. How you respond is the difference between life and death.

How has combat changed your feelings about your country? Your politics?
When you fight for your country you feel like you own it. When you see your country doing very stupid things it tears you apart. With the advantage of looking back over the past five decades, some of our current politicians have the same careless, disregard for the welfare of our servicemen and servicewomen fighting and dying. When you wage a war, you should fight it to win and not worry about your popularity in the polls or with the media. It is pointless to place our military resources – personnel and material — into situations that will ultimately place them in jeopardy and risk total failure of the operation. I believe the war in Vietnam was justified, but our political leadership would only let us fight with one hand behind our back.
What’s the most important life lesson you learned from your experience in Vietnam?
I learned how important it is to plan for all eventualities and to never give up. I went to Vietnam imbued with the spirit of a warrior and came back forever altered. I fought to stay alive, dealt with the physical and emotional stress of the situation and returned to make a life for myself and my family. My combat experience and the lessons I learned, good and bad, are with me every day of my life.

Ancestors and Early Years

Why was your experience at Shattuck School valuable and who most inspired you to pursue the military?

My family association with the American military dates back to the Revolutionary War and well over a century with Shattuck School (now Shattuck-St. Mary’s School) in Faribault, Minnesota. My great-grandfather, Capt Asa Abbott was military commandant from 1886 to 1901. My grandfather, Charles Newhall, started in 1888 and returned to serve as headmaster from 1916 to 1936. My father and I continued the family legacy which was very important to me growing up. I respect the men of my family.

It was, however, my grandmother who shaped me and encouraged me to attend Shattuck and seek out a military career, not because she thought I needed to shape up, but because she wanted me to be a warrior.

My grandmother would talk to me about my ancestors honor on the battlefield. She told me that defeat is the stepping-stone to the next victory. Learn from defeats and do not make the same mistake twice.

Are you affiliated with Shattuck today?

I have had a lifelong association with Shattuck. The school has expanded and matured with Centers of Excellence in many disciplines.

On writing about combat and …?

There are several themes running through Fearful Odds that directly relate to current veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan including: Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI), Chronic Pain Issue, Impact Issues of Suicide and Sexual Trauma. What can other veterans do to help confront these issues?

For anyone suffering, it is important to recognize that PTSD is a disorder. You must first recognize the warning signs, seek professional help and gather as much information as you can to understand what is happening to you. Everyone handles stress differently and develop certain defense and coping mechanisms. The level of intensity from a combat situation, traumatic brain injury, suicide or any of the other issues in Fearful Odds are extremely intense. It is important to understand the difference between defense and coping mechanisms as you are seeking treatment. There are numerous examples on the website along with a listing of partner organizations that can be helpful in providing more information. Understand the triggers that initiate a post-traumatic event and use cognitive behavior therapy to cope.