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Vietnam Veteran Remembers The Fall of Saigon As Kabul Gives Way

U.S. Army Chinook helicopter flies over Kabul, Afghanistan August 15, 2021.
A U.S. Army helicopter flies over Kabul, Afghanistan. Former Marine Russ Clark said the scenes of the evacuation in Kabul are almost identical to what he saw in 1975, when the military was evacuating from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon.

The fall of Afghanistan, particularly the images from the chaos in Kabul, has deeply resonated with veterans from another long war that saw a tragic and bloody end. Nearly 50 years ago, in April 1975, Saigon fell to the People's Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong. Much of the event was televised or photographed.

TPR’s Carson Frame spoke with Russ Clark, a former Marine infantry commander in Vietnam and a volunteer counselor and chaplain with Disabled American Veterans and Point Man International Ministries in Ohio. You can read more his reflections on the end of the Afghanistan War at vetchapel.com

FRAME: So let's go back in time a little bit here. You served as a Marine officer in Vietnam, first as a platoon leader and later as a company commander, if I recall. That was a yearlong tour starting in 1969. As you and I have talked about, there are a lot of parallels between the ending of that war and what's happening on the ground in Kabul in the present day. Does it bring back memories or stir up particular feelings for you?

CLARK: Yeah. I am seeing right now the scene of the evacuation going on... the helicopters or “choppers,” as we call them, on the roof of our embassy there. It's almost identical to the scenes that I saw in 1975, evacuating from the rooftop of our embassy in Saigon. And so yes, it triggers a lot of those memories. Of course, I left Vietnam in the summer of 1970. At that time, there was still a good chance that we could contain the enemy and preserve something of a stable government in South Vietnam. After I returned to the States, I read intently about the changes that were happening. And of course, then in 1975, the fall of the South Vietnamese government. Yeah, the feeling is one of pain, futility, sense of powerlessness, even embarrassment, deflation. All of those are what I'm naming as part of what I'm dealing with right now.

Russ Clark during his tour of Vietnam, which lasted from 1969-1970, and in the present day.
Photos courtesy of Russ Clark
Russ Clark during his tour of Vietnam, which lasted from 1969-1970, and in the present day.

FRAME: Yeah, I can't even imagine that. It's been almost 50 years since the United States’ withdrawal from Vietnam. And a lot of that, from what I understand, was televised...the fall of Saigon itself. Where were you as that was happening? What were you doing? Were you very tuned into the TV?

CLARK: Yeah, thanks for asking that. That's part of my most vivid memory bank. I actually was in graduate school, theological school at that time, after my discharge from the Marine Corps. And I was in a bookstore there. I was not glued to the TV right then. But one of my fellow students who was also a Vietnam veteran came in and said, “Russ, have you been watching?” And I said, “Friend, no. But I've been told what is transpiring.” And so we held each other right there in that bookstore because we were sharing that grief, and sharing that sense of overwhelming loss. I'll always remember that, Carson. Very, very vivid.

FRAME: It sounds like a very powerful, wordless exchange there at the end. You said the word ‘loss’ there and ‘futility’ as well. Where did those feelings come from, for you at that time?

CLARK: Well, when South Vietnam was lost, the question that I asked — and many others asked — and they are asking that same question today regarding Kabul...What was it worth? Was it worth this? And is this all we have to show for 20 years and $2 trillion and 2,400 lives? That's the sense of futility, Carson...knowing that we invested that much in blood and treasure...and all these years for nation building, for preserving some sense of stable government. And it all vanished within a week. So there is a tremendous, overpowering sense of futility. And the next step is often cynicism, or a sense of, “What is anything worth?” And that becomes nihilism. “Nothing matters. I mean, if this didn't matter, what does matter?” This is what I'm hearing, and this is what I'm experiencing within.

FRAME: Yeah. I mean, you're pointing to a dangerous slide, you know, where you're extrapolating meanings from the conflict and then applying them to the rest of your life. You're saying that that can go too far and really reach a terrible place, if I'm hearing you.

CLARK: I mean, right now, of course, our great concern about a lot of veterans of the war in Afghanistan is that they're already on that slide, that slippery slide. So veterans groups are trying to reach out to them. Because a lot of the younger veterans are doing what we did 50 years ago. They're isolating and they've gone within. And that becomes a type of hell, just turning in on yourself... that becomes depression. It can also become alcohol, substance abuse, and it can also lead to suicidal ideation. And so that's what we're trying to intervene with right now. Catching up before they go too far.

FRAME: In your own reckoning with the war in Vietnam, did you...or do you...acknowledge that any progress was made or that anything positive happened in the country because of the American presence? I mean, it was that something that you, you know, something that you found yourself digging for that meaning? Or was it something you found ultimately?

CLARK: I did, and I thank God for it. What I have learned — what I did learn a few decades ago, actually — was that our being in Vietnam, enabled 10 years or so of stability and opportunities for the children, the young people, to get an education. So it was not a waste. I mean, so the friend that helped me see that, he said, “Don't discount what you were able to accomplish. The war did not turn out the way you wanted it to, by any means. It was not a victory. It was a defeat. But you had those 10 years there, providing safety and security and opportunities for the South Vietnamese people.” That helped me a whole lot. And I would say the same thing today. I'm already saying it to the recent veterans from this war. You know, we've had 20 years there. And think of the opportunities that have been given, especially to the women and to the girls there in Afghanistan. Right now, our greatest fear is that that will lead to a very dark time for them. But at least they've had those 20 years of freedom and safety. But Carson, it takes a while to get to that. And it takes help, and nobody can walk this journey alone.

Available Resources

per the Department of Veterans Affairs:

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Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.