Vietnam veteran writes memoir
It took Mike Archer more than 30 years before he could deal with the memories of Vietnam and write the book he hopes will help preserve the history of what he and 6,000 other Marines endured at Khe Sanh.
In a war most Americans think of as a guerrilla conflict, Khe Sanh was the first major traditional battle complete with artillery, tanks and large-scale frontal assaults by North Vietnamese troops. Between January 1968 and mid-April when they began pulling out, he said the Marines suffered more than 50 percent casualties including 1,000 killed.
“I started to write this story a number of times over the years,” he said. “Every time I started to write, it battered me.”
Finally, seven or eight years ago, he stumbled across a tape recording made by another Marine during one of those artillery barrages. Hearing the shelling begin, he and two buddies scrambled for cover.
“We quickly dove through the hatch of an underground bunker just as the last round exploded exactly where we had been standing,” he wrote.
But rather than fear and panic, the three were soon laughing hysterically, teasing each other about their reactions to the shelling.
“When I listened to that tape, I said that isn’t me. In a way, I knew it was somebody different,” Archer, who lives in Reno, said.
He said that realization finally allowed him to distance himself enough from what he lived through at Khe Sanh to write about it. His memoir, “A Patch of Ground: Khe Sanh Remembered,” was published two years ago.
Intense and personal, it has been described as capturing “the feelings, characters and events in a superb manner” by the unit’s former Chaplain Ray Stubbe.
And in January, he said, he will finally return to Vietnam and Khe Sanh, which he said friends have told him is once again quiet, green and beautiful, with little sign of the carnage they left behind in 1968.
While the writing was partly catharsis, Archer says he had other reasons including the fact that Thomas Patrick Mahony III, who he went to high school in Berkeley with, died during the siege.
“I wanted a little immortality for my friend,” he said. “He was only 20 when he died.”
It was also to dispel some of the myths about a war he says few younger Americans understand.
“When it was over, everybody wanted to forget it and there are a lot of myths out there that are not true.”
First, he said, they weren’t killing innocent civilians.
“The myth was we were fighting a lot of Viet Cong farmers. They were well equipped and well trained,” he said. “There really weren’t a lot of civilians around to kill.”
And they were young men in many ways like him. Archer recalls checking the Vietnamese bodies after one fire fight. When he knocked the helmet off one of the dead, there was a picture of his wife or girlfriend inside.
“In all my training, it never occurred to me these guys had wives and families,” he said. “They wanted to go home just like us.”
Archer said the book has gotten him several invitations to speak to history classes around the country. The typical audience is a combination of “guys who were there and young students in college.”
“Partly because of Iraq, there’s renewed interest in Vietnam.”
He said those events give him the opportunity to encourage other veterans to write down their experiences before they are lost forever, a passion since his college degree is in history.
“I know a lot of my friends are starting to put things down,” he said.
He said he hopes his book encourages them to do so.
• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 687-8750.
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