Posted on February 16, 2007:
February 15, 2007
"Wandering Souls" Roam CSM's Leonardtown Campus March 2
As part of CSM's Connections Literary Series
What does it take to ease a man's conscience when he is haunted by
war? On March18, 1969, a young American infantry lieutenant named Homer
Steedly turned a bend on a trail in Kontum Province and came face to
face with a North Vietnamese soldier. In the split-second that
life-altering decisions are made both men reached for the guns and, as
recounted by author and College of Southern Maryland Professor Wayne
Karlin, Steedly shot first, killing the 24-year-old medic Hoang Ngoc Dam
with a single shot through the heart.
Searching the body, Steedly found several small notebooks and papers
which he took and sent home to his mother in South Carolina. A year
later, he returned home and tried to forget the war, but while Dam's
papers stayed hidden Steedly's memories of the war and the encounter
on the trail lingered.
Thirty years later, Karlin, a friend of Steedly and himself a Vietnam
veteran, located Dam's family and traveled to Vietnam to return the
notebooks and documents. His recounting of that journey and its impact
on the lives of Steedly and Dam's family was published in "War,
Literature & the Arts," the literary journal of the Air Force Academy,
and was the subject of an NPR radio program.
As part of CSM's Connections Literary Series, Karlin will present
"Wandering Souls," a multi-media presentation on the return of
Dam's documents, acts of self-healing and the aftermath of the Vietnam
War. The presentation will begin at 7:30 p.m., March 2, at CSM's
Leonardtown Campus, Building A, Auditorium.
In preparation for CSM's Connections program, Karlin, who is working
on a new novel, a film script and a series of programs for radio,
responds to questions about his friendship with Steedly, the heartbreak
of war, and how soldiers are reaching out to build communities through
acts of self-healing.
CSM: How did you meet Homer Steedly and how did the idea of returning
Dam's personal papers come about?
Karlin: I know Homer through another writer, Tom Lacombe, who wrote a
novel about infantrymen in the Vietnamese Central Highlands (Light
Rucksack). Tom and Homer knew I had contacts in Vietnam as I have been
promoting the work of Vietnamese writers and film makers here in the
states and the work of American writers there in Vietnam. Homer was a
very young infantry company commander who fought a very rough war, and
he has suffered greatly from post-traumatic stress disorder. Thanks to
the encouragement of his wife, Tibby, Homer came to a point in his life
where he wanted to confront his memories and make something positive out
of them-not by changing or denying the things that happened, but through
confronting them and doing redemptive acts. Because Homer's first kill
in the war had been someone he had seen face-to-face and whose papers he
had taken, Homer felt he had to do everything he could to find the
man's family and return the possessions he had taken. As I helped
him in the process, we became good friends.
CSM: Homer Steedly is not the first time you have seen one of your
fellow vets taking on acts of self-healing, could you discuss why the
process is so valuable?
Karlin: The first casualty of any war is the combatant's own heart.
In order to keep one's own sanity and life during war, it is sometimes
necessary to dehumanize the enemy. Yet, the process of dehumanizing the
enemy also means dehumanizing yourself. Men and women may have to become
killers in times of war, but one of the only ways to heal is to
reconnect to one's own humanity, one's own heart, by seeing the
humanity denied to your former enemy. Perhaps it is a type of healing
that can only happen when a war is over.
Back then, Homer saw Hoang Ngoc Dam, the man he killed, only as a
threat and a target-but looking at Dam's diaries years later, Homer
suddenly saw a human being like himself. For over 30 years, Homer tried
to avoid this fact but he finally realized that the only way to
reconnect with his own humanity was to recognize Dam's and to accept
his own experiences.
Upon returning from war, the veteran's need is to return to his
family and community, not just physically, but psychologically and
spiritually as well. Yet his or her participation in the killing of
other human beings-no matter how justified this may be regarded-sets the
veteran apart. The veteran has seen and/or done things he feels no one,
who hasn't been though the experience, can understand. Moreover, the
veteran feels that because of the things he has seen and done, others
won't be able to accept or love him.
Psychologists tell us that trauma victims need to be able to tell their
story to people who can be true listeners-listen without the need to
deny the story if it makes them uncomfortable and people who are ready
to be changed by the story and its wisdom. In his wife, Homer found a
real listener, and through his website, www.swampfox.info, he tells his
story every day so others might learn from it.
CSM: You are predominately known for writing about war; what does it
mean to be a "war" writer in a time of war? Do you find it frustrating
to see the mistakes of previous generations repeated?
Karlin: I don't see myself as primarily a war writer, in the
traditional sense. Some of my books have been about the aftermath of war
rather than about war itself-what I'm concerned with as a writer is
the terrible and never-ending costs of war, how it ripples for years in
the lives of participants, their families and countries. The underlying
theme I'd hope people get from all the writing and teaching I and
other veterans like Homer have done is that war is so damaging that it
should be avoided wherever possible. Because I was in and have studied
the Vietnam war, I am more than frustrated to see the same mistakes
being made again, the same damage occurring. It's not so much that the
mistakes of the previous generation are being repeated, it is that the
hard-won wisdom of so many of that generation-from those who protested
the war to the professional soldiers who fought it-has been ignored.
It's sickening to see the information and analysis of experts
ignored in order to justify decisions that have already been made by our
government. It's heart-breaking to see the collateral damage in Iraq -
the killing of innocents that's inevitable when much of the population
hates your presence and becomes the enemy. It's heart-breaking to see
the bodies coming back, and the broken walking again among us. It's
heart-breaking to see young bodies used again as bait. And it's
heart-breaking to see a young soldier at home shot to death as he stands
armed in his own doorway, unclear as to who his enemy has become-a scene
far too familiar to those of us who remember the Vietnam era.
CSM: You have traveled to Vietnam several times; do these trips change
your world view, or provide you with insights you didn't have about the
nature of people, war, history, etc.?
Karlin: I have been overwhelmed by the warmth and hospitality of the
Vietnamese. For me, as for many veterans who have gone back, the
Vietnamese are the people who we knew would understand because they had
shared the experience and did not feel the need to deny it. This trip
reinforced for me how alike those of us who had fought in the war-on
both sides-were. It also reinforced how little we knew of the history
and culture of these people and their world-view, and how knowing
that-seeing the world though their eyes - might have prevented
bloodshed. Bringing those documents back to Dam's family was
life-changing-watching the hospitality and gratitude displayed by the
family and the village to this representative of the former enemy - an
enemy that had taken the life of their brother and the lives of two
hundred others from that village, soldiers whose remains were never
found-taught me about the true power of grace and reconciliation.
CSM: The world is inundated with stories of the brutalities of war and
yet many soldiers find it is a time of true companionship, friendship
and loyalty. Would you like to share any of your memories of friendship
(then or now)?
Karlin: Last week, a friend of mine, John Borman, who also served as a
helicopter gunner in my unit during the war, came for a visit. John,
with several others who had been in that unit including myself, have
been involved in funding and building schools in the Quang Tri province
in Vietnam. During the war, this was a very bloody area for us; we lost
many helicopters and Marines there. Currently, it is a very poor area of
the country; its people are plagued both by lack of educational
opportunities and by many injuries and deaths caused by all the
unexploded ordnance still in the ground. At John's instigation, our
unit has funded and now has built a school that serves five districts
and has the first in-door plumbing ever seen in the area. All of the
donations came through ex-Marines and sailors, including our flight
surgeon who immediately wrote a check for $20,000. There is a small
plaque on the school, naming our unit as benefactor and while the plaque
is kind of a monument to those of us who fought and the lives that were
lost in that place, the real monument and the true healing comes from
the school building itself. True healing comes from confronting truth
and engaging in acts that heal and help others. At this point, 30
schools have been built by American veterans in Quang Tri through
John's fund; and through the Vietnam Veterans of American
initiative, over 9,000 captured documents have been returned to families
in Vietnam, with the Vietnamese making a mutual effort to locate the
remains of American MIAs.
Since 1990, the Connections Literary Series has held readings featuring
national award-winning contemporary writers, poets and artists who share
their work and time with residents of Southern Maryland. All readings
begin at 7:30 p.m. The cost is $2, general admission. Tickets are
available the night of each reading. For information call, 301-934-7864
or 301-870-3008, Ext. 7864 for Charles County; 240-725-5499, Ext. 7864
for St. Mary's County or 443-550-6199, Ext. 7864 for Calvert County or
The College of Southern Maryland is a regionally accredited community
college that provides programs and services with a special focus on
local workforce development to maintain and grow a healthy economy and
community. CSM is the 2006 recipient of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce
Partner in Business Award. For eight of the past 10 years, CSM has
remained one of the top three community colleges in Maryland for its
four-year graduation and transfer rates among first-time, full-time
entering freshmen classes. For information call 301-934-7766 or
301-870-3008, Ext. 7766 or visit www.csmd.edu.
CSM Connections: Wandering Souls. March 2, 7:30 p.m., College of
Southern Maryland, Leonardtown Campus, Building A, Auditorium, 22950
Hollywood Road, Leonardtown. It was on March 18, 1969, that young
American infantry Lt. Homer Steedly shot 24-year-old Hoang Ngoc Dam, a
Vietnamese solider. Homer sent Dam's notebooks and personal papers
home to his mother in South Carolina. Thirty years later, Steedly's
friend and CSM professor and author Wayne Karlin returned to Vietnam to
restore Dam's documents to his family. Karlin will read excerpts and
share audio and video clips of his experience as originally detailed in
the Air Force Academy's "War, Literature and the Arts" journal and
NPR broadcasts. Part of CSM's "Connections" Literary Series. $2.
301-934-7864 or 301-870-3008, Ext. 7864 for Charles County;
240-725-5499, Ext. 7864 for St. Mary's County or 443-550-6199, Ext.
7864 for Calvert County or visit http://www.csmd.edu/Connections/
The College of Southern Maryland Presents
CSM professor and author Wayne Karlin will discuss the acts of
self-healing that Vietnam veterans have undertaken, including Homer
Steedly's return of the personal documents of Hoang Ngoc Dam, a
24-year-old Vietnamese soldier Steedly killed in 1969.
March 2, 2007, 7:30 p.m.,
College of Southern Maryland's Leonardtown Campus
22950 Hollywood Road, Leonardtown
301-934-7864 or visit http://www.csmd.edu/Connections/
Wayne Karlin, CSM professor and author, will share his experience of
returning personal documents to the family of a fallen Vietnam solider,
and the acts of self-healing Vietnam veterans undertake, March 2 at
CSM's Leonardtown Campus.
Author and CSM professor Wayne Karlin will share his experience of
returning personal documents to the family of a fallen Vietnam solider,
March 2 at 7:30 p.m. at CSM's Leonardtown Campus, Building A