IN SEARCH OF
I lost my mother in late autumn of 2004. Weeks passed yet I seemed unable to recover from this passage, I remained depressed and rudderless. In late November I made a decision. I needed to return to that place where my life had forever changed, in search of peace. With the help of a booking team near Seattle, I managed to acquire my visa, air passage, hotel and tour guide within a few days. I returned to Saigon early on Christmas Eve, 2004. This pilgrimage has been recounted in my book RETURN TO EDEN, published in 2006.
I had a single intention – to return to the village of Tan Nhut 5, which I’d helped defend many years ago. On Christmas morning, near to where my command bunker once stood, I prayed and performed several rituals, suggested by Carl Hammerschlag in his book HEALING CEREMONIES. I found a sense of peace and returned home, my spirits renewed. I made the decision to write and publish an account of my experiences in the war. I hoped to help other veterans contending with my condition, much as I’d been helped by reading their published thoughts. I’d begun writing essays years before at the guidance of my therapist, Dr. Vincent DeFazio, who’d diagnosed and began treating me for PTSD in 1988. Many more memories returned to me and I wrote chapter after chapter, ending the book with an accounting of my return in 2004.
Throughout this process I’d felt distracted by what I describe as a “ghost memory”. I’d come home with this sense that someone named Dan was somehow connected to my odyssey. It made no sense; I knew only a handful of Americans while in-country, none of them named Dan. Yet it persisted. Once I’d finished editing and submitted the manuscript to the printers, I resolved to unravel this puzzle. There followed months of phone calls and e-mails, requesting from the Army any records, any existing documents about my command, MAT-36, Advisory Team 44. Mine was a five man team, one of dozens throughout the war zone. Our mission was described as “Vietnamization”, intended to teach and lead the citizen-soldiers of small villages in the defense of their families and crops. By the end of my second week, my CO received his second wound; he was medivaced to Saigon and I took over command. I had two NCO’s -Sgt. Sparks and Sgt. Brand – Doc, my medic…and some weeks later, Bob was assigned to us and became my XO, 2nd in command.
I was never debriefed after my final mission and to this day I can’t be certain exactly what happened out there in the jungle on that Sunday afternoon. I lost large chunks of memory because of that trauma…and over the years as I regained contact with old friends, they often restored portions of my past with their own recollections. Some tales they recounted remained adventures lived by someone else, someone I didn’t recognize…but someone I’d probably like to meet. I reasoned if there was any relevance to this elusive connection, if there was someone else out there with me, a check of my team roster would reveal his presence.
I’d always believed that I was alone (the only American) on September 14, 1969 during a patrol with PRUs in my AO. We came under attack, all of us dead or wounded. For 45 minutes, I’d whispered into a PRC-25 handset, trying to raise a rescue force and extraction. Eventually I got thru and a Medivac chopper, escorted by several gunships got us out. My right carotid artery had been severed and I’m told I ‘died’ on the table at 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon. A very stubborn surgeon, Dr. Cardenas brought me back and I spent the next several months in various hospitals recovering.
There seemed to be a fatal catch-22. My small team was one of many during the war, it was 35 years ago and such records seem pretty much nonexistent. I had no name, no SSC, not even any certainty that what I was searching for, really existed. Dead end after dead end…and then one night, I had a dream. Nothing I can reconstruct, it was a visual rather than a narrative but I awoke with certainty. I literally sat up in bed, so excited by the clarity of my solution.
Everyone on this mission was hit. Everyone. If another American was there, his name should appear on the orders cut to award my Purple Heart. I scanned my award certificate and sent it to Richard Boylan, an archivist in Military Records who’d been incredibly patient in steering my efforts. Several weeks passed and then, a letter arrived.
Over the years, I’d been trying to identify and locate my nurse at 3rd Field, who’d been so incredible kind during those tough first few weeks of recovery. I only had her photo, no name. Ironically, once my book was published, a former hospital colleague bought it, recognized her picture and contacted me. After checking me out and with her permission, he put us in touch with each other. That was an unforgettable phone call. Recently I attended a hospital reunion, meeting and thanking both my nurse Ellen and my vascular surgeon, Dr. Caesar Cardenas. This is a photo of Ellen and her husband, Bob and another of the man that restored me to life.
Oh yes, about that letter. I held it and had this sense of heightened reality as I carefully opened it and unfolded the document.
The orders had been cut on September 15, which caused the delay in finding it. Directly beneath my name was Crafton, Daniel. Adv Tm 44. MY team! It was as tho my home suddenly had a previously unopened room. Thoughts and memories flooded my consciousness, much like opening an old can of coffee; it makes an audible whooshing sound once the vacuum is unsealed.
Seeing his name, now knowing this memory was authentic, created a flurry of images. I remembered that Dan had joined my team late Saturday afternoon, September 13. I believe he was there to replace Sgt Brand, due for rotation back to the World. Dan had worked extensively with PRUs. He’d been incountry for two years and had extended for six more months, specifically to join my team. I imagine I was flattered at the time but was more concerned with the loss of Terry Brand, a dependable and valued team member. I would have briefed him, offered him our RTO procedures and assigned him a slot for radio watch that night.
During my first few days of hospitalization at 3rd Field, Dai my counterpart visited, Sgt. Sparks visited, Bob, my XO visited. None of them once mentioned Dan to me. Not ever. I find that so curious.
The next morning, once the PRU Team had arrived at my CP and told us of their intentions, to capture or kill a VC tax collector in my AO, it was on Dan’s advice that I conferred with higher HQ to insure we’d be the only friendlies operating in that AO. (That was good counsel, for we soon learned Vietnamese Airborne were conducting a sweep quite nearby…and they would light up anything that moved!) He also offered me a set of tiger fatigues, to match the outfits worn by the six Phoenix mercenaries, my own were pretty worn out. I regarded this as an opportunity to find out how Dan handled himself in the field. For years this photo sat in my album, taken on Sunday afternoon while we waited for clearance to move out. I’d always believed the man playing chess with me was Terry Brand. I do not recognize the American facing the camera, perhaps yet another newly assigned team member.
Dan could tell me so many things I’d long ago resigned myself never to know with certainty. Now to find him.
For the next few days, I questioned on-line search engines like Google and White Pages for that name, calling many entries, but without success. (There was even a Daniel Crafton aboard the Titanic.) As I searched, I came upon several sites dedicated to assisting veterans in connecting with brothers in arms, and one seemed to speak to me. It was called CYBERSARGES http://cybersarges.tripod.com/lisa.html, run by a woman named Lisa Stein. Lisa has had extensive experience and success in locating people, according to her website. So I e-mailed her, describing my needs, asking for her help. 24 hours later, she wrote back…and included the street address and unlisted telephone number of a Daniel Crafton, living in Washington, DC. Over several weeks, Lisa and I spoke often by phone. At some point she mentioned how inadequate her computer equipment was for her mission. I sent her a check for $500…and never heard from her again. To this day, I find that puzzling…but so it goes.
I followed many leads, once calling a Dan Crafton in the Southeast. I was very nervous when the phone was answered. I realized that many veterans do not wish to revisit that time in their lives, that my call might be upsetting to them. I apologized and explained myself to the man that answered. He was very understanding…but he was not my guy. This Dan Crafton was very taken by my quest, explained that the family name was very common, it was a large family and that he would inquire at gatherings and ask around. But all this led to nothing. And then I received a letter from National Personnel Records Center. I learned that because I was not a blood relative, the VA would not release any information about him to me. They would, however, forward a letter from me to him. I composed the following:
I’m hoping you will assist me in contacting a member of my team 35 years ago in Vietnam. We were both wounded on a mission (I only recently remembered he’d been there with me) and because we’d only known each other less than 24 hours, I managed to forget his presence. The text of my letter to Daniel appears below and if it is acceptable to you, I would ask you to seal the envelope and forward it along to him. Since having learned of his existence, I’ve discovered an amazing number of Daniel Craftons, many of whom also served in Vietnam. I’m enclosing the copy of my orders for our Purple Hearts, perhaps this may assist you in determining who he might be.
If any adjustments need to be made in my letter I hope you’ll contact me so that I can make them. Obviously it will be up to Daniel to decide if he’s willing to write back, but I remain hopeful that a mystery for all these years may yet be solved.
Gratefully, Tucker Smallwood
I’m hoping the VA will forward this letter to you. My name is Tucker Smallwood. Many years ago, in 1969 I was Lt. Tucker Smallwood, commander of a MACV advisory team, Mat-36 in Gia Dinh Province.
We never really had a chance to get to know each other. I believe you joined my team on September 13th and events the following day resulted in my hospitalization and months of recovery. During that time, I managed to forget having met you, but for many years I continued to have this sense I’d known someone named Dan while in-country.
This past Christmas I returned to Vietnam for the first time. I spent Christmas Day very near the site of our basecamp, offering prayers, seeking forgiveness and guidance. It was a wonderfully healing experience for me and I returned with a desire to resolve this enduring riddle, why do I feel such a connection to someone in Vietnam named Dan? After leaving the Army in 1970, I chose to study acting and have made my living ever since as an actor on stage and in films and television. It’s likely at some point you’ve seen my face (I’m not famous, but I am familiar to millions all over the world) – perhaps you forgot about me, too.
I’d be grateful to hear from you, to learn how you’ve lived your life since we met, so long ago. I’m comfortable speaking by phone, but I’m equally comfortable exchanging letters, either by e-mailor by snail mail.
I hope to hear from you and I hope this finds you well.
Several more weeks passed. And then one morning, a letter arrived from the Department of Veteran Affairs.
Dear Mr. Smallwood:
We regret to inform you that the only Daniel Crafton we can identify in our records was reported deceased on November 1, 1984. He served in the Army from 07-26-1966 through 08-07-1971.
We are sorry we were not able to assist you in reuniting.
(Name) Veterans Service Center Manager
It would seem that my mission had come to an end. Dan had survived that bloody Sunday and lived for 15 more years. I’d just waited too long to start looking for him. So it goes.
Now this is a pretty good war story, right? It’s got all the elements, suspense, drama, effort, near misses, a search…Yeah. Problem is, it’s not entirely true. And the single standard that I’ve followed, in all my years of writing, is that anything I write must be true. Every single word. No exceptions. I’ve had several people express interest in optioning my book for a film or TV project. Each wanted to amp up the action, create events that didn’t really happen. I’ve always refused. I believe that my life has been sufficiently compelling, without any embellishment.
I had this information before I went to publication. In the chapter REBIRTHDAY, I’d written, “I alone spoke English.” Four words…but they were not The Truth. I don’t know precisely why I resisted changing my text to reflect Dan’s presence there. I can never know why Dan didn’t help, why he wasn’t making the radio call for extraction. Perhaps he was unconscious…None of that justifies my lapse of integrity. And I must own that.
16 September 2013