“First Day at An Khe,” a short story that I wrote 34 years ago, won the fiction prize in a national veterans writing competition sponsored by The Missouri Humanities Council and the Warriors Arts Alliance. The anthology in which the story appears is titled PROUD TO BE: WRITING BY AMERICAN WARRIORS.
Fiction judge William Trent Pancoast introduced my story in this way:
“First Day at An Khe” is an odyssey of a medic’s first days in Viet Nam: Phil Warren working to exhaustion in triage in the biggest fire fight the base hospital has had to deal with thus far in the war. He was put on duty by the First Sergeant and never logged in, never relieved in triage for over two and a half days because no one even knew he was there. The story builds tremendous momentum, and in the course of the odyssey, the author compacts the elements of a tour of duty into Phil’s triage experience—battle, religion, life, death, comradeship, service, courage, compassion, anger, duty, humor, and the loss of self. This is a fine story and I thank the author for the experience of reading it.”
When I was invited to read my prize-winning story at the November book launch in St. Louis, I declined with these words, “Although I have been a platform speaker more than 100 times, I am unable to read “First Day at An Khe” in public or in private without weeping. Although fiction, the visionary experience of writing the triage scenes made those events real for me. Perhaps I would also have difficulty reading my poem “Don’t Tell His Mother” (also appearing in the anthology) for the same reason.”
“First Day at An Khe” was my second war story to be published within a month. My story “Jody Got My Girl and Gone” was included in REMEMBRANCES OF WARS PAST: A WAR VETERANS ANTHOLOGY published in October.
War veterans live among us as family members, friends, and neighbors, but seldom do we get insights into the emotional costs of their military service. Yet, we need to know. We need to connect. And if we are afraid to personally ask about their painful realities, then at least we can read the candid testimonials of warriors like them. For here lies the gateway to understanding the grounds on which sacrifice stands. Through intimate prose and poetry we have an opportunity to be made whole as a people who recognize deeply the cost of war.
UPDATE: Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Volume I, has won the 2013 Stars and Flags Book Award gold medal for an anthology. A national contest, the Stars and Flags Book Awards program was established six years ago in order to promote books that have a connection to the military and to support veterans. The judges are historians, educators, and authors, many of whom are veterans themselves.