On Monday, Nov. 11, Veterans Day, Vietnam War veteran and postwar writer Wayne Karlin discussed his new book Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Dead and the Living in Viet Nam. The book is a true story of a soldier’s experiences during and after the war that defined his life and changed those of families at home and abroad. Karlin, professor of the language and literature arts department at the College of Southern Maryland, published Wandering Souls in September.
“I was reluctant to write, to tell you the truth, at first,” said Karlin about the book. “After the events that took place, I felt compelled to do it.”
The novel tells the story of American Lieutenant Homer Steedley, Jr., who killed Vietnamese Sergeant-Medic Hoang Ngoc-Dam in a chance crossing during the Vietnam War on the trails of the Pleiku Province, in what is now central Vietnam.
“When Homer talked to me about this, it seemed like his story was the story for all of us,” said Karlin, addressing the war veterans in the audience of community members, St. Mary’s students, and students of Karlin’s from CSM. “It is a story never finished, and one needed to be told, to find peace for all of us.”
Karlin began with a presentation of the two soldiers as being very similar in their paths of life. Steedley grew up the son of generations of war veterans in Bamberg, South Carolina. Very poor, he learned things by necessity, from fishing to farming to even woodwork. Similarly, Dam grew up in the rice paddy fields of traditional Vietnam, the son of a Vietnamese guerrilla soldier during the French occupation that ended in 1945.
During the presentation, Karlin referenced Wandering Souls to explain the story behind the meeting of Steedley and Dam on March 16, 1969, and Steedley’s collection of Dam’s personal belongings, including a diary, which would remain in his home 36 years after his service.
“Now to see not only the face of the man he’d killed, but also the carefully re-bound covers…confronted Homer with a mirrored and valuable humanity,” Karlin read. “He tried not to think about it.”
Following Dam’s death, Steedley sent his belongings to his mother’s home in South Carolina and continued his service as a Company Commander. He returned home in 1975 with ear tinnitus and terrible memories that led to a period of drug abuse and adrenaline-seeking, indicators of post-traumatic stress disorder. He entered the field of computer science as a technician, and through it met his future wife, Elizabeth “Tibby” Dozier, in 1991.
Years later, Steedley’s mother found Dam’s diary and belongings from the war, which marked the beginning of Steedley’s journey to find Dam’s family in Vietnam. After contacting several writers, Karlin was eventually reached. “I didn’t think I could do it,” said Karlin. But, using Dam’s birth certificate, which gave his full name and hometown, they were able to find the Hoang family.
Karlin made the journey to Dam’s family in 2005, returning Dam’s belongings in what became an unexpected procession of members of the community who had also lost family members in the war.
“[The Vietnamese believe that] people in this life need to be buried in the home soil,” said Karlin. “Everyone must go back to their origin to be buried.” To the townspeople, the trip represented not just Dam returning home, but all of the missing soldiers from the war.
Steedley joined Karlin in a trip in 2008 to meet Dam’s family, and to offer his apologies for killing Dam and the tragedies of the war itself. “[Dam’s brother] told me ‘we are not angry with this American,’” said Karlin. The family was proud that the man who had killed Dam now praised him for his bravery.
Karlin concluded his presentation with a description a of a trip he, Steedley, and Dam’s family made to a cemetery where Dam’s body could possibly be found. They found Dam among the graves, and conducted a funeral to return his body into the soil in the Vietnamese tradition. Steedley served as a pallbearer, and he and Karlin assisted in Dam’s burial.
“We were burying the war,” said Karlin. “I am grateful to have had the experience of doing so.”
Karlin also focused on how often soldiers feel alone in their inability to communicate to others the atrocities they experienced.
“When you come back to the States, you don’t talk about the war,” said Karlin. “People didn’t want to hear the stories,” the experiences of the soldiers that made them seem far different from the way they were when they left.
“He puts a lot of soul into his writing,” said Sarah Landmann, a former student of Karlin’s from CSM. “He makes the rest of us tear up too.”
Michael Cain, political science professor and director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, introduced Wayne Karlin before his presentation, sponsored by the VOICES Reading Series and the Center for the Study of Democracy and as part of the Asian Symposium on Democracy, Rights, and Development.
“[This book] really brings home the cost of war,” he said. “[Karlin] presented in a way that made the war feel less abstract, and more real.”