Kalispell native’s book about Vietnam seeks to promote healing
Stan Bain volunteered for dangerous duty repeatedly during his time in Vietnam. The Kalispell native twice joined nighttime ambush operations that targeted Viet Cong or soldiers with the North Vietnamese Army. He participated in convoys and volunteered for guard duty.
Memories from one of the ambush nights some 51 years ago haunt him still.
Bain, now 73, also shouldered a different sort of risk during his service in Vietnam.
He became close to children living in an orphanage in My Tho, a town not far from the Dong Tam Base Camp where Bain was stationed in the Mekong Delta. Bain’s ties to the orphans there ultimately caused intense pain.
Nearly four years ago, inspired by a fellow Vietnam veteran and with emotional support from a Veterans Affairs counselor in Kalispell, Bain began writing what became the just-released “You Are Never Alone.”
The book begins with Bain being drafted in August 1966 into the U.S. Army. It ends with accounts of his efforts to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and move into healing. His decision to write and self-publish “You Are Never Alone” was motivated primarily by hopes that sharing his experiences might help him heal from traumatic memories of service in a war that deeply divided the United States.
In the preface he writes, “My sole reason for writing this book was to attack, head on, memories of Vietnam that have come back to ambush me after more than forty-five plus years.”
Bain adds, “The more I thought about it, the more I realized that maybe an essential part of the process of writing about my experiences - of stopping the relentless march of images and emotion - was to be willing to share that experience with others, and to simply let it go so that I could be free of their stranglehold and move on.”
Bain, who lives now in Cape Canaveral, Florida, said during a telephone interview last week that the images continue. He said he has learned from PTSD counselors that traumatic memories sometimes take many years to surface.
In November 1967, after a firefight on ambush duty, Bain discovered the body of a North Vietnamese fighter Bain concluded he had killed during the firefight. When he searched the man’s pockets he found a photograph of a woman and baby.
Bain told his sergeant, “Guess I may have killed a husband and dad.”
The sergeant told him to forget it and move on. He said the roles could have been reversed and the North Vietnamese soldier could have been digging through his pockets. The observation provided little comfort.
Bain writes of the man he killed, “Although he was the enemy he was still a human being. I felt weak in the knees but managed to pull myself together.”
That memory still afflicts Stan Bain.
And he is tormented, too, by the bone-rattling recollection of atrocities committed at the orphanage by the Viet Cong.
Bain and others at Dong Tam Base Camp heard one day that there was enemy activity in My Tho. There were reports that small groups might attack targets such as dams and schools that had U.S. involvement. He asked his sergeant whether the targets might include the orphanage and the orphans whom he and other soldiers had befriended. Ultimately, Bain persuaded the sergeant to allow him and three other soldiers to investigate.
After carefully surveying the building and grounds, the men realized it had indeed been attacked. They spotted the body of a caretaker cradling a baby, with blood pooling around them. They weren’t moving.
Then, Bain heard children whimpering and he smelled diesel fuel.
“Then I saw two kids,” Bain writes. “I recognized them immediately.”
When he left cover to try to get a better look, he drew enemy fire.
Bain writes, “The kids were crying and I could see they were covered with diesel fuel” and being restrained by Viet Cong.
“Then, suddenly, the kids were in flames.”
Bain suppressed a desperate urge to run to the children. He knew the Viet Cong had set the orphans on fire to try to lure the Americans into a killing zone.
“The kids’ tortured screams pierced the air,” Bain writes.
He realized he had to act. He raised his M16.
“I carefully aimed, then fired the remaining rounds, sparing my kids an agonizing death. I did what I had to do, ” Bain writes.
He felt enormous grief at the time, but elected to bury it.
“I tucked it away, never to think about, and told myself I would never have kids,” he writes.
And he never did.
Three marriages ended in divorce. Bain said he recognizes now that unseen wounds from Vietnam helped sabotage those unions.
In July 1968, Bain came home to Kalispell.
He writes, “I didn’t realize at the time the impact my experiences in Vietnam would have on me, or that the war didn’t end just because I came home. The long-term effects didn’t make themselves known to me until recently, when I began to learn about PTSD.”
After Vietnam, Bain worked for 33 years for the U.S. Forest Service, mostly in Kalispell in the engineering department for Flathead National Forest. He retired in 2000 and lived for a time in Elmo and then moved to Florida in 2016.
He lives now in a recreational vehicle and offers home inspections and handyman services.
Bain believes returning to Vietnam, and specifically to My Tho, might help him heal. He said he doesn’t have the money.
Monday’s book signing at The Bookshelf is the formal release for “You Are Never Alone.” To date, Bain has printed 60 copies for Monday’s event. The book was published by Blue Note Books (phone 1-800-624-0401).
“If my book helps keep one veteran or even myself from committing suicide then it’s been well worth the effort of writing it,” he said.
Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4407.