Those who survived the battle that etched the last 41 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington were recognized onstage Tuesday at the 94th National Convention of The American Legion in Indianapolis.
The president of the Koh Tang/Mayaguez Veterans Organization, Dan Hoffman of Columbia, S.C., told thousands of Legionnaires the story of the deadly, unexpected combat mission in mid-May 1975 to rescue the S.S. Mayaguez and its crew from the Khmer Rouge. The communist guerrillas had seized the American cargo ship in international waters on May 12 and played a bloody three-day game of cat and mouse with the American military.
After telling the story of the ill-fated operation, Hoffman told another, about the battle that went on inside his head after he learned three Marines were left alive on tiny Koh Tang Island, their fates unknown, after the other troops were rescued.
"It was assumed they were killed in the extraction, but reports surfaced years later that the three had been captured, tortured and killed," explained Hoffman, a second lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines at the time of the operation. "When I learned of this, it started me on a downward spiral of post-traumatic stress disorder that almost took my life.
"In the 1970s and ‘80s, I had almost no contact with my fellow veterans. The mood of the country back then was anti-military. You just didn't talk about your experiences very much, if at all. In the late ‘90s, I started to have problems. I couldn't sleep well. I was drinking too much. I had issues with anger and stress at work and in my marriage. I became depressed and withdrawn. I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and at that time, I didn't even know what it was."
Hoffman said his only solace came when he made contact with other veterans, including his fellow members of The American Legion. "We had a common bond," he said. "We understood each other. But my situation was slowly getting worse."
All he could think about were the Air Force chopper pilot who saved his life and the three Marines who were left behind, particularly after a book came out in 1995 revealing more details than he previously knew. "My issues with PTSD became significantly worse," Hoffman explained. "I was missing work, arguing and fighting, and drinking too much. At my worst point, I couldn't even get out of bed. I was suicidal, dangerous to myself and others. It eventually cost me my first marriage."
Hoffman said a fellow Marine convinced him to get treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs. "I checked myself into a veterans hospital, and over the next two years, with the love and support of my second wife, Betty, (along with) excellent doctors and therapy at the VA, and most importantly, the love and support of my fellow veterans, I was able to turn my life around."
Eventually, through a reunion of Vietnam helicopter pilots and a website launched by Mayaguez incident survivor Larry Barnett, those who fought in the operation began to reunite. They formed the Koh Tang Beach Club – named for the tiny island off the coast of Cambodia where they fought for 14 hours until their rescue by death-defying helicopter pilots on the night of May 15, 1975. The incident is often described as the last battle of the Vietnam War, even though Saigon had fallen two weeks earlier.
Connection with other Mayaguez survivors so improved Hoffman's condition that he has since become a national advocate for veterans with PTSD and those who do not understand their VA benefits. He has a trained Papillon PTSD therapy dog to help him share his story, and to continue coping, but nothing is so important to his recovery than veteran camaraderie.
"I cannot stress strongly enough how beneficial getting together with each other has become to us," Hoffman said. "Instead of being withdrawn and not speaking about our experiences, guys are coming from all over the country to be with us. The therapeutic benefits of sharing this together are immeasurable."
Hoffman called to the national convention stage five of his fellow Koh Tang Beach Club members – Barnett of Oklahoma, Tom Noble of Indiana, Bob Blough of Tennessee, Al Bailey of Maryland and Fred Morris of Iowa.
American Legion National Commander Fang A. Wong expressed his appreciation of their service and sacrifice. "However," he noted, "You are a little out of uniform."
He then presented American Legion caps to each of the veterans. "You are with family now, today and forever," he told them.