Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Searches - Successes Scored

Once I decided to uncover Jeff’s past – largely unknown to me, his older brother – I set out to find his long ago friends as guides on my journey. But where to turn first? Didn’t know enough about the names I’d been given to even make a list. So I plunged into the stream of memory, letting the current carry me wherever it might go. It was a process of hit or miss; I just went with the flow.

Read Jeff’s letters home from Army Language School (ALS), noticed a name I’d missed before – Keith Willis. Jeff wrote that he’d turned up in Monterey, they’d last seen each other several years back at a military prep, the Albany Academy (AA). Both guys found themselves studying Vietnamese. Like Jeff, Keith hadn’t chosen Vietnamese, the coming war chose it for him. It was ’62; JFK was pouring ‘advisers’ into South Vietnam, and ASA, the Army Security Agency, was stockpiling linguists, lingys in the parlance.

Keith was an easy find. I’d been ahead of him at AA, his address was in the alum network. He’d retired, lived downstate, was involved with our old school’s archives, and periodically came to the area. We met at a diner. By the end of the meal I felt like a lone miner who’d just struck gold. Keith had known Jeff at nearly every step of his last decade, the only one of many friends who did.

Over time, Keith filled me in on Jeff at ALS where the two of them owned a motorcycle together; on life in the Philippines where they shared the same barracks, did identical classified work; in Saigon where they were both sent on short notice in early ‘64 following General Khanh’s coup; then in Chicago where Keith had a corporate job when Jeff arrived after graduating Indiana University (IU); and finally, Keith was in touch as Jeff lay dying in a Florida VA hospital. Many of Jeff’s Vietnam GI buddies I later tracked down I had learned of from Keith.

Keith Willis, ASA Barracks, Philippines, '64

One of them was Vachel Worthington, Jeff’s roommate in Monterey. Looking for Vachel, Karen unexpectedly came across a Dave Reinhardt. Unexpected because Dave was a Marine and never knew Jeff. But he was also a Vietnamese lingy who’d served at Phu Bai where Jeff was sent after the Khanh coup. Dave was there a year earlier and became our most valuable source on that remote listening post where Jeff spent half his Vietnam tour. The Marines worked there side by side with ASA just below the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone as the two units monitored North Vietnamese communications across the border.

How’d we find Dave Reinhardt, a name we’d never even heard? Jeff told me in the ‘60s of a special mission he was on with the Marines. Karen set out to find the long range reconnaissance unit for verification. It never turned up, but Dave did. He’d filed a PTSD claim and was looking for fellow Marines to verify his duties at Phu Bai with “spook types.” Karen got in touch, we’ve talked off and on with Dave, a North Dakota rancher, since.

Dave Reinhardt, North Dakota Rancher '08

I was especially interested in finding Jeff’s old girlfriends. Long exchanges with Karen convinced me that women retained what I called ‘emotional memory’ -- traces of Jeff’s temperament, moods, and even occasionally the tone of his voice. Before Karen left IU for grad school, she introduced Jeff to a friend, Miki Lang, an Austrian transplant and Comparative Lit student. Jeff and Miki hit it off, were together most of his Senior year. I thought she’d have a lot to tell. We began searching for her, thinking she’d probably married and changed her name. We hoped she’d kept the maiden name as the middle, but kept dead-ending everywhere. 

Karen never gave up, finally tried a wild card. Let’s assume Miki for reasons unknown still uses ‘Lang’ as surname. Up popped a web site talking about the premier professional international paintball player, Ollie Lang, with excerpts from an interview with his mother, Miki Lang. An Internet portal swung open, Karen went through, found Michaela Lang, former international humanitarian aid worker who’d served abroad for 16 years in Africa and India. Having returned to the States in ’88, Miki now lives just across the bay from San Francisco. Listening to her stories of Indiana days completed the picture Karen had begun – Jeff as major campus activist articulating his opposition to the war, and honing his political skills for what lay ahead – Chicago and the creation of Vietnam GI.

Miki Lang and Jeff Sharlet, Bloomington IN, ‘67

Tom Barton was an especially notable find. Karen was routinely trawling for information on Jeff when Tom turned up. He had just posted a brief but fairly complete account of Jeff’s public life. Looked familiar to me, but from where? Figured it out, it was a reprint of Jeff’s long obit from Vietnam GI, summer ’69. Tom had created an online anti-Iraq war newsletter, GI Special (now Military Resistance), re-running Jeff’s obit to show Iraq war soldiers GI resistance was possible. He identified himself as former East Coast distributor for VGI.

I followed up, went down to New York, interviewed Tom at his place on the West Side. First thing he said – saw himself following in Jeff’s footsteps, carrying on the antiwar fight, with the newsletter as successor to VGI. Like Keith Willis, Tom had kept files which he shared. Came away understanding how VGI was produced, how the Chicago group surreptitiously shipped the paper in bulk to Tom, how in turn Tom and his team smuggled copies into Vietnam. 

These were just some of the successes we scored in searching for Jeff, but we also came up short on a few memorable occasions, as the reader will soon see.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Searches - Prologue

Thought to myself, what more is there to learn about Jeff? After all he was my brother, I had boxes of his letters and papers, his posthumous archive. But one summer afternoon several years ago I was researching an aspect of my own Cold War America memoir – something about US government experiments with mind-bending drugs on unwitting subjects -- when I first heard from Ed Smith.

Ed was an ex-Vietnam GI looking for his former buddy Jeff. They’d lost touch in the late ‘60s. He’d found my son Jeff on the Internet, thinking he was his old pal. I replied politely, telling Ed about my memoir project, including the two chapters on Brother Jeff. Ed suggested we talk so I called. Told me about himself, also Army Security Agency (ASA) and a fellow Vietnamese lingy – Army-speak for linguist -- who had served with Jeff, said he was his best friend. Curiosity aroused, I asked for details and in a flash it struck me I didn’t know my brother as well as I thought.

It was late August ’63, the Kennedy Administration had ‘green lighted’ coup planning against ineffective President Diem. In the Philippines where the lingys were held in reserve, Jeff, Ed and six others were alerted during the night, told to get ready to ship out. Flown up to Saigon, installed in a dark corner at a base to the northwest. Ed said it was very secret stuff, but what the hell, time’s past I’ll tell you. Mission was to surveil communications of South Vietnamese generals planning the coup, White House wanted to be sure they knew what was happening. Ed told me other tales about Jeff’s covert work, more than enough to convince me I had a lot to learn.

A month or so later out of the blue, Karen Grote Ferb found me. An old girlfriend of Jeff’s from college days, she too was looking for him, wondering where he landed. They’d been together at Indiana University after Jeff returned from Vietnam. She had more surprising stories to tell. I’d been dimly aware of Jeff’s interest in the New Left at IU – I’d seen documents in his boxes although his letters were silent, but had no idea of the depth of his SDS involvement. Listening to Karen, I grasped that Indiana had been the link between Jeff’s Vietnam experience and his later radical leadership of the GI protest movement.

Karen LeMoine Grote IU '66 and Ed Smith (left) & Jeff, Philippines, '63

Complacency gone, I realized if I was to get my brother’s story, I’d have to find people who knew him as a young man. Both Ed and Karen gave me names, the search was on. It was my great good luck that Karen offered to help. GI buddies, SDS activists, Vietnam GI comrades, they were out there somewhere. We’d find someone who in turn would lead us to others, but decades since the ‘60s clues would sometimes lead up blind alleys. Inevitably our efforts produced many ‘hits’ but some bizarre ‘misses’ as well.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Genesis of the Memoir

How did the idea for the memoir begin? Well, you might say it began in mid-June 1969. I was grading papers when I got a phone call from my father telling me my younger brother Jeff had just died in a VA hospital in Miami. I knew how serious his cancer was and had long planned to fly down the next day to see him again and meet with his doctors about new courses of treatment. I hadn’t seen him since spring break in late March, but had kept in regular touch. My parents had just assured me the previous week his condition was stable. I was stunned and overcome with anger, remorse, and guilt that I hadn’t been there. The idea for the memoir took shape during the next few weeks in the course of the funeral, the burial, and the sad, sad days that followed. Jeff was my younger brother by seven years. When I went away to college and then on to the Army and Europe, he was a mere boy of 10. Although we wrote long letters, I had missed his growing up. I felt I owed him.

Jeff died young, much too young at 27, but he had an interesting life. He had hoped to go to Dartmouth, but ended up in Vietnam. Our father was a businessman, fairly prosperous, but he went bust, so private college was suddenly out of the question. Instead, Jeff enlisted in the Army, was trained in Vietnamese—not the European tour he’d expected—and was shipped over there very early in the war, well before the escalation of ’65. As an operative in a semi-secret intelligence outfit, he was involved in some unpleasant stuff. He came back to finish college at Indiana University very much against the war. In grad school at the University of Chicago, Jeff diverted his national fellowship to creating Vietnam GI which soon became the most influential underground paper addressed to Vietnam GI’s opposed to the war. In effect, Jeff became one of the founders of the GI antiwar movement.

I’m sorry to say the memoir project didn’t get very far during that summer of ‘69. Jeff had left behind a small archive of documents and letters from his Vietnam tour and editorship of Vietnam GI. To supplement this, I solicited letters about him from his friends, professors, and fellow antiwar activists, but my first-born had arrived just weeks after his death, and I found myself awash both in grief and in joy. I couldn’t continue. It was a time for grieving, not writing. I packed up his papers and put them away with the promise to myself I would come back to them someday. That ‘someday’ came in the early 90’s.

I had spent my life teaching and writing about the Soviet Union, and then one wintry day in December 1991 the country no longer existed, another empire had bitten the dust. My topic, the law, suddenly became more interesting, so I shifted my attention to post-Soviet Russia. But I also saw the opportunity for a memoir on the interesting times I had lived through and began outlining. It was to be my memoir into which I would fold Brother Jeff. I would call it “Cold War America,” about how the long Cold War had impacted our society, mostly adversely in my opinion. The idea was to use my witness to and even peripheral involvement in the Cold War as an angle of vision for writing about the great events of the period.

I was certainly not a major actor, more a bit player with occasional dramatic scenes and some lines. In the ‘50s I was a Cold War soldier in Germany, a linguist on the front lines, so to speak, of the sub rosa intelligence war between the US and the USSR. In the ‘60s I became a scholar and did a year of study in Moscow, coincidentally at the same time Jeff was in the bush in Vietnam. Later in the decade I worked for the Peace Corps training young men and women for Southeast Asia.

By the early ‘70s my first book appeared; it was based on work done for the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in connection with the SALT I treaty negotiations with the Soviet Union. In the ‘80s as the Soviet empire began coming apart, I wrote essays for the US Information Agency. And throughout the entire time I published extensively in the scholarly literature on Soviet and East European developments, especially on human rights. In the middle of my memoir, I planned two chapters on Jeff, one on his Vietnam experience, the other on his antiwar leadership.

But before I got past planning the memoir and into the actual writing, two people who had known Jeff well contacted me out of the blue. Both were seeking Jeff, hoping to get back in touch. Neither knew that he was long gone, nor did they know each other. Ed Smith, a fellow Vietnam GI, told me things about Jeff’s time in Vietnam I never knew, while Karen Grote Ferb opened up for me the world of Jeff’s SDS activism back in college, about which I had only scattered documents from his archives. Ed gave me names of other ex-GIs who had served in the shadow war with the two of them, while Karen put me in touch with a number of Jeff’s fellow SDS activists at Indiana. I followed up.

Until I met Ed and Karen online, I had thought I knew my brother well. Although we had caught up with each other after he returned from the war and I from Moscow, our opportunities for contact were limited. He was completing his education and I was off elsewhere starting my academic career. However, as I listened to Ed and Karen and corresponded with others they led me to, I realized that I had not known Jeff that well, not just the missing years of his childhood, but also his time as a young adult. I had been laboring under an illusion. I had much to learn about my brother. I soon put my own Cold War memoir in abeyance and began to focus solely on what had simplistically been those two chapters on Jeff. The deeper I went into his life during his final decade, the more I realized this would be a voyage of discovery as I belatedly learned about my remarkable brother; hence the title of this blog, “Searching for Jeff.”

There is a brief biography of Jeff at

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

About the Writer - Bob Sharlet

Bob in Tribute to Brother Jeff, 2010

For decades I labored in the groves of academe. The Soviet Union and then Russia were my beat. Fascinating journey, lived in Moscow, conferenced all over Europe, wrote a great deal about it all. Though limited expertise, always interested in Vietnam. Taught the war for many years at Union College, a kind of memorial to Brother Jeff. How did my books prepare me for doing a memoir on Jeff? Not at all, that was social science, law no less. Well at least I was a skilled researcher, right? Wrong. Studying Soviet law meant reading treatises, monographs, and occasionally talking with jurists on trips back to Russia. Those conversations, welcome reader, didn’t resemble anything you’re familiar with. No personal questions allowed, just law and jurisprudence, and even then no attribution by name.

Sure there was information about Jeff in print out there, not a great deal, mostly about his endgame --editorship of Vietnam GI. But what were his hopes and dreams as he finished school, what about his Vietnam tour, SDS days at Indiana, grad school in Chicago? How did he create and sustain VGI?

I soon realized I’d have to talk to people who knew him, lots of them since no single individual knew Jeff’s whole story. That meant ‘interviewing’, something I’d not done much of in the past. It was like an archeological dig except through words, collecting shards of memory to reassemble into tales of Jeff. Often a seemingly insignificant detail became a key piece in the mosaic. Needless to say, I made rookie mistakes in early interviews.

As the story of my brother’s short but interesting life emerged, I began thinking how to write it up, how to make a book out of it, to give Jeff his niche in the history of the Vietnam antiwar movement. A glance at my academic resume told me there were no role models there. During college years, I wanted to be a writer, but ended up a political scientist. Now was the time to again try my hand as a story teller.

I started reading memoirs to see how it was done. Calvin Trillin’s 'Remembering Denny' made a big impression. Like Denny, there were two Jeff’s, the younger brother I remembered, then Jeff the soldier, radical, GI activist others knew. Another model I found promising was Hilary Masters’ 'Last Stands: Notes from Memory' about growing up with his older father, the poet Edgar Lee Masters. Even more striking were the memories of his grandfather, beginning with the tale of his burial at Arlington as the last of the frontier cavalrymen – “His eyes were … cornflower blue … his hands were steady.” And of course, one of the first memoirs on Vietnam and for me still the finest, Phillip Caputo’s 'A Rumor of War'.

Then one day the problem got solved. My brother’s namesake, my son Jeff, a non-fiction writer joined the project as co-author. With a best seller to his credit, I now felt assured my brother’s story would not just be told, but written with literary merit as well.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, interviewing Jeff’s contemporaries was one thing, but finding them 40 odd years later another; hence “Searching for Jeff,” selected stories of how Karen Grote Ferb, my estimable assistant, and I reconstructed Jeff’s story and his times piece by piece.