Homer Alaska - Arts

Story last updated at 3:46 PM on Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Vietnam vet's novel finally sees print

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer



On the bookshelf of novels about the Vietnam War written by combat veterans, some warrior writers finished and published their books shortly after returning, like Joe Haldeman's "War Year," released in 1972, three years after he came back from Vietnam.

Others, like Karl Marlante's "Matterhorn," and now Homer author Paul Morton's "Track of the Dragon," took longer than the 20-year war itself — decades from when the writers came home to writing their books and seeing eventual publication.

After three publishers and 30 years, Morton's semi-autobiographical novel based on his 14 months in Thailand came out this year. Morton got an offer from Warner Books to buy his book in 1985, but his editor left and a contract never came. In 2007, Bonus Books actually printed 5,000 copies, but then went bankrupt and the inventory seized to pay off Bonus Books' debt. In February, Bascom Hill Publishing Group finally published "Track of the Dragon" as a $16.95 trade paperback. It's available at Safeway and the Homer Bookstore.

Morton, 59, went to Vietnam at the end of 1969, and while he's officially a Vietnam veteran with a Vietnam Combat Badge, and was assigned to a studies and observations group, or SOG, based in Saigon, he saw action in countries America didn't officially assign combat troops to — "working over the fence," Morton called it.

"That was true," he said of his unit. "We studied and observed things — and we also killed them."

"Track of the Dragon" mirrors much of Morton's service out of a base in Thailand, working with the Royal Thai Army and other local armies.

In the novel, Peter Moore, an Army Airborne Ranger, gets assigned to a covert unit called Delta-19, and soon learns about the CIA's secret paramilitary group, Air America, working in Laos and other countries bordering North Vietnam. Because Air America's activities had to be off the books, funding came from mysterious sources, Morton said.

"It became clear to us after a while that some of the stuff going on in Laos was more than likely being funded through some of the opium production in the Golden Triangle," Morton said. "That didn't sit well with a lot of us. Rather than tell them (readers) what was done about it, I'd rather people read the book."

Morton grew up in Ventura, Calif., and joined the Army at 18, first in the Army Reserves as a field medic, and later in the regular army. Initially he trained as Military Police, but then got selected to work in a top secret unit with Army security. After graduating from basic training at Fort Ord., Calif., he waited for his security clearance at Fort Gordon, Ga., where he also got Army Ranger training.

"Cleared for weird," as Morton called it, he worked with units doing things like signal intelligence — operating huge antenna farms and intercepting radio signals from North Vietnam. An exceptional rifle shot, Morton also taught local troops how to shoot.

All that experience added up to material for his novel.

"The book is written as fiction because there's some things that went on there that were not legal," Morton said. "There's stuff in the book that's absolute fiction and there's stuff there that's based on reality."

After his year in country, Morton extended his tour another two months out of loyalty to his fellow soldiers.

"You build incredible attachments to people," he said. "When it came time to leave, I couldn't leave. I felt like I was abandoning these guys, like I was holding it all together."

Morton chose the third-person, limited-omniscient narrative voice to tell his story.

"I had to write it as it's written because it hurt too bad to write it as first person," he said.

Loyalty to his fellow veterans continues today. He said he wrote to honor his fellow soldiers — and to show them the respect they didn't get during the political turmoil of the 1960s and early 1970s.

"That's why I wrote this book. It's not the money," Morton said. "Every penny I make off that book is sent to the Wounded Warriors Foundation or the Special Operations Warrior Foundation."

After Thailand and Vietnam, Morton served the rest of his four years assigned to the National Security Agency in Japan. When he returned to the U.S., he joined the Ventura Police Department, including 15 years on a SWAT team. What he realized later was that he was an adrenaline junkie, his way of dealing with post-traumatic stress. Morton figured out he suffered from post-traumatic stress during graduate school in psychology and had to go through therapy as part of his education. His therapist asked him when he was going to realize he had post-traumatic stress, Morton said.

After retiring from the Ventura Police Department, Morton moved to Alaska with his wife, Jeanette. Now semi-retired, he does pre-employment psychology testing, hostage negotiations and post-traumatic stress counseling for the Homer Police Department. He has a second novel, "Deadly Possession," written, and a third novel about 60 percent finished, "Until We Die," both police procedural books.

"That's what I wanted to say," Morton said of "Track of the Dragon." "It's my dedication to those guys I served with. They are the heroes. They're incredible people. I'm glad I got it off my chest now and I can move on with life."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael. armstrong@homernews.com.