In 1969, when Jack Estes was only 19 years old, he returned home to Portland, Oregon, after serving in the Vietnam War. Before Estes was wounded and decorated, he saw the bloody horrors of war, which naturally left their mark. By the early 1990s, Estes was feeling ready to return to Vietnam, a decision that would greatly influence his later actions and his writing, as in his new novel, Looking for Gurney† “There are a million reasons a veteran would go back,” Estes says. “For me, it was part of trying to find a Vietnamese man who helped save my life.”
During his last six months in Vietnam, Estes was part of a Combined Action Program in which Marines like him trained and fought alongside 15 local Vietnamese men from the small village outside Da Nang where they were stationed. Estes had long cited one of those locals as the reason he survived the battles he’d been through, but all he had was a name, Hien, and the memory of the man’s gold tooth. Miraculously, Estes managed to track down Hien, and the two walked through the village together, seeing how it was frozen in time, with no basic infrastructure and full of beggars missing limbs—with the physical scars of the war 25 years earlier. .
Estes’ wife and children had supported him as he returned to Vietnam and confronted the memories that had kept him struggling with PTSD throughout his adult life. “My kids wanted me to go back there so they could see me cry for the first time,” recalls Estes. Indeed, the trip sparked long-dormant emotions: It inspired him and his wife to found the Fallen Warriors Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping Vietnam’s poorest and smallest villages by bringing in toys, educational supplies and basic medical care and organizing community events to bring together anti-war activists and other veterans.
However, the foundation wasn’t the only way Estes relived his time in Vietnam. While studying communications at Portland State University, Estes became a National Speech Champion for his oral interpretations of Vietnam. It was also during this time that he first began writing about some of his own personal experiences. “I wrote about the horror and the impact on soldiers and their families,” Estes says.
Over the decades, Estes has further developed these writings by publishing articles and essays in publications across the country, particularly on his experiences with Hien for news week in 1994. Estes has also released a memoir, A field of innocenceand an award-winning screenplay, A soldier’s son† With its most recent release, the novel Looking for GurneYesEstes draws on his own experiences to create fictional stories about four very different soldiers coming together during one horrific battle. But Estes then wavers their timelines, following some characters before the war and others in their long emotional struggle afterward. The result is what Kirkus Reviews calls ‘an almost cubist view of PTSD’.
In addition to playing with perspective through timelines, Estes also showcases a wide variety of different backgrounds: Jed and Cage are white Oregon men struggling to get their lives back on track after returning home; Jesse “Hawkeye” Collins is a black Chicago man who faces a choice between prison or enlisting in the Marines; and Nguyen Vuong is a young North Vietnamese soldier who eventually becomes a scout for the Americans (an obvious call back to the very real Hien and a position that was important for Estes to take).
In the book, Estes elaborates on the backgrounds of each of the four men, the eerie details of the battles, the jungles of Vietnam, enriched with his own memories, and finally, what happened to all four afterward. It is in his depictions of the four broken men floating through life that his sparse and reflective prose delivers some of the most impressive images of the effects of trauma, such as Hawkeye and his seemingly endless hospital visits after being injured and his memory had lost:
Sometimes when he sat on this bed in the ward he would look at his leg, all scarred and misshapen, his arm limp and useless, trying to remember himself. Some mornings, when the first light came through the windows, he was up all night, laying in his hospital bed, sweating, imagining what he had been told… But with the austerity measures and the war drawing to a close, maybe just forget it. After months of care, the doctors lost interest and gave up trying to put his memory back together.
In his years of association with his foundation and writing about Vietnam, Estes has built a long list of Vietnam veterans who have shared their personal struggles with him. Through his correspondence, Estes has seen how they have all struggled to reintegrate, to navigate the bureaucracy of disability, and most importantly, how their PTSD has affected those around them, which is becoming a major theme in Looking for Gurney†
Estes is already working on a new book, a collection of non-fiction essays, to revisit some of his published work and share more first-hand experiences of these soldiers. However, through all of his books, Estes hopes to show what Vietnam was like and what it really takes to survive PTSD. “It’s important to understand,” Estes says. “It’s not just the veteran struggling with PTSD, it’s his family, his friends and his community. I want to tell as much as possible about those experiences.”
Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator based in Paris.