Retelling story a catharsis for former Air Force photographer
Tuesday, December 12, 2000
By Pamela H. Sacks
Telegram & Gazette Staff
They seem like old pals, laughing, joking, and at times almost finishing each other's sentences. Yet it is no ordinary set of circumstances -- a boyhood friendship or a bond forged in college -- that has created their camaraderie.
Douglas Valentine, a lanky author who lives in Longmeadow, and Richard Finkle, a stocky photographer from Leominster, are linked by a common purpose: to expose government wrongdoing.
This fall, they reached an important milestone when Mr. Valentine's book, based on Mr. Finkle's account of a dangerous secret mission during the Vietnam War, was published.
The 129-page volume is titled “TDY” -- the letters stand for “temporary duty” in military parlance -- and Mr. Valentine believes it adds to the body of evidence showing that the Central Intelligence Agency has engaged in immoral and illegal activities to further its own aims.
One reader the account has captivated is fellow author Michael Levine, the former federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent who wrote “Deep Cover,” which made the best-seller list in The New York Times Book Review.
“From Page 1 it took control of me, and dragged me back to that shadow world where wrong is right, and violent death lurks in every corner,” Mr. Levine wrote about “TDY.”
Getting the story out has been a catharsis of sorts for Mr. Finkle.
“This was a serious thing I was a part of,” he said in a recent interview. “I needed to verbalize the fear and get myself through it and say, 'God, I did survive.' I needed to examine why this happened and what it accomplished.”
Mr. Finkle and Mr. Valentine first encountered one another in 1985. The author came to the photographer's studio to have his picture taken for the dust jacket of his first book, “The Hotel Tacloban,” an account of his father's horrific experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II.
Mr. Valentine had gone on to develop an interest in the psychological effects that covert operations have on the soldiers they involve and was researching the CIA's role in Vietnam.
As the two men discussed the war, Mr. Valentine could sense that Mr. Finkle had a story to tell. He quietly left a copy of his book at the studio.
When the author returned to pick up his photographs, Mr. Finkle was ready to talk.
Mr. Valentine soon realized that he was being made privy to an astonishing tale.
Mr. Finkle revealed that while he was serving as a photojournalist in the Air Force in the late 1960s, he was part of a covert operation mounted by the military to capture the scene on film and audiotape as CIA agents bought huge quantities of opium from Montagnards deep in the jungles of Laos. To this day it is unclear what the military intended to do with the filmed evidence of CIA drug dealing.
Finkle and three other servicemen were recruited for the mission's technical work with the lure of large bonuses. They were told they would go to the Philippines, and that the assignment would not be dangerous. Having been stripped of all identification at the outset, they were informed of the true location and purpose of the mission only when it was well under way. In the end, six of the 22 men involved made it out alive, Mr. Finkle disclosed.
Mr. Valentine had no doubt that Mr. Finkle's story was true.
“It came back to him spontaneously,” Mr. Valentine said. “I had done enough interviews to see that he was back on the trail in Laos. It was completely honest. He was trembling and sweating. He was reliving the experience. You can't make up a story like that.”
Mr. Valentine viewed the entire episode as emblematic of the nature of the American presence in Southeast Asia. He asked Mr. Finkle if he could write about what had occurred.
At first, Mr. Finkle hesitated out of fear of CIA reprisals. Later, after weighing the pros and cons, he agreed, as long as his name was not used and certain facts were changed to protect his identity. Those concerns, he explained, have eased in the days since the two men met.
Over time, the two men made 10 hours of tapes. Mr. Valentine put a manuscript together, which he said was rejected by several publishers who maintained it was not substantial enough to be issued in book form.
At that point, other priorities intervened, and except for occasional phone conversations, Mr. Valentine and Mr. Finkle went their separate ways.
A key moment came early this year, when Mr. Valentine learned of iUniverse.com, an Internet publishing outfit half-owned by Barnes & Noble. Its books are published on demand and can be ordered through Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com, or directly from the publisher. iUniverse.com agreed to publish “TDY” under its imprint, Authors Choice Press, and charge $10.95 a copy.
In “TDY,” a young airman named Pete gives an action-packed account of the mission Mr. Finkle recalls. He describes an arduous three-day hike with a military security team and a cadre of Montagnard guides through territory teeming with trip wires and hostile patrols. Without major incident, the group reaches its destination, a large enemy encampment in which the drug deal is supposed to occur.
As Pete and his fellow technicians are strapping on their equipment, the military team leader reminds them to focus on photographing the opium as evidence that the camp is a nexus of drug trafficking. He goes on to tell them, “We're also here to find out if there are any Americans involved in what's going on,” he says, referring to the CIA. “And if there are any Americans involved, we want you to take their pictures and record their words. Understood?”
Hidden from view, they watch the arrival of an unmarked plane. Two senior CIA agents emerge and proceed to buy five tons of opium for a quarter of a million dollars.
Pete and his cohorts succeed in recording the transaction, but they are discovered, and they and the other team members are forced to battle their way to a rendezvous point on a hilltop 10 miles away, where helicopters are to pick them up. Pete describes his growing terror as the men are repeatedly ambushed and gradually picked off by snipers. One helicopter is blown up in midair as it takes off with several of the men. The few survivors make it to a second helicopter amid a hail of North Vietnamese bullets.
“The helicopter ride into South Vietnam remains a blur. All I can recall is sitting in the doorway with my feet on the skids, in a state of wonderment, thinking, 'Thank God I'm alive,' ” Pete says.
Mr. Valentine's story, however, does not end as the chopper takes off. Mr. Finkle also had told the author about his life in the military after the mission.
In the book's epilogue, Pete accepts another top-secret assignment, this time in Vietnam. As it progresses, he teaches English to Vietnamese Army officers at a school in Saigon that is a deep cover operation for CIA agents.
Pete witnesses corruption and double dealing going on all around him, and ultimately gets drawn in.
He makes a small fortune as a private tutor to the families of Vietnamese officers, and then trades the earnings on the black market. He takes a Vietnamese lover; she has his child and is pregnant a second time when his tour of duty is up. He tries to take her with him but cannot, because members of her family have been blacklisted as communist sympathizers.
Mr. Finkle himself was discharged from the Air Force in 1970. He returned to college in New York State and got actively involved in Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
He said he told the story of the special mission in Laos at public meetings until he was threatened by two CIA agents in a parking lot late one night. From that time until he met Mr. Valentine, he never again repeated it.
Mr. Valentine, 51, said he has had his own troubles with the CIA. After he spent years doing documentary research and interviewing, his book on a CIA operation known as the Phoenix Program was published by William Morrow in 1990. The program is alleged, among other things, to have used soldiers to assassinate Vietnamese communist sympathizers.
The book, titled “The Phoenix Program,” was published in paperback by Avon in 1992, and is now back in print through iUniverse.com. After it came out, critics both praised and panned it.
Mr. Valentine said he was harassed and threatened by the military and the CIA during that period.
“You can't go whacking a hornet's nest and not expect to get stung,” he said. “I really thought it would be the last book I would ever write, and I would have to find something else to do with my life.”
CIA spokesman Tom Chrispell said the agency is not familiar with Mr. Valentine's latest work and would have no comment.
Meanwhile, neither Mr. Finkle nor Mr. Valentine is in the least disheartened that the story of the mission in Laos did not reach the public until 25 years after the end of the war in Vietnam. For one thing, the passage of time has allowed Mr. Finkle, now 53, to feel he can safely talk about what happened and face down the skeptics.
“If you take a look at all the bunglings the CIA has done and all the convoluted avenues they have traveled, mine is just one of the stories,” he said. “They've got plenty on their plate. This is just a little dribble of gravy.”
Mr. Valentine, for his part, asserts that the account has lost none of its relevancy. He said it clearly demonstrates how illegal covert operations halfway around the world can have devastating consequences close to home.
In this instance, Mr. Valentine said, the smaller story leads to the bigger picture. International drug trafficking, he noted, helped create widespread drug abuse both in the military and on the home front.
“There is a moral imperative to tell the story,” he said. “If there are enough of these small contributions, maybe it will change the world.”
© 2000 Worcester Telegram & Gazette