In 1969, when Jack Estes was just 19 years old, he returned home to Portland, Oregon, after serving in the Vietnam War. Before being wounded and decorated, Estes saw the war’s bloody horrors, which, of course, left their lasting mark. By the early 1990s, Estes felt ready to return to Vietnam, a decision that would have a profound influence on his subsequent actions and his writing, like in his new novel, Searching for Gurney. “There are a million reasons why a veteran would go back,” Estes says. “For me, part of it was to try and 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 tiny village outside Da Nang where they were stationed. Estes had long credited one of those locals as the reason he survived the battles that he experienced—but all he had was a name, Hien, and the memory of the man’s gold tooth. Miraculously, Estes was able to track Hien down, and the two walked the village together, seeing how it was frozen in time, lacking basic infrastructure, and filled with beggars missing limbs—searing physical scars of the war from 25 years earlier.
Estes’ wife and children had been supportive of him returning to Vietnam and confronting the memories that left him struggling with PTSD throughout his adult life. “My kids wanted me to go back there so that they could see me cry for the first time,” Estes remembers. The trip did indeed stir up long-dormant emotions: It inspired him and his wife to start the Fallen Warriors Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping the poorest and smallest villages of Vietnam 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 was not the only way that Estes revisited his time in Vietnam. While he was studying communications at Portland State University, Estes became a National Speech Champion for his oral interpretations about Vietnam. It was also at that time that he first began to write about some of his own personal experiences. “I was writing about the horror and the impact on soldiers and their families,” Estes says.
Over the last several decades, Estes further developed these writings, releasing articles and essays in publications around the country, notably about his experiences with Hien for Newsweek in 1994. Estes has also released a memoir, A Field of Innocence, and an award-winning screenplay, A Soldier’s Son. With his most recent release, the novel Searching for Gurney, Estes drew from his own experiences to craft fictional stories of four very different soldiers who come together during one gruesome battle. But Estes then staggers 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 vision of PTSD.”
In addition to playing with perspective through timelines, Estes also shows a diverse range of different backgrounds: Jed and Cage are White men from Oregon struggling to put their lives together after returning home; Jesse “Hawkeye” Collins is a Black man from Chicago who faces the choice of jail or enlistment in the Marines; and Nguyen Vuong is a young North Vietnamese soldier who eventually becomes a scout for the Americans (a clear call back to the very real Hien and a point of view that was important for Estes to include).
In the book, Estes goes into great detail about each of the four men’s backgrounds, the grisly details of the battles, the jungles of Vietnam, enriched by his own memories, and then lastly, what happened to all four afterward. It’s in his depictions of the four broken men drifting through life that his sparse and reflective prose delivers some of its most impactful images of the effects of trauma, like Hawkeye and his seemingly never-ending hospital visits after being injured and losing his memory:
Sometimes when he was sitting on this bed in the ward, he’d look at his leg, all scarred and deformed, arm hanging limp and useless, and try to will himself to remember. Some mornings when the first light came through the windows, he’d been up all night, lying in his hospital bed, sweating, imagining what he’d been told….But with budgets being cut and the war winding down, maybe it was best to just forget. After months of care, doctors lost interest and gave up on putting his memory back together again.
In his many years of working with his foundation and writing about Vietnam, Estes has built up a long list of veterans from Vietnam that have shared their personal struggles with him. Through his correspondences, Estes has seen how they all have struggled to reintegrate, to navigate the bureaucracy of disabilities, and most importantly, how their PTSD has affected those around them, which becomes a key theme in Searching for Gurney.
Estes is already at work on a new book, a nonfiction collection of essays, to revisit some of his published work and share more of these soldiers’ firsthand experiences. With all of his books, though, Estes hopes to show what Vietnam was like and what it really takes to survive PTSD. “It’s an important thing to understand,” says Estes. “It’s not just the veteran who is struggling with PTSD, it’s his family, his friends, and his community. I want to provide as much as I can about those experiences.”
Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator based in Paris.