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Will Kabul in 2011 = Saigon in 1975?

No one knows just what the future holds for Afghanistan. But if things don't go as planned, America's last days in Afghanistan could be a dark reminder of our final days in Vietnam. Many of us remember the gripping shots of the last American soldiers evacuating from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1975.

In 1994, I embarked on a project for People magazine in which I tracked down the 11 men on the very last helicopter to leave the U.S. Embassy roof on that historic night. I had always wondered who those men were, the last American troops to officially leave Vietnam.

It took me weeks to identify then find them - most of them anyway. These men were a part of history, yet the Marine Corps never compiled a list of these men. After I tracked them down, the magazine flew every member of that crew who could make it to San Diego for a highly emotional reunion that I was proud to host.


That was the first time these Marines - most of them guards at the embassy - had been together since that horrific day on the embassy roof. What I did not know until I started interviewing them was that they all thought they'd been left behind and that they would likely die on that roof that night or the following morning. They waited for hours for that final helicopter to come while the embassy beneath them and the city around them crumbled.

When the producers of the play "Miss Saigon" read my story, they invited me and all these Marines to the Washington DC premiere of the play at the Kennedy Center. The play, which puts the "Madame Butterfly" story into a Vietnam context, even has a scene at the end depicting the helicopter escape by American Marines.

It was, appropriately, my first visit to Washington. We all met up before the play at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, better known as The Wall, which most of them had not seen. There wasn't a dry eye among these tough Marines at The Wall as they read the names of buddies lost, or when they watched the final scene of "Miss Saigon." They were watching their own life up on that stage. Afterward, the ranking member of the group, Maj. Jim Kean, commented on the fact that one of his men on that helicopter, S.Sgt. Robert Frain, had reportedly killed himself in 1993 after a battle with depression. "I really miss Bobby," Kean told me, his voice cracking a bit. "I wish he was here with us."

Now here we are, in another long, brutal war that critics insist is futile but that our military insists is winnable. It's been nine years ' the longest of all American wars - and whether you think we should stay or go, it's hard not to think about the possibility of the Taliban violently storming the country just as the North Vietnamese did when the Americans left Vietnam. Our amazingly brave and confident troops think they can train the Afghans in time to restore order and keep the Taliban down by the time they start withdrawing next July. It's a difficult task, but credit our men and women for trying. As the American military has proved many times, anything is possible.

When the last American warriors do leave Afghanistan - whether it's July 2011 or, as I suspect, a far later date - I'll be thinking about those men in Saigon 35 years ago, the last to leave Vietnam, and what they saw as they looked in that heli's rear-view mirror: a city, and country, in chaos and being taken over by the bad guys. The hope among American military and its allies, of course, and all of us is that we will leave Afghanistan in a much better state than what we left behind in Vietnam.