Shattered Dreams by Phil Spencer

Phil Spencer arrived in Vietnam on October 7, 1967. He was assigned to the First Signal Brigade and spent his tour of duty in Vietnam doing work he had been trained for: climbing poles and installing communication lines. On  December 4, he was assigned to Company A of the 160th Signal Group in the 40th Signal Battalion. Spencer spent most of his first Vietnam War tour in the Mekong Delta, but was also in Saigon during Tet 1968.

He was released from active duty after five years, two months and twenty-two days in the Army. Twenty-one days after his discharge, he was hired by AT&T as a pole lineman in Midland, Michigan. He put in thirty-eight years before he retired.

All of this makes Phil Spencer seem like a totally solid citizen, but the narrative of drunkenness and bad behavior he describes in Shattered Dreams: An Alcoholic’s Journey (WestBow Press, 264 pp., $35.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper) tells us otherwise. As Spencer puts it: “I drank to deaden the pain and the rage inside of me even though at the time I didn’t realize that was what I was doing.”

Spencer’s book is about the “stupid things people do when they drink.”  It is a stunning collection of many of those things.

Shattered Dreams contains many of the same rants I have read again and again in memoirs by Vietnam veterans. Our military had one hand tied behind its back. “We lost Vietnam because of stupid politicians.”  Just them?  What about the stupid military leaders?  What about the corruption and the military industrial complex?

The author covers his second tour of duty in just a couple of pages, which leaves a lot of room for him to cite more stupid things he did while drunk.  He complains about the Hollywood stereotype of Vietnam veterans as “being drug-crazed baby killers.” He has a valid point there.

Phil Spencer

My favorite comment is this one: “I think of Charles DeGaulle in the same way I think of Jane Fonda, and that makes them both bottom feeders.” Later Spencer says that he went to see the movie, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They,” a film I think he admires, but he does not mention that Jane Fonda is in the movie.

“Even though I have written about Vietnam, it is only with regard to the insanity of my drinking and not about my combat experience,” Spencer says. He goes on to say that he has been told by the VA that he has PTSD. We are told that this is not a religious book, but that it is interesting how God puts things together. “This is a project the Lord has wanted me to do for some time.”

I recommend this book to those who want to see that a man can pull himself together after decades of abusing alcohol and using rage as a way of dealing with life. I am impressed with the formidable work record Spencer amassed and with the book that has resulted from his having heard God’s plan for him.

—David Willson

Unspoken Messages by Richard D. Rowland

“The intent of the author is only to offer information of a general nature to help you in your quest for emotional and spiritual well-being.” That’s an honest statement from the author, Richard D. Rowland, but it does not begin to tell us what his book, Unspoken Messages: Spiritual Lessons I Learned From Horses and Other Earthbound Souls (Balboa Press, 222 pp., $33.95, hardcover; $15.99, paper), is about.

Richard Rowland is a retired Kentucky State Police sergeant. He served two tours in the Vietnam War where he“witnessed the horrors of war personally.”

Part One of Rowland’s book, “Let the Journey Begin,” is made up mostly of stories about special animals he has known, primarily horses and dogs. Often the stories involve the sickness and death of these precious and beloved animals.

Although the stories are well-written and well-told, I found them hard to read as they were sad. The main theme of this section is that God sends us messages in the form of animals and these animals bring peace to the people who need it the most. As the devoted companion of two old dogs, I can tell you that I feel the truth of this philosophy.

The second half of the book, “Coming Clean and Facing Fear,” deals with Rowland’s cancer diagnosis in August of 2008.  “It is a blood cancer called multiple myeloma,” he writes. “It is relatively rare and it is incurable. No matter what we do for you,” the doctors told him, “you have three to five years to live at the most.”

It is necessary here for me to disclose the fact that around that same time I received the exact same diagnosis. The second half of Rowland’s book was of intense interest to me because of this.

Richard Rowland

Rowland explains that multiple myeloma is a cancer related to exposure to dioxin, the highly toxic component of the herbicide Agent Orange. He complains that his diagnosing doctor did not offer hope. Mine did not either, so I changed doctors and went from private care to the VA Medical Center in Seattle where I have received great care and also hope.

Rowland writes, “Your desires and your dreams are your power for growth and healing.” I totally subscribe to that philosophy.

Rowland received care in the VA Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, and he says, “If you ever visit any veterans’ hospital, be prepared to see things that will affect you, will cause an emotional response whether you want them to, or not.”  He says a mouthful here.

He also quotes a cryptic Vietnam War saying, “It’s okay, it’s not really real.”  Rowland, though, finds out that ignoring his initial diagnosis for two years resulted in something that was really real. His bones developed lesions and they began breaking. Early in the third year after his diagnosis, he broke his first rib.

“The pain was the most intense I had ever experienced.”  My journey with multiple myeloma was exactly like his, so I know he is telling the truth.

Near the end of his book, Rowland tells us that he learned that many people diagnosed with multiple myeloma have lived many years past their predicted span. Some have lived ten to fifteen years longer than their doctors predicted. Emotional and spiritual well-being have helped them to beat those dire predictions, he says. I won’t argue with that.

Rowland set out in the book to bring peace to people like him who “carry a life-ending diagnosis.” I found my emotional burden lightened somewhat while reading this book.

I found even more comfort and peace spending time with my animal companions: Sweetie and Tobey, who never fail to bring a smile to my face and joy to my heart.

—David Willson

 

 

Above It All by Dennis Brooks

Dennis Brooks, who grew up in Slaton in West Texas, served in the U. S. Army from 1968-76. In Above it All (Amazon Digital, 5498 pp., $14.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) he lists the medals he received only “to legitimatize the authority” for him to write about his time in the Vietnam War. Brooks received two Bronze Stars with V device, twenty-eight Air Medals, and two Purple Hearts.

Dennis Brooks does not consider himself an educated man or an author. But he wrote this book anyhow, and I am glad he did.

The cover and title give us a very good idea of the book’s subject: helicopters of every variety and their use in Vietnam, written by a man who served as a helicopter crew chief and a door gunner. The book is dedicated to A, B, and C Troops of the 1/9th Cavalry.

Brooks gives us a lot of information about his childhood in West Texas as well as his four years in Modesto, California. Brooks loved horses and spent a lot of time with horsemen, caring for horses. Brooks’s rough-and-ready writing reminds me of the books I’ve read by cowboy authors I love: Will James and “Teddy Blue” Abbott.

I can see where Brooks’s writing style and narrative voice might set some readers’ ears on edge, but not mine. I am fine with his using “sea rations” for C rations and “Mountain Yards” for Montagnards.

When the door to the airplane opened as he arrived in Vietnam, Brooks writes, “the heat came down the ilea and hit me dead in the face.” When he is writing about the manner that the malaria pill affected his body, he comes up with, “You didn’t wipe your ass, you just kind of blotted it.”  When he talks of a friend he loved, he says, “He was John Wayne in my eyes.”

Brooks is a great storyteller and puts on no airs in the book. Every line smacks of authenticity and the flavor gained from having been there and having thought a lot about flying in Loaches and slicks and having spent hundreds of hours firing an M -60 machine gun, freestyle (not the mounted kind) out of the door of the chopper.

Brooks joined the Army to avoid the draft when he got “the dreaded brown envelope.” He has a valid point that his lack of a high school diploma would have destined him for infantry.  “Helicopters were for us,” he says of himself and his best friend who did not pass the Army physical.

Brooks got his wish, and was trained as a Huey helicopter crew chief. He served in Charlie Squadron, 1st Cavalry Division, 9th Cavalry and makes the point repeatedly that enemy ears were taken and displayed on the troops’ flight helmets.  VC skulls were displayed on their Hueys’ skids.

Brooks does not write as a hardened or emotion-deadened warrior. He freely shares his feelings with the reader, and his writing is moving. When he described his personal encounters with General George Casey and of the general’s death in a helicopter crash in Vietnam in 1970, I could feel the sense of loss that Brooks felt. When Brooks’s friends die—and many do—his pain is communicated, as well as his survivor guilt.

One of the main characters in Above it All, is Brooks’s dog Tiger, who gets a lot of ink in this massive book and deserves every bit of it. Brooks does a fine job making the reader care as much about Tiger as we do about Will James’ horse Smoky, one of the great animal characters in American fiction.

Brooks’s language reminds us on almost every page that when he says he is “a cowboy at heart,” he is not kidding.  “Cowboy up,” “Back in the Saddle Again, “long gone pecan,” “Didn’t know crap from Shyola,” and “long row to hoe ahead of him,” all work well to remind us of his West Texas roots.

When he got out of the Army, Brooks worked for a considerable time as cattle foreman on the Bushnell Brahma Ranch in Oklahoma. His struggles with PTSD make me think he would have better off never to have left cattle and horse ranching. But that was not a choice he got to make.

Brooks’s attitude about serving in the military upon receiving his draft notice (“Time to pay rent on all that freedom I had taken for granted”) carries him only so far. In discussing the option he did not take of going to Canada to avoid military service he is not scathing or dismissive of those who took that route.

I highly recommend Above it All to those looking for a book about helicopter warfare in Vietnam and who crave combat action sequences that make you feel as though you were almost there with Dennis Brooks and his friends.

—David Willson

The Exec by Robert J. Moir

 

Robert Moir graduated from the University of Virginia in 1964. He attended on an NROTC scholarship, and entered the U.S. Navy after graduating. After being promoted to lieutenant, Moir received orders for PBR (Patrol Boat, River) training. It was 1966 and he was trained to patrol the rivers of South Vietnam on a heavily armed boat. He arrived in South Vietnam in March 1967.

Moir spent his tour of duty doing something I was completely unaware of when I was in the war zone. My only exposure to the rivers of South Vietnam was when we had water skiing parties. I noticed no PBR’s on those junkets.

It never occurred to me while I was in Vietnam that the U. S. Navy was patrolling those rivers. I thought the Navy was confined to large ships miles offshore, with the men safe and sound and eating great meals three times a day. Every page of Moir’s  book, The Exec: A Vietnam Memoir (Carolina Time Press, 226 pp., $19.99, hardcover; $12.99, paper), ruptured that ignorant point of view.

The book is organized into long chapters, but is dated like a diary and often reads like one written by a literate and questioning young man with a fine education. “Our mission as I understand it, is to make our assigned waterways secure for friendly vessels and to deny the enemy their use for transport of weapons and combat supplies,” Moir writes.

I was amazed at how often Moir bumped into men he had known in college at the University of Virginia. The Vietnam War was a small world for U-Va. grads.

Moir makes a few trips to Saigon to do administrative errands and  banking. His descriptions of the hotels and bars on Tu Do Street are so accurate they made me nostalgic for Saigon circa 1967. The writing is lively and fun—except when the war intrudes.

The most interesting part of the book begins with the chapter call “Backstretch” when Moir returns to My Tho from his R&R in Bangkok in November 1967, and My Tho comes under attack.  The next chapter, “Tet—War Up Close,” is even more exciting with lots of gripping combat scenes.

I’ve read a few PBR books and this one is as detailed and exciting and well-written as they get. Moir works in an office for part of the last section of the book, but gets dragged away from the paperwork during the Tet Offensive. There they were, “sailors about to be overrun by main force VC troops,”  he says. “Half the city was in flames.”

Moir ended his tour as the exec of River Section 533. He was responsible for “533’s personnel, patrol scheduling, assigned patrol areas, experiences with river traffic and hot spots, boat readiness, weapons inventory and logistic support.”

His fine writing makes all of this interesting and easy to read. From the sections about remote duty on the Co Chien to his very different duty in My Tho, the author finds reasons to comment on the war. He quotes Eisenhower saying that the United States should avoid a ground war in Asia unless our survival is at stake.

“The VC seem so embedded,” he writes. “Can we really hope to stabilize this chaotic place enough to foster democracy and help improve their standard of living? Even then, how long is it going to take?’’  Good questions.

Moir’s mission to deny the enemy use of the waterways to supply arms for attacks on South Vietnam’s cities was shown to be a failed one when the Tet Offensive blew up. The mission had to be radically redesigned after that event. By that time, though, Robert Moir was done with his tour of duty and had happily left South Vietnam and the war behind.

I highly recommend this book for anyone seeking to know the role of the PBR in the Vietnam War and the impact of the war on a well-educated and perceptive young man.

—David Willson

Psalm Twenty-Five & PTSD by Robert Scholten

The cliche is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. But Robert Scholten’s poignant and personal book, Psalm Twenty-Five &  PTSD: A Journey Into the Darkened Realms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Tate Publishing 188 pp., $12,99, paper) certainly delivers what the cover promises.

The reader is walked through what Sholten calls the “sunken trench” of PTSD alongside Bob, “a gunner on a Duster attached to the 173rd Airborne Infantry” in 1970. Nicknames are essential to this Vietnam War memoir, a revelation to me as a rear echelon Vietnam veteran.

When I began the book, I wanted more background on the author, but as I read on. I could see too much information would have been a distraction from this homily-like treatise. “War changes people, be they individuals or families or communities” is just one of the author’s observations.

Scholten’s honest recounting of his PTSD, as well as his mother and wife experiencing it along with him, clearly illustrates the shelf-life and shared pain caused by post-traumatic stress disorder.

The author shows us that thought processes, prayers, meals–in fact, just about any daily activity we take for granted—can be interrupted by flashbacks to lonely nights in Vietnam where danger lurked. One flashback in which Scholten had an M-79 grenade launcher in his lap ended with the thought that what was on his lap was his Bible .

Now a minister, the author recalls how he has lived with Psalm 25 since age sixteen, revealing that his closeness to God has guided him through most of his life. That includes his months in combat and the present day as he deals with flashbacks.

The importance of this book to veterans and those with PTSD is summed up by the author: “PTSD is a natural reaction and byproduct of experiences in war. For me it was Vietnam.”

Scholten, who had the combat moniker “Preacher Bob,” adds a concluding prayer which, he writes, can provide comfort to those dealing with PTSD:

“Let me have the privilege to pray with you personally and for anybody else who has taken the journey thus far through the trench of PTSD. We have tasted war with all its terribleness it dishes out to veterans and civilians alike. We despise the flavor it has left in our lives, yet many of our fellow veterans stand ready to go through it all again.”

This thought-provoking volume is meant to offer guidance for those experiencing PTSD. It is valuable and worthy of a place on your bookshelf.

—Curtis Nelson

Not All heroes by Gary E. Skogen

Gary Skogen, who is retired from the L.A. Police Department, served with the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division in Vietnam from 1971-72. He considers his twelve months in Vietnam one of the best years of his life. Skogen’s Not All Heroes: An Unapologetic Memoir of the Vietnam War, 1971-1972 (Dakota Institute, 258 pp., $29.95) is what the publisher calls an “unconventional, un-heroic, and unapologetic memoir of his time in Vietnam.”

Skogen’s tour was devoted to dealing with the rampant drug use among the troops, primarily marijuana and heroin. His book focuses on the dark underbelly of the war in Vietnam. He makes the point that the stereotype seen in movies and television shows of all soldiers in Vietnam being out in the boonies covered with mud and in serious jeopardy day and night is far from the war that most of us experienced.

Eighty percent of those who served in Vietnam saw little or no combat. That includes many of those who died from mortar and rocket attacks, friendly fire, drug overdoses, Jeep accidents, or hundreds of other ways.

As the cover blurb tells us, Not All Heroes describes a U. S. Army in free-fall, corroded by two-dollar heroin, 33-cent prostitutes, tense race relations, and an epidemic of fraggings. We are told this book shows us the “real war” in South Vietnam.

Keep in mind, though, that this was the war that was real to Skogen, not the war hundreds of thousands of other Vietnam veterans experienced.  There were many experiences in the Vietnam War and this is just one of them. All of them, in fact, were “real.”

Not All Heroes is organized into eleven chapters and an afterword. All of the chapters contain material that left me scratching my head in wonderment. But chapter four— “Settling In: A .38, a Blowjob, A Hooch, and A Jeep”—took my breath away.

I highly recommend this memoir to those who spent a boring tour of duty typing and filing memos, and to those who never saw any excessive behavior of the sort that is displayed in chapter after chapter of this well-written and totally believable book. It’s very likely that Skogen kept detailed records of his time in Vietnam, as the facts of the cases he writes about are obviously not invented.

I am tempted to buy this book for my mother and sister, as this is how they thought I spent my tour of duty: chasing whores and surrounded by drug use. In fact, I never saw even one heroin vial—or received a single blowjob. Today, more than forty years after the fact, I sometimes wonder if I was even in Vietnam.

—David Willson

Vietnam: Memories in Verse by Ken Williamson

Ken Williamson was an Army photographer in 1969. His fine photographs are on the front and back covers and throughout his new little book of poetry, Vietnam: Memories in Verse (Photo Gallery on the Net, 34 pp., $14.95, paper).

There is a great color photograph of Williamson taken at Cam Ranh Bay in 1969. He had just learned of his assignment to 815th Engineers in Pleiku. Later he was transferred to the 26th Public Information Detachment, USACAV. The color photos are a strong part of the book.

Williamson traveled the entire country of South Vietnam to document the operations of Army Engineers. He returned to Vietnam in 1998 and 2005 to revisit and photograph some of the places he’d photographed in 1969.

“The poetry in this book is a result of his emotional reunion with one of the most beautiful countries in the world and his coming to grips with the war no one wanted,” Williamson writes. No one? Someone must have wanted it.

The book begins with a four-page essay, “Why Poetry?”  In it Williamson writes: “I never thought of myself as a poet.” He credits a group, the Poet Warriors, with inspiring him to write poetry. He says he believes “there is a cleansing of the soul when one writes poetry.” Sometimes that happens when reading poetry.

There’s a baker’s dozen of short poems in this book. They cover a variety of subjects including the tunnels at Cu Chi, an orphanage, Highway 19, Hanoi, boots, Agent Orange, and napalm. One poem bravely offers up the idea that perhaps it was not a good idea to drop an A-bomb on Haiphong Harbor to put an early end to the war.

Williamson also includes short, cogent prose pieces that set the stage for the poetry and the photographs.

Soon another book by Williamson will be available: Saying Goodbye to Vietnam. This one will be comprised of 275 photographs taken in Vietnam in 1969, along with letters Williamson wrote home to his wife.  Because of the quality of Williamson’s photographs and his clear prose style, I look forward to that book.

The author’s website is http://kenwilliamson.biz

—David Willson