Books in Review II

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Welcome to “Books in Review II,” an online feature that complements “Books in Review,” which runs in The VVA Veteran, the national magazine of Vietnam Veterans of America.

This site contains book reviews by several contributors, while other reviews appear in each issue of The VVA Veteran. Our goal is to review every newly published book of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that deals with the Vietnam War or Vietnam veterans. Publishers and self-published authors may mail review copies to:

Marc Leepson
Arts Editor, The VVA Veteran
Vietnam Veterans of America
8719 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Email your comments, questions, and suggestions to mleepson@vva.org

–Marc Leepson, Books Editor

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To Any Soldier by G.C. Hendricks & Kathryn Watson Quigg

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Any nineteen-year-old woman who can think and write like the character Ashley Beth Justice in To Any Soldier: A Novel of Vietnam Letters (iUniverse, 259 pp.; $17.95, paper; $5.99,Kindle) should have been scooped up and cherished for a lifetime.

Her letters comprise half of the book, which begins with one addressed “To Any Soldier” in Vietnam. She is in her first year of college. Lt. Jay Fox plucks her letter off his squadron’s bulletin board at Da Nang and answers it.

A Marine Corps A-6 pilot, Fox intellectually trails a step behind Ashley. Of course, bombing “Northern Gooks” (as he calls the enemy) and avoiding ground fire consume most of his attention. Ashley and Jay exchange letters throughout 1968.

The two fictitious characters evolved through a collaboration between co-authors Kathryn Watson Quigg and G.C. Hendricks. Back in the day, the authors filled roles similar to those of their fictional characters: Quigg attended college and Hendricks flew more than two hundred combat missions. The book includes lots of pictures of them and their surroundings at that time.

The letters exchanged between Ashley and Jay deal with subjects that stretch from war, destruction, and death to love, creation, and life. Despite the physical distance and opposing views they had on many topics of the era, the two fell in love. But that’s not how the story ends.

I enjoyed the book because Ashley and Jay address controversial arguments in a rational manner. With time to reflect between letters, their discussions lead them to learn from each other.

The authors’ backgrounds give the romance authenticity with which many veterans might easily agree.

They hit home with me.

—Henry Zeybel

Tiger Bravo’s War by Rick St John

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Tiger Bravo’s War (Currahee Press, 356 pp. $24.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is packed with almost non-stop action. There are entire books written about single battles. This book chronicles on infantry company’s exploits in no less than three major battles and dozens of smaller, yet intense and deadly, fights.

Rick St John’s writings are wide-ranging. They include Circle of Helmets: Poetry and Letters of the Vietnam War and—believe it or not—lighthearted, children’s stories, a beautiful dichotomy. On the battlefield, warriors like Rick St. John are fearless, aggressive, and totally driven to kill and survive. Underneath, though, the rawhide-skinned, steely-eyed warrior is a good, loving human being with a heart of gold.

Rick St John is a 1966 graduate of West Point who served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division in 1968. His battlefield awards include the Silver and Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart. He retired from the U.S. Army in 1993 as a colonel.

Tiger Bravo’s War starts a bit slowly as St John’s B Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry, 3rd Brigade in the 101st is preparing to depart Ft. Campbell for Vietnam. Stay with it, though, as the Prologue and first chapter set the stage for an exciting tour—and an exciting book.

Because of the unit’s early departure from the States, the first month in-country was dedicated to OJT for jungle warfare. Then, on January 3, 1968, it hits the fan and seldom lets up for the next eleven months. Tiger Bravo became one of the Army’s “hired guns,” amassing staggering combat numbers. Super-hotspots, impossible odds, friendlies in a bind? Tiger Bravo got airlifted in.

The enemy respected and feared the warriors of Bravo Company. It is reported that the NVA and VC would say, “These American soldiers with an eagle patch on their shoulder piled on from every direction. Day or night, under heavy fire or not, they kept coming.”  Having read Tiger Bravo’s War, I believe this is true.

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Rick St John

Throughout the book, St John is honest and objective, and he shows no excessive bravado. In Vietnam he displayed a healthy ability to delegate and to trust the judgement of others. He searched out the special capabilities of every man under his command and used them to the unit’s advantage. He was the quintessential infantry commander, a warrior leading warriors.

Opening with a good glossary that is supplemented in Chapter 1 with a section on Vietnam War “Speak,” the excellent documentation continues with an expansive Bibliography and Notes section at the end. The lack of an index is a minor issue. Maps and photos abound.

Tiger Bravo’s War grew on me. The more I read, the more I wanted to read.

—Bob Wartman

Sapphire Pavilion by David E. Grogan

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David Grogan served on active duty in the post-Vietnam-War United States Navy for more than twenty-six years as a Navy Judge Advocate. He’s now retired, but his experiences in prosecuting and defending court-martial cases around the world inform and enrich his writing of legal thrillers, the first of which was The Siegel Dispositions.

That book introduced Grogan’s main character, ex-JAG Corps officer Steve Stilwell. The Sapphire Pavilion (Camel Press, 280 pp., $15.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), another mystery thriller, involves Stilwell fighting to get justice for his old buddy, Ric Stokes, who is incarcerated for possessing heroin in Vietnam. Stokes was sharing a hotel room with Ryan Eversall, now dead of an overdose while with a prostitute, herself now among the missing.

Stilwell is convinced this is a frame-up and travels to Saigon to get to the bottom of the affair.  The bad guys who set up his friend immediately go after Stilwell. There’s a file involved in this thriller labelled “The Sapphire Pavilion,” a catchy and convenient title for this book.

The villains underestimate Stilwell, who refuses to roll over and play dead. Helping him fight these forces of evil is a plucky and lovely female former Army pilot, Casey, who has one leg—a beautiful one—due to injury in a helicopter accident.

Stilwell gets through all of this derring-do in one piece, but it seems possible that Casey could lose her other leg. I won’t give that plot point away. It also looks as though our hero, Steve, might lose his wife, who has had it with his globe-trotting and consorting with beautiful female spies.

David Grogan

The case file for Sapphire Pavilion looks as though it will be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s McGuffins, but it works well enough to carry the book’s plot along until the exciting end.

If you enjoyed the previous book in this series, you’ll love this one, too.  Read and enjoy.

The author’s website is davidegrogan.com

—David Willson

The Miracle Workers of South Boulder Road by Bob Fischer and Grady Birdsong

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“It looks a lot like a textbook,” my wife Jan said while thumbing through The Miracle Workers of South Boulder Road: Healing the Signature Wounds of War (Bird Quill, 199 pp. $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) by Bob Fischer and Grady Birdsong.

“Maybe,” I told her, “but it’s filled with information that touches your heart.”

The book pays tribute to a treatment program run by the Rocky Mountain Hyperbaric Institute in Boulder, Colorado. The book’s most significant picture is of a gray brain with a Purple Heart medal affixed to it because hyperbaric oxygen treatment (HBOT) helps war veterans with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

As my wife noted, the book contains charts and photographs, almost like a textbook. It also has “Exhibits” that illustrate the need for—and effectiveness of—HBOT.

Fischer and Birdsong, Marine Corps Vietnam War veterans, bring the text alive by describing the people who run the program and those who have benefited from using it their own words. The miracle-working heroes of the story are Ryan Fullmer, Eddie Gomez, Dr. Julie Stapleton, Pepe Ramirez, and their team.

Both Fullmer and Gomez suffered physical problems that HBOT cured, which motivated them to join forces and establish a clinic to perform feats similar to those that saved their lives. The authors helped find funding for starting a non-profit clinic. The clinic has treated hundreds of veterans.

Stapleton, a Certified Hyperbaric Physician, joined the group in 2007 to fulfill government regulations. She champions the use of HBOT to treat those with PTSD, although neither the Department of Defense nor the FDA endorses the concept. The VA recently announced that it would offer HBOT for PTSD patients.

Ramirez, a retired Marine Sergeant Major, specializes in EMDR (Eye Movement, Desensitization, and Reprocessing) psychotherapy and physical exercise that complements HBOT. He served three tours in Iraq.

Fundamentally, HBOT replaces the unsatisfactory array of drugs (and even career-ending brain surgery) routinely provided by VA hospitals as treatment for TBI and PTSD. Autobiographies of veterans who found renewed life through HBOT testify to its success.

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As treatment for combat injuries, HBOT is a relatively new form of medicine. I knew nothing about it prior to reading The Miracle Workers of South Boulder Road. As I said earlier, the book touches a reader’s heart. It is written by and about people who possess faith and perseverance in their cause.

The authors walk the reader through HBOT from start to finish and explain every step along the way. I doubt that you can find a better source to begin your education in this area.

Grady Birdsong’s web site is gradytbirdsong.com

—Henry Zeybel

 The Circumstantial Man By Gary Reilly

Running Meter Press was established in 2012 to publish novels left behind by Gary Reilly when he died. During his lifetime Reilly had published only one short story and no novels. The Circumstantial Man (255 pp., paper) marks the twelfth posthumous Gary Reilly novel Running Meter has published in the last six years: a trilogy about his time in the United States Army as a military policeman; the Private Palmer novels: and eight novels about Murph, a Denver taxi cab driver (The Asphalt Warriors series).

The Circumstantial Man is a stand-alone novel about Pete Larkey, a sad sack who is divorced, out of work, and the owner of an automobile that has a dead battery. Pete is so much of a sad sack that he doesn’t think of wiggling battery cables to see if that would enable him to start his car. Throughout this novel—which chronicles the various misadventures that this failure brings down on his benighted head—Pete takes himself to task for not knowing how to do this and for failing to do it.

The publishers of this fine novel call it a suspense thriller, which I think is not really accurate.  This is a novel of the modern human condition. Late in the book, Pete says, “In my experience, things related to hope rarely work out.”  There are many such pronouncements by Pete, and I jotted many of them down.

He sometimes is capable of looking on the bright side, though. For instance, Reilly has him digging at gunpoint what he thinks will be his own grave, and he remarks that at least the soft soil is easy to penetrate with his shovel. We learn a lot about how the world works, at least the world that Pete inhabits, which is a world very similar to my own.

There are many references in this novel to the time that Pete spent in the Army. At one point, he notes that incarceration is similar to service in the military.

He mentions Audie Murphy twice and Grendel and Beowulf once each. He quotes Jack Kerouac as saying that the Army “couldn’t hire shits to push mops, make beds, KP.”  Pete also debates the differences between Skippy peanut butter and Peter Pan. He prefers Skippy. The villain who holds him at gunpoint prefers Peter Pan because, he says, Skippy tastes too much of peanuts.

The publishers tell us that there won’t be another novel featuring Pete Larkey, but there will soon be another novel with Murph the cab driver as the hero.

I can’t wait.

For more info on Reilly and his literary output go to the publisher’s website.

—David Willson

M113 APC 1960-75 by Jamie Prenatt

During the Vietnam War the military called them M113 Armored Personnel Carriers.The troops called them APCs or “tracks.” According to the DoD analyst Jamie Prenatt in M113 APC 1960-75: U.S., ARVN, and Australian Variants in Vietnam (Osprey, 48 pp., $18, paper), the “battlefield taxi” has become the most widely used armored military vehicle in the world since it was developed in 1960.

Prenatt’s book, profusely and well illustrated with color photos and art by illustrators Henry Morshead and Johnny Shumate, offers a concise, fact-filled, comprehensive look at his subject. The book concentrates on M113’s use in the Vietnam War by the Americans, South Vietnamese, and Australians. The first M113s–thirty-two of them—arrived in Vietnam in April 1962, were organized into two mechanized companies, the 7th and 21st, and deployed in IV Corps in southern South Vietnam. This marked the first time APCs were put to use in combat  situations.

The book goes on to explain the dozen M113 variants, including a Fire Support Vehicle. It then offers descriptions of the APCs’ role in ten Vietnam War battles, including the pivotal January 2, 1963, Battle of Ap Bac.

This is an excellent edition to Osprey’s extensive series of books on military hardware and materiel.

—Marc Leepson

The Ghosts of Langley by John Prados

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Historian John Prados has written a greater number of books than most people read in a lifetime. Starting with World War II, his writing focuses on United States international relations and his history lessons are formidable. A senior fellow at the National Security Archive, Prados directs its CIA Documentation Project and Vietnam Documentation Project. He also is a long-time contributor to the print edition of The VVA Veteran.

For the sixth time, he examines the CIA in The Ghosts of Langley: Into the CIA’s Heart of Darkness (New Press, 446 pp.; $28.95, hardcover; $18.99, Kindle). In it, the twenty-nine-page prologue alone delivers enough information to fill an average book.

Citing newly declassified documents, Prados argues that CIA leaders have drifted beyond their original espionage and intelligence analysis mission, and have created more problems than they have solved. Today the agency works amid aftereffects of covert operations that closely resembled military actions, Prados says.

The CIA “ghosts” Prados refers to are spymasters and their henchmen and women who caused the agency to alter its classic role. Its current methods of operation include torture, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, evasion of legal oversight, and more, according to Prados, who speaks with authority.

He eschews chronology and sets out the agency’s evolution by grouping spies according to character types. This produces chapters with titles such as “Zealots and Schemers,” “The Headless Horseman,” “A Failed Exorcist,” and “The Flying Dutchman.”

Prados’ declarative sentences can be attention grabbers. For example, in introducing “The Sheriffs,” he says, “The CIA had long had a problem with women. From the beginning, agency folk considered spying man’s work. Women were not viewed quite the same as homosexuals, but they needed to fight for acceptance.”

Throughout the book, Prados touches on CIA activities during the Vietnam War. Several times, he raises the issue of CIA countermeasures against antiwar demonstrators. He writes about topics such as the Phoenix Program and the November 1963 coup against South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem. In these cases, Prados examines the actions of people who controlled events more than the events themselves.

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Notes, a bibliography, and an exceptionally detailed index support the text.

Almost as a footnote to The Ghosts of Langley, on the afternoon I finished reading the book, Iran accused the CIA of fomenting protests calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.

The CIA declined to comment.

The author’s website is http://johnprados.com/

—Henry Zeybel