Where’s Charlie? by Tim Soyars

Tim Soyars was born and grew up in Norfolk, Virginia. After graduating from high school in 1963, he worked for a while and went to a local college part time. In 1965, he realized he was about to get drafted, so Soyars joined the Army.

“I figured the military would be a great place to get myself together and plan a career,” Soyars writes in his memoir, Where’s Charlie? Memories from a Time of War, 1965-68 (iUniverse, 279 pp., $31.95, hardcover; $21.95, paper).

“In addition,” he notes, “the military was a requirement for my generation, so I knew I had to serve and I wanted to serve. After a few years in the Army, I’d be ready for college and have a better chance at succeeding, so [enlisting] sounded like the thing to do. The thought of dying in a war crossed my mind, but I was confident and never gave it serious consideration.”

Soyars had basic at Fort Jackson where he applied for OCS. He took Infantry AIT at Jackson and OCS at Fort Benning. The newly minted lieutenant arrived in Vietnam in March 1967 as an officer replacement for Company C, 2nd/5th of the First Cavalry Division in the Central Highlands. Soyars served for a year with Company C. He experiences in Vietnam make up the bulk of this book, which also includes excerpts from many of the letters he wrote from the war zone.

The author’s web site is http://timsoyars.com/order_264.html

—Marc Leepson

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Blood on the Tracks by S. Brian Willson

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S. Brian Willson was born on July 4, 1941, and grew up pretty much an All-American boy in upstate New York. He joined the Boy Scouts, was on the Student Council at Chautauqua Central High School, and was co-captain of the basketball and baseball teams. Willson joined the U.S. Air Force in 1966, graduated from OTS, and served a six-month tour in Vietnam in 1969 commanding a special Combat Security Police Unit based at Binh Thuy Air Base.

It was in Vietnam that Willson, who, he says, “always had a tendency to fight against authority,” began seriously to question the way the war was waged—a questioning that led to a postwar life as an active “revolutionary nonviolent pacifist,” as Willson terms it in his new memoir, Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson (PM Press, 500 pp., $20, paper).

Willson joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the War Resisters League, and for a time headed the Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center in Greenfield, Mass. In the mid-eighties he actively protested American foreign policy in Central America.

He is best known, though, for what happened on September 1, 1987, when Willson, along with a small group of protesters, sat down on the railroad tracks in front of the Concord Naval Weapons Station in California. A U.S. Navy locomotive ran over Willson, severing both of his legs below the knee.

After he recovered Willson continued his activist activities. “I no longer travel the world,” he writes. “I don’t want to use the fuel or pollute the skies. But my journey continues. This book is my witness to the wars we have fought against others and that we are now inflicting upon ourselves.” Willson’s web site is bloodonthetracks.info

—Marc Leepson

Soldiering On in a Dying War by William J. Shkurti

William J. Shkurti, an adjunct professor of public policy at the John Glenn Institute of Public Affairs at Ohio State University, served a 1970-71 tour of duty as an artillery officer in Vietnam with B Battery, 2/35th Artillery, at Fire Support Base Lanyard near the Cambodian border.

Shkurti had graduated from Ohio State in 1968 and then enlisted in the Army. He served in Vietnam at a time when morale was plummeting. That experience—specifically, trying “to find some meaning in the sacrifices of all the soldiers who fought and died in the those last stages of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam”—is what is behind Skhurti’s first book, Soldiering On in A Dying War: The True Story of the Firebase Pace Incidents and the Vietnam Drawdown (University Press of Kansas, 356 pp., $34.95).

What happened at Fire Support Base Pace (which was known as Lanyard when Shkurti served there) was that two groups of American troops refused an order to go out on a night ambush in the fall of 1971. That action made the news and caused a small sensation back home. Many saw it as emblematic of the crumbling morale and discipline of the about-to-withdraw American Army in Vietnam.

Shkurti looks deeply into that incident (which took place after he had returned home), other “combat refusals,” and other kinds of unsavory incidents (including My Lai), and concedes that the Army in Vietnam was dealing with “sagging morale, fickle allies, and a determined enemy” in the war’s late stages. He says that “discipline problems, fragging, racial tension, and drug abuse” took place, but mainly happened “back in the rear.” And he concludes that combat refusals in general were blown out of proportion and did not represent a wider pattern of crumbling discipline.

Troops in the field, he says, “rose to the occasion.” They “looked out for each other, sacrificed for each other, and in, the end, protected the interest of their country.”

—Marc Leepson

Fighting PTSD One Poem at a Time by James H. Rose

VVA member Jim Rose’s Fighting PTSD One Poem at a Time (Xlibris, 152 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $10.66 ,paper), is a heartfelt collection of short poems, many of which address matters close to the hearts of many Vietnam veterans: daily life in the war zone, post-traumatic stress disorder, Agent Orange, homelessness, and Gold Star families. Each has a short introduction by the poet.

Some veterans who suffer from PTSD and the “effects of Agent Orange, have hobbies to help them deal with them in their daily lives…. I write poetry,” Rose writes. “It allows me to purge whatever is bothering me from my mind for a while by transferring it to paper or computer.” If the poems “help just one veteran to understand the situation that he or she is in, then they will have served their purpose for more than just one. ”

This excerpt is from “Colors,” which deals with Agent Orange:

Agent orange, purple, and pink

Agent white, green, and blue

it would have been so appropriate

if they would have added some red too

He could have taken the bullets and bombs

but what was so hard for him to know

was that what he was dying from

sounded like a rainbow

—Marc Leepson

Dogtag Summer by Elizabeth Partridge

 

The plot of Elizabeth Partridge’s Dogtag Summer (Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 240 pp., $16.99) begins in 1981 when the eleven-year-old protagonist, Tracy, and her best pal, Stargazer, find a dogtag in an ammo box in her adoptive father’s workshop.  Eventually, the reader finds out the importance of the dogtag and what it means to Tracy.

I won’t act as a spoiler here, but in this young adult novel the meaning of the dogtag seemed crystal clear to me the moment it was discovered. Tracy’s adoptive father is a stereotypical Vietnam vet with alcohol dependency,  PTSD, intimacy problems, and a low-level job. Tracy herself is half Vietnamese and is called “gook” and worse by her peers.

Because of Stargazer’s loopy name, I figured his parents would be hippies, and I was correct. His father is a stereotypical peacenik who refers to Vietnam veterans as “baby killers,” which made me very uncomfortable, which may have been the goal of the author.

I have met many Vietnam veterans with alcohol and intimacy problems, but none of the hundreds of peaceniks and hippies I have spent time with ever called me a baby killer, even though they knew I served in Vietnam. Maybe I was just lucky.

Even so, the stereotyping made the book a hard read for me, as did the pervading sadness of the book and the secret-keeping, which drove the plot forward to the end. Eventually, Tracy finds out some of the truth about her origins: that her real name was Tuyet, for one thing, and that her mother was not a prostitute.

I found the appendix annoying, and I’ll give just one example. The author says: “The television reporting of the war turned many people, like Stargazer’s father, Beldon, against the war, angry at the government and at the GI’s who had fought there.”  It would take me several pages to deconstruct that sentence, so I won’t, but it serves as an example of the over-simplification that is endemic in this novel.

Elizabeth Partridge has a degree in Women’s Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of biographies of Woody Guthrie and John Lennon.  Partridge has won many writing prizes and honors.
—David Willson

We Don’t Walk Nowhere by James L. Longton

Although it is billed on the cover as “A Jim Longton Novel: Vietnam, 66-67,” James L. Longton’s We Don’t Walk Nowhere (Trafford Publishing, 240 pp., $16.26 paper) reads more like a memoir than a work of fiction. The years 1966-67 happen to be the exact period that I spent my months in Vietnam in the Army, but Longton’s tour of duty could not have been more different from mine.

The book was a revelation to me, and despite some less-than-sterling editing and proofreading—countless missing commas and apostrophes and misspelled words—I enjoyed the book and recommend it to readers who are capable of suspending their nitpicking about typographic imperfection.

 
I can’t think of any other Vietnam War book that shows as clearly and honestly the life of a Morse code intercept operator (a spook) in Phu Bai and other dangerous locations in the war zone. Our hero, James, is seriously wounded and is evacuated to Camp Zama, Japan, so the reader also gets a lot of interesting narrative about the hospital and the recuperation experience.

 
The book is well written and fun to read and possesses a lot of narrative vigor, as well as rude humor. Sandbag filling and shit burning have never been as clearly explained and as well integrated into the story line as Longton manages to do. The novel also has one of the best covers I’ve seen on a Vietnam War book: a photo of a G.I. self-showering using a bucket of water.

 

 

—David Willson

Blue Water, Brown Water by Randall Gray Cook

VVA member Randall Gray Cook’s new, well-written memoir, Blue Water, Brown Water: Stories of Life in the Navy and in Vietnam (CreateSpace, 392 pp., $14.50, paper), is “about what the Navy looked and sounded like,” Cook says, “in day-to-day operations.” The book also is about “some of the best men I have ever known,” he says, “and about how the world looked through my eyes” while the author served in the U.S. Navy from 1968-71.

Cook signed up for a stint in the U.S. Navy in 1967 with the draft breathing down his neck. He reported to Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I., in February of 1968. His first Vietnam War assignment, aboard the destroyer, the USS Herbert J. Thomas, began on July 4, 1969—blue water duty on Yankee Station in the Gulf on Tonkin.

His second tour began early in 1970, a brown water tour during Vietnamization. Cook’s assignment was to “provide ‘armed logistical support’ to whoever called for our services in the Mekong Delta.” Most of that time he spent aboard the USS Monmouth County, a World War II vintage LST.

—Marc Leepson