This Girl’s Life by Michelle Brown

Michelle Brown’s This Girl’s Life: Being the Child of a War Veteran (Dark Planet Publishing, 146 pp., $22, paper) is a short memoir that focuses on the abuse the author underwent at the hands of her father, a Vietnam veteran.

Brown’s father, Kenneth “Rico” Haugabrook, turned to drugs and alcohol after a tour of duty in Vietnam, Brown writes. And that, in turn, led to years and years of physical and mental abuse the father heaped upon the author, her mother, and her siblings.

Her mother, Brown says, “said my father was a good guy until he came back from fighting the war. My mom said he had totally changed when he returned home. She said my dad was more angry. My father told my mom that he was trained to kill in the war, had watched his friends die, and had to live among rats (one rat bit his toe off).”

Her father, Brown writes, “told my mom he couldn’t love his children, because what if we died on him? He said his family looked like the enemy.”

Brown survived the years of abuse, and her memoir has a redemptive ending. Today, she is happily married, has a strong religious faith, and has come to terms with her difficult upbringing.

“I have learned one thing from my experiences with my dad,” Brown writes. “I can do whatever I set my mind to do. I have learned to respect myself and love myself, no matter what my dad thought of me. I was and am a good person who didn’t deserve what happened to me. Even if my dad didn’t love me, God did! God protected me all those years by not letting my dad kill me.”

—Marc Leepson

Blackhorse Riders by Philip Keith

Blackhorse Riders: A Desperate Last Stand, An Extraordinary Rescue Mission, and the Vietnam Battle that America Forgot by Philip Keith has just been released in paperback (St. Martin’s Griffin, 368 pp., $15.99)

Here’s our review of the hardcover, from the March-April 2012 print edition of The VVA Veteran:

Blackhorse Riders focuses on one fierce Vietnam War engagement. It took place on March 26, 1970, in triple canopy jungle along the Cambodian border when 1st Squadron’s Alpha Company of the 11th Armored Cavalry (The Blackhorse Regiment) got into a never-named, all-day fight against the NVA.

The two-hundred-odd men of Alpha troop came to the rescue of an under-strength and under siege First Cavalry Division unit (C Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry) that had inadvertently bumped into a huge hidden NVA stronghold.

Keith, a one-time U.S. Navy aviator in Vietnam, tells the story of Alpha troop’s dangerous and successful mission quite well. He also tells how the unit fought for years to be recognized for what took place that March 26, 1970. That effort came to fruition on October 20, 2009, when 119 men of Alpha troop came to Washington, D.C., where they received the Presidential Unit Citation in the White House’s Rose Garden.

—Marc Leepson

Flames and Smoke Visible by D.S. Lliteras

After D. S. Lliteras graduated from the U. S. Naval Hospital Corps School in Great Lakes, Illinois, he was ordered to the First Marine Division in Vietnam, and arrived in country in July 1968. Lliteras volunteered to serve with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion in the First Marine Division where he was a combat corpsman and a diver (who went under bridges to check for booby traps) until July 1970. Lliteras went on twenty long range reconnaissance patrols into enemy territory during his Vietnam War tour.

Why do I give so much information about Lliteras’ military service in a review of a book about firefighting?  Partly because it answers the question: Why would a man choose to spend a career going into burning buildings?  This man who chose to fight fires is the same man who chose to spend his tour of duty in Vietnam reconning in enemy territory. Often the enemy in Vietnam was unseen, and the dangers of a burning building are also often not seen. In both cases, though, you know that danger is there.

Good books that deal powerfully with men and their work are rare. Fewer still are books written by these men. When the occasional book is written about a man doing a dangerous job, and doing it well year after dangerous year, it’s usually written by an outsider who does a few hours of interviews, some research, and observations. That author is unlikely to accompany a fire fighter into a burning building to stand side by side with a man such as D. S. Lliteras.

Lliteras received a Bronze Star with a V device (for valor) for his recon work in Vietnam. He received the Medal of Honor from the Norfolk, Virginia, Fire and Paramedical Services for “exceptional action in the line of duty in the saving of life.”

His book, Flames and Smoke Visible: A Fire Fighter’s Tale (Rainbow Ridge, 224 pp., $17.95, paper), is exciting and well written. In it, Lliteras takes the reader inside the dangerous job of firefighting with an intensity no other writer/firefighter I have read has done, including the late Larry Brown, author of On Fire. Flames and Smoke Visible is the firefighting book that Brown’s fans had hoped for but did not get.

D.S. Lliteras

This memoir is organized into thirty-seven chapters. The chapters have honest, descriptive headings, such as: First in Engine, Rescue Thirteen, Car Fire, Delivering a Baby, Kitchen Fire, and Third Alarm Fire.  These chapter headings give a good sense of the material that Lliteras covers in his fine book, but you must read the book for the full sense of the drama inherent in fire-fighting.

I read Flames and Smoke Visible non-stop, in a space of a few hours. I got totally caught up in the drama of firefighting. With the authority of experience as a firefighter, and the talent and the skill honed as the author of many brilliant novels, Lliteras has produced a beautifully written, riveting account about this profession that is entertaining and also informs, instructs, and allows the reader access to the human heart.

I highly recommend this book, which is also is available on Kindle. The paperback—which will be published in March, but may be pre-ordered—features a beautiful cover showing firefighters silhouetted against flames and smoke.

I also recommend that you purchase and read D.S. Lliteras’s other fine books. You will be happy you did.

—David Willson

A Heroes’ Keepsake: Memoirs of Christmas at War by Deedee Wright

Deedee Wright currently interprets history and archaeology at Historic Jamestowne, the site of the first permanent English settlement in America, in Virginia.  Proceeds from the sale of her book, A Heroes’ Keepsake: Memoirs of Christmas at War (, 66 pp., $12.95, paper), go to Fisher House, which provides lodging to families of service members receiving treatment at military medical centers around the nation.

The short book consists of a ragtag, grab-bag of fourteen pieces in many forms—poetry, verse, diary entries, essay, and missives. All are related to war and Christmas.

This collection is arranged chronologically, beginning with the American Revolution, then to World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book is a timely reminder that America is a country made by and defined by war. It concludes with a quote from that great warrior of freedom, Ronald Reagan, and a quote from the Bible.

There is an excellent list of permissions and also a bibliography. The book cover blurb promises that this small book “is filled with Christmas stories throughout American’s history in war.” It more than makes good on that promise.

Buy this book to support a good cause and to get a powerful sample of how Christmas has intersected with America’s wars.

—David Willson

Twelve Days in Viet Nam by Alex Liazos

Alex Liazos’s Twelve Days in Viet Nam: The Life and Death of Nicholas Conaxis (238 pp.,  $14, paper) is a tribute to a young soldier from eastern Massachusetts who was drafted into the Army and who died in Vietnam in on May 5, 1968. As the title indicates, he had arrived in Vietnam just twelve days before.

As Liazos shows, Nicholas Conaxis’s twenty years were not easy ones. He came from a poor family and from age one lived in several foster homes. Still, he came through that rough childhood as a friendly, admired, intelligent young man who wrote unusually observant letters to young friends, family members, and a teacher. The letters are the best part of the book.

Conaxis, who served in Vietnam with the 4th Infantry Division’s A Battery, 6th Battalion, 29th Artillery, was opposed to the war, got drafted, questioned military practices and foreign policy, and sympathized with the Vietnamese. He was killed in an ambush in the Central Highlands.

Much of the book is about Conaxis’s life before the Army and tells a great deal about the foster care system, along with personal details of the young man’s life and the observations of the author.

Nick Conaxis’s teen-age experiences, including hitchhiking to California, and his responses to Army life—as well as his initial impressions of Vietnam and the war—should resonate with many Vietnam veterans today.

That includes this passage from a letter he wrote to his friend Bill Beckler: “I’m currently at Pleiku and war becomes a stark reality of piercing fear and unmitigated discomfort. The agony of human suffering can only be comprehended after a direct involvement. Vivid stories by wounded G.I.’s inspire awe and then a deep feeling of sympathy for the wounded and dead.”

Alex Liazos found and interviewed more than fifty people who had known his subject, including some Army buddies. His research is careful and as thorough as he could be forty years after the man’s death. The author, a retired sociology professor, was born in Albania and was separated from his own family for many years. He acknowledges in the book that he identifies closely with his subject’s youth.

The book’s website, which contains info on purchasing, is

—James R. Wagner

Expiation by Rudolph Pommer Saxon

In Rudolph Pommer Saxon’s novel Expiation (CreateSpace, 362 pp., $9.99, paper) the title is explained early on, well before the first chapter starts.  There is no biographical information on Saxon, nothing to indicate that he has been to Vietnam or even to Honolulu, where the novel begins. However, the biographical information on the book’s page says: “The author served with an infantry company and a recon platoon for six months in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam during his tour of duty in 1967-68.”

The novel begins on Saturday, May 1,1971, and ends on Tuesday, June 15. The hero and main character, Mr. Butler, is asked by a woman named Jennifer Sato to investigate the murder of her brother, Jim Sato, who was living a reclusive life in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. Jim Sato was a friend and comrade-in-arms of Mr. Butler in Vietnam.  Mr. Butler is not a lawman, nor is he a private investigator.

When he arrives in the fictional Verus City in Medicine Trail County, Washington, Mr. Butler introduces himself to Sheriff Hackett as “acting on behalf of Jim’s family and for myself.”  He tells the sheriff that he and Jim served in Vietnam in “Second Battalion, Twenty-second Infantry, Twenty-fifth Infantry Division,” from “July of sixty-seven to July of sixty-eight.”

Mr. Butler is soon informed that Jim Sato was killed by twelve rounds from an AK-47. He died slowly, but he lived long enough to scratch the letters “VC” in the dirt under his body. It looked to this reader as though the Vietnam War had followed Jim Sato home.

When Mr. Butler makes the two-day trek to his friend’s primitive cabin, he spends three days systematically searching the area for clues. It is obvious to this reader that there is more to Mr. Butler than we have been told. He knows what he is doing and finds much more evidence than Sheriff Hackett and his men had found, which led me to wonder if Sheriff Hackett might be involved in the heroin trafficking that Mr. Butler found evidence of.

I recollected that early in the book Jennifer Sato had said to Mr. Butler in her pleas for his help in discovering why her brother had died that Mr. Butler had “done some sort of investigating on some assignments in the Army.”  That is a modest clue that Mr. Butler is a formidable investigator with a wide range of training and talents.

Saxon has written an engrossing mystery with much of the story connected to the Vietnam War, and I enjoyed reading it. It is a handsome, well-edited book with well-maintained romance and adventure and intrigue. I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy Vietnam War-related mysteries.

—David Willson

The Five O’Clock Follies by Theasa Tuohy

five o'clock follies COVER!!!!!!!!!!
Theasa Tuohy has worked for five daily newspapers and the Associated Press. We are told that her excellent new book, The Five O’Clock Follies: What’s a Woman Doing Here, Anyway? (Calliope Press, 368 pp. $14.99), is a work of fiction, but it is a very well-researched work.

I deduced from a comment about Graham Greene’s book about Vietnam being twelve years old that this novel takes place in 1967 and 1968. I was in Saigon during much of that period, and spent some time on Tu Do Street and in and out of the Caravelle and Continental Hotels where many of the scenes of this novel take place. The author nails this milieu precisely. Nice job. It’s almost as though Theasa Tuohy had been there at the time.

The author’s descriptions of how the distant sky looked, observed from the bank of the Saigon River or from a floating restaurant when B-52’s were bombing ten miles away, also is spot on. It’s also beautifully written.

Theasa Thohy

Theasa Thohy

The author’s delineation of the character and behavior of Army Colonels and CIA types is also deadly accurate. All the news folks ring true, too. But I admit I’m taking them on faith, as I spent no time with “hard-nosed newsmen” when I was in Southeast Asia. I would see them from a neighboring table in various bars from time to time, but that was it.

The main character, Angela Martinelli, is believable. It is fascinating to watch her adjust to the business of gathering news in a war zone. The main problem is having to deal with the Old Boys’ Network, which mostly shuts her out of access loops. But she’s armed with a journalism degree from Northwestern and a lot of grit and determination.

The character Bo Parks reminds me of a famous photographer who was in Vietnam taking great photos and taking great risks to get them. He takes to Angela, and helps her connect with the war to get stories of her own. He rings so true as to be a portrait from true life, right down to his rotten teeth and his love of Jimi Hendrix. Angela soon learns to develop her own stories and skip past the focus on body counts to write about field hospitals and war orphans.

As a free-lance reporter with no home newspaper, Angela has to sell her stories in order to earn enough money to eat and pay her hotel bills. She is under the gun. Also, if the stories she writes do not jibe with the official line, the editors back home will kill them.

The author has Angela Martinelli arrive in Vietnam at just the right time. She gets to report on the Tet Offensive, the Siege of Khe Sanh, the rotor problems of the Chinook—not to mention being captured by the NVA and the VC, surviving a helicopter crash, and having an affair with the most prominent and respected newsman in Vietnam.  All of this is related with attention to detail and with a gift for story-telling.

The book has an open-ended ending, which I hope means there will be a sequel, as I would enjoy reading the rest of the story.

I can report that the book lives up to the buzz I had heard about it several months ago. I am pleased to report that The Five O’Clock Follies may be added to the short list of good, well-written books about the press in Vietnam.

—David Willson

Always the Children by Anne Watts

There have been a good number of memoirs written by women who served as nurses in the Vietnam War. I can’t think of one, though, by a British woman. And that’s what we have in Always the Children: A Nurse’s Story of Home and War (Simon & Schuster UK, 386 pp.), a well-written autobiography by Anne Watts. In the course of telling her event-filled life story, Watts includes long sections on her time as a volunteer civilian nurse for Save the Children in Qui Nhon in 1967-68 and Kontum in 1969-70, and in Thailand in 1979 working with Cambodian refugees. She also relates details of return trips she made to Vietnam in 1990 and 2004.

Watts worked primarily with children in Vietnam, but also volunteered at the U.S. Army’s 67th Evac Hospital in Qui Nhon. In doing so, she had a unique—and not often pleasant—close-up look at many kinds of causalities of war.

After four months in Vietnam on her first tour, Watts writes, she was “coming to terms with the horror of illness, injury and death on a scale that would have been unimaginable to me in what now felt like another life. I had learned to live with the constant uncertainty and chaos that the war brought to our doorstep; to cope with teeming refugees, fear, danger, poverty—a deadly cocktail laced with the oppressive, sapping heat of this place.”

On the other hand, she says, “there were huge rewards in knowing that one’s skills and compassion and love were making a difference to children whose lives had been decimated.”

Nearly a decade later, Watts again came face to face with the worst that war has to offer in the Cambodian Sa Kaeo Refugee Centre in Thailand. The “sight that met me on my first day of work in early October 1979,” she writes, “stunned me almost into paralysis. As I stood there in my loose-fitting white cotton uniform, Manchester Royal Infirmary penny pinned carefully to my chest, it took quite some moments and an effort of will to gather my wits and attempt to process what I was looking at.”

All she saw, Watts, says, “was a mass of blackness on the ground” that turned out to be thousands of people. “They lay there, on the ground, clad in ragged, black pajama-like outfits. Occasionally an arm was slowly raised in silent supplication, only to fall back weakly. What struck me then, and stays with me now, was the silence. There was no sound of talk or laughter; no babies cried, no one coughed or wept. And the stench was overpowering.”

The author’s web site is

—Marc Leepson