Grace in the Wilderness by Scott Riley, Hasha Riley and Libra Riley

The three authors of Grace in the Wilderness: A Family’s Story of Love, Loss and Redemption (CreateSpace, 280 pp., $19.95, paper) are Scott Riley and his twin daughters, Hasha and Libra. According to his back-of-the-book author bio, Scott Riley “survived both the ground war in Vietnam and the drug war, home in America.”  

We are not told Scott’s Riley’s MOS in this memoir until page 105. I wish the authors had front-loaded the fact that he was in the infantry, along with other basic orienting facts. We don’t learn he has a girlfriend at home or that he is from Mamaroneck, New York, until page 120. We never find out what happened with the girlfriend. That is one of many mysteries in this memoir.

Scott Riley calls Vietnam“This thing, this war, this country… my great adventure.”  He goes on to tell an incredible outlaw tale of heavy drug use, thievery and murder, most of it taking place in the back alleys and flimsy dwellings of Qui Nhon.

Scott Riley went AWOL from A Co., 1st of the 5th of the 1st Cav.  He is not precise about how long he was AWOL, nor about how he avoided prison when he returned to the United States. He does say he expected to spend a long time in Leavenworth, but that never happened.

The great strength of this memoir is its emotional honesty on every page. There are not a lot of African-American Vietnam War memoirs. Few, if any, contain a detailed description of what it was like to be in the Long Binh Jail during a protracted riot. Scott Riley gives us all that and more.

He describes his transition from a scared FNG to a seasoned warrior taking the point and descending into a tunnel with a flashlight to ferret out hidden VC.

We learn the details of his life “going native” and living with a wife, a Khmer drug dealer. There are enough details about various forms of drug use to serve as a user’s manual in how to shoot up and how to cover tracks after a multiple drug murder. There also are harrowing accounts of Scott Riley’s struggles with drug overdoses and malarial fever.

This book is a powerful narrative of the world of a black soldier who did not get with the Army program, and went on to live off the Army map, going native in every way he could get away with in that time and place. Scott Riley says straight out that he “didn’t give a shit about the American War effort.”

Later, we learn that Riley came from a middle class family in Westchester County, New York, was a latch key child, an only child, and spent a lot of time by himself. He tells us of his reading: The Iliad and The Odyssey, El Cid, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone.

He makes passionate references to films, including the classic John Wayne western, The Angel and the Bad Man, to illustrate his own situation as an outlaw. He also trapped muskrats, rafted and fished, and built forts and tree houses. Then his family moved to Mamaroneck, New York, where he left behind the idyllic Huckleberry Finn life and was forced to become a “cool kid.” He started saving his money to buy cool clothes. He felt a deep hollow inside; he filled it with drugs.

The most moving part of the book—and the part that benefits most from the three authors’ contrasting points of view—is a visit to The Wall in Washington and the search for the names of Scott’s fallen comrades. I shed a few tears reading that section. I’ve read many accounts of families visiting that Wall, and this is easily the most moving.  

I’ve also read many accounts of families riven by the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and I was much impressed that Scott is now clean and sober and has been working for years in Manhattan as a chef/food coordinator and that his two daughters are both successful, college-educated professionals. 

I admit to feeling twinges of envy reading of Scott’s twin daughters’ steadfast love of their father and their forgiveness of his sins, despite his thirty years as a junkie and living a life of homelessness and thievery and neglecting his parental responsibilities.

I highly recommend this fine memoir that tells a violent, drug-filled tale of how a tall, beautiful, smart, talented young man from a “staunch Bible-toting family” took the road from high school to art school where he learned to be a fine illustrator, to being drafted into the Army at the height of the Vietnam War and being dropped into the Central Highlands with no real preparation.

Scott Riley survived all the Army threw at him and he survived all the horrors that he brought down on himself by the bad choices he made. Read this powerful story of a relentless survivor.

—David WIllson