Women Under Fire by Sarah L. Blum

Sarah L. Blum served as an operating room nurse at the 12th Evacuation Hospital in Cu Chi during the Vietnam War. Today she is a nurse psychotherapist who works with trauma resolution and PTSD. Under her married name, Saralee McGoran, she was featured in the book Long Time Passing by Myra McPherson and in In the Combat Zone by Kathryn Marshall.

Blum was one of the first two women elected to the National Board of Directors of the Vietnam Veterans of America in 1983. She helped lobby Congress to study the connection between exposure of veterans to defoliants and the birth defects in their children.

Her well-organized, well-written book, Women Under Fire Abuse in the Military (Brown Sparrow Publishing, 184 pp., $18.95, paper), has six chapters. Each heading tells us what this book is all about in a succinct way: “The Shame of the Military,” “Rape and Reporting,” “Pregnancy and Discharge,” “Military Sexual Trauma,” “Spousal Abuse and Betrayal,” and “Attitude and Accountability. There also is a short, useful glossary.

Sarah Blum

Three chapters recount one brutal, awful event after the other that has occurred to women in the military. This is daunting to read and often caused me to recoil and close the book to take a few deep breaths.

The overwhelming weight of the horror of the stories in this book is crushing, depressing, and beyond sad—it is an indictment of the U. S. military, the Human Condition, and the quality of life on this planet.

When I contemplated what steps would have to be taken to change the overwhelmingly corrupt old boys’ club culture of the military—the machoman mystique that rape and pillage such as we see on television when we watch The Vikings—the only change I could envision would have to come from swift Draconian punishments of those who break the laws: hanging in public, that sort of thing.

Is that likely to happen?  Not any time soon.

The author in Vietnam in 1968

I recommend that all women who are thinking of joining the military read this book first. If my daughter were considering joining, I would beg her to read this book.

When she was a senior in high school, a local Army recruiter called my daughter on a weekly basis. She eventually asked me to screen her calls from him. I finally told the sergeant he should give up, which he did.

I never discussed the military abuse issue with him, but it was much in my mind because the daughter of a close friend was raped while she was a student at the Air Force Academy. She was horribly treated and got no justice. I did not want that to happen to my daughter.

This book is disturbing, powerful, and thought-provoking to the extreme.  Buy it and read it and then take what action you can to change the military culture of abuse of women.

The author’s website is http://womenunderfire.net

—David Willson

Once Upon A Time in Vietnam by Jerry Neren

The back cover of Once Upon A Time in Vietnam by Jerry Neren, (Pearl Editions, 104 pp., $14.95, paper), a fine book of poetry, informs us that the author “served in the United States armed forces.” No details are given about his service.

This small book, the winner of the 2010 Pearl Poetry Prize., features a beautiful and tragic cover by Marilyn Johnson that shows a stag in the forest with an arrow through his neck. This prefigures the tragic event that is at the center of the one long poem that makes up the book.

Neren’s Preface tell us that “the story tracks a young man from the time he is drafted into the Army right out of college; suffers a complete mental breakdown during his tour of combat duty; continues to struggle with his mental wound up to his return home; and finally finds a way to reconstruct his demolished life.”

The reader encounters “soldiers poisoned by Agent Orange” in the first section of the book, set in Basic Training, which gave me a jolt. That seems soon to me, both historically and in the hero’s time in the Army.  The phrase used to describe the victims of Agent Orange hit me hard: “their insides devoured like plankton by a whale.” I know firsthand how that feels.

Jerry Neren

The poet creates two characters: Eugene and Dominick, classical music-loving friends who graduate from college, are drafted, and are sent together to Vietnam. Dominick is killed. Eugene goes crazy. He then languishes in VA care from age 24 to age 41, that chunk of his life lost forever.

The story of Eugene and Dominick is told in four sections: The Prologue covers boot camp. Part One, “The Battle Front,” deals with how the killing is done in Vietnam. Part Two takes us to the “Home Front,” and deals with war wounds. Part Three briefly shows us the “New World.”

This beautiful, lyrical narrative poem touches many of the same bases that many memoirs and novels and short stories do, including Agent Orange and the taking of human ears. But in this poem we get “oceans of Agent Orange” and “necklaces made of human ears.”  We learn the story of Eugene, who, like a chameleon, “took on the color of Vietnam: the color of insanity.”

If I were still teaching college course on the Vietnam War, I would make Once Upon a Time in Vietnam a required text. It is both accessible and relentless in communicating the insanity of war as only a fine lyrical poet can.

Neren out-Whitmans Walt Whitman with his lists of the bad things that happen in war. Neren ranks right up there with Whitman as a poet of war. There is no higher recommendation than that.

—David Willson

Lean In Like a Queen by Kim Do, Jessamine Price, and Dorie Clark

Kim Do is a Saigon-born Vietnamese-American lawyer who grew up attending Catholic masses. She has a law degree from the University of Washington, and lives in Saigon with her husband and two children.

Her short book, Lean In Like A Queen: 17 Lessons from the Last Queen of Vietnam’s Daring Negotiations (Amazon Digital Services, 80 pp.,  $2.99, Kindle), written with Jessamine Price and Dorie Clark, starts off with a chapter telling the story of the titular queen (who was born Jeanne Mariette Therese Nguyen Huu Thi Lan and later known as Queen Nam Phuong)—where she came from, her forebears, the source of their immense wealth, her education, and how she met and married Bao Dai, the last Vietnamese Emperor.

The marriage negotiations take up a lot of space and form the philosophical center of the book. One reason is that the marriage negotiations broke dynastic tradition and rules. That included getting a “one wife, one husband” deal for herself, a departure from tradition.

The Foreword explains the whole “Leaning In” concept, which was all new to me. It also tells the reader that the book “offers a compelling window into gender relations and the sociopolitical forces that shaped the 20th Century,” and sets out contemporary lessons “we can draw from the Queen’s savvy maneuvering.”

The Queen and the Emperor

Do’s book did help this reader better understand better an era of Vietnamese history that had hitherto eluded me—and she did it in a concise, succinct, and interesting way.

The “Leaning In” and “17 Lessons” ideas, though, seem more of a marketing ploy, and aren’t necessary to make the book relevant to American readers.  Any reader with a curiosity about this forgotten period in Vietnam when the French colonialists and the French-educated, Roman Catholic Vietnamese colluded and made huge fortunes on the backs of the peasant Vietnamese will find this book of interest to read on their Kindle. The book certainly helps explain why communist and nationalist forces were eager to rid their country of the Imperial Vietnamese system.

The author’s grandfather was a billionaire when most of his non-French speaking fellow countrymen were starving in near-slavery. Kim Do does a fine job showing the reader what the life of a rich Vietnamese family was like before World War II forever changed everything.

—David Willson


Dartmouth Veterans edited by Phillip C. Schaefer

In the Foreword to Dartmouth Veterans: Vietnam Perspectives (Dartmouth College Press/University Press of New England, 400 pp., $29.95, paper; $28.99 e book), edited by Phillip C. Schaefer, James Wright tells us he joined the Marines in June 1957, two weeks after he graduated from high school.

“Military service,” Wright writes, “was a part of the life plan for my generation and in my culture.” This is a statement that really made me scratch my head. I am in Wright’s generation and it wasn’t my attitude in 1957—nor was it in 1960 when I graduated from high school, nor in 1960 when I was in Air Force ROTC in college. It certainly was not my attitude late in 1965 when I got my draft notice.

I say this to make the point that these Dartmouth graduates are not like me. What’s more, they are not like most young men I knew back then, nor are they at all like the veterans whose essays I read in The Conflict That Was a War, a book I reviewed recently on this page.

The only big similarity between the men who wrote the essays for these two books is that many characterize themselves as patriots and as thinking that military service was “part of a life plan.”

Dartmouth Veterans offers multiple windows for outsiders to view a culture I, for one, knew nothing about and did not even suspect existed—the elite world of Dartmouth College graduates. There are 55 essays by Dartmouth classmates and three extras in this collection.

Vietnam War veterans and other alums from the Class of ’64 with Dartmouth undergrad veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.

I decided to start reading this book with David S. Decalesta’s essay, “Entitled Elites and Exploited Expendables: the Privileged vs. the Patriots.” The author came from what he (and I) view as the elites. He ended up in Vietnam as a lieutenant leading a platoon of “expendables,” carrying out the orders of elite majors and colonels who had no experience fighting a war of counter-insurgency. This essay is typical of the others in this fine book—cogent, compassionate, and humane.

Reading this book brought home a truth about America: The family you are born into and the schools you go to are the prime determinants of what your life will turn out to be. The Dartmouth men in this book ended up as CEOs, stockbrokers, university professors, bankers, venture capitalists, and owners of chains of conveniences stores.

Such was not the destiny of the men who contributed to The Conflict That Was a War. These men were the “expendables,” and terrible things happened to most of them in Vietnam—and after they came home from the war.

Why were the men of Dartmouth successful after their war? This quote from David W. Kruger illustrates why. “Unexpectedly out of active duty, I cast about for what to do next,” he writes. “My good fortune continued, though, as my father-in-law called a family friend at a large Boston bank.”

Kruger got a job at the large bank, and spent almost thirty years there.  All seven of the bank officers he met the day he interviewed were Dartmouth graduates. This is mind boggling to me, a lower middle-class boy from Yakima, Washington. My former father-in-law drove a beer delivery truck for Miller High Life. No career opportunities there for me.

This book puts the lie to the myth of Vietnam veterans as losers who came back home and never amounted to anything. These men went to law school or graduate school; they became captains of industry.

These men “elected to become officers” as that seemed the smart way to go. Many of us did not have that option, because we had made the bad choice to not attend Dartmouth. Had I even heard of Dartmouth in 1960, the year I graduated from high school, coincidentally the same year as most of the men in this book? I am not sure.

I highly recommend this book to everyone as a counterpoint to The Conflict That Was a WarThere is much less combat narrative in this book, as one would suspect. Most of the Dartmouth men were REMFs of one kind or another.

Why go to Dartmouth to end up a grunt out in the shit? That would have been stupid.

—David Willson

The Conflict That Was A War Edited by Jim B. Money

Jim B. Money served as a U. S. Army sergeant with Company B of the 65th Engineer Battalion in the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam from January 1967 to January 1968. Money is the editor of The Conflict That Was A War: In Vietnam and at Home (CreateSpace, 218 pp., $18.99, paper), an eighteen-chapter book of essays that had its origins in a PTSD group at Modesto, California, Vet Center. The essays vary in length and quality, but all are well worth reading, well written, and well edited.

“Returning military personnel were spit on, called war mongers, and child killers and harassed by their own countrymen, their fellow Americans.”  This quote delivers the message we find in all the essays, often using this exact phraseology.

I have to believe that is how these veterans were treated when they returned to what we called “the World” after serving in Vietnam—the place our Greatest Generation parents chose to send us.

Why did the Greatest Generation send us there?  Most of the essayists are clear about that: to stop the spread of communism. Many of the essays mention President Kennedy’s “Ask not what you can do for your country” speech. Many mention their sadness at not getting a parade after coming home, about being shamed and scorned, about not being able to get job interviews.

Many mention Agent Orange as a cause of serious health problems. Father-son issues also are a topic, especially when the fathers made a point of telling their sons they had not fought in a “real” war. As soon as most got home, their loved ones began pressuring them to get a job, any job, and—by the way—nobody wants to hear about the war and what you did there.

I could identify. I got some of that, but mostly from my parents and their friends, seldom from strangers.

This book does a great job of giving interesting details of the jobs these men did in Vietnam: everything from medevacs to Marine Combined Action Groups. If you want to read bloody, true tales of combat action in Vietnam, this book is for you.

Be warned, though, that there is an all-pervading sense of sadness and loss—loss of friends in the war, and the loss of the way of life the men left behind when they went to Vietnam. They experienced culture shock after coming home, and there is much anger expressed at peace demonstrators and at those who fled to Canada. They are called cowards more than once in this book.

There is PTSD on every page, which is not unexpected given the book’s origins. I prescribe this book as must reading for anyone who still clings to the notion that it is a good thing to send young men and women off to war and that anything good can come from it.

I realize that this is heresy, but I believe that all of the people represented in this book would have led happier lives if they hadn’t gone to Vietnam—including going north to Canada.

—David Willson

Jaspar’s War by Cym Lowell

Cym Lowell joined the U.S. Navy at eighteen and served two years in the Vietnam War. He then went to college and law school. Jaspar’s War (Rosemary Black Press, 352 pp., $12.99, paper) is his first novel.

There are many connections to the Vietnam War in this thriller, mostly through Nulandi, one of the main characters, who comes to the aid of Jaspar, the titular heroine. Nulandi is a half-Australian aborigine trained as a child to be a professional killer. He practiced this craft in Vietnam, where he saved a Vietnamese family who acted as his disciples when he was on a mission.

Jaspar’s husband disappears in a plane crash and her two children are kidnapped. The entire thrust of the novel is that Jaspar, a socialite with no commando training, steps up to become a warrior. With Nulandi’s help she crusades to get to the bottom of why her husband was apparently killed and her two children kidnapped.

Cym Lowell

She goes on record saying she will do anything to get the children back, and does some amazing things after going through special training. That includes shaving all of the hair off her perfect body.

Jaspar is dangled as bait to the bad guys near the Vatican when she uses an ATM. Later, when she runs naked around a crowded square near the Vatican, much ado is made of her bouncing breasts. They act as a perfect diversion, allowing her and Nulandi  (and Alice, the commando dog) to escape to continue to fight the good fight.

I am leaving out the more far-fetched stuff. That includes the fact that the Queen of England is implicated in the plot to murder Jaspar’s husband and kidnap the children. I hope I am not spoiling anything when I report that the Queen of England did not do any of this bad stuff.

This is the first book I have read in which “the economic health of the world is under attack” and its “only defense is an aborigine, a society woman and a dog.” I highly recommend this book to those looking for a diverting read in which children are kept drugged and in jeopardy from the first page to the last.

In this novel all suites are “palatial,” all vegetables are “fresh,” profiteroles are “famous,” settings are “idyllic,” breasts are “alabaster,” taxis are “speeding,” vistas are “pristine,” and hounds are “trusty.” The writing style got on my nerves. But the book is well-edited and it moves right along.

I predict there will be a sequel, because it is left up in the air if Jaspar’s husband is alive. Nor are we told whether or not Jaspar keeps shaving all the hair off her perfect body, or if she lets it grow back out again.

Perhaps the sequel will settle that question. I hope so. I’ve been brooding about it.

The author’s website is www.cymlowell.com

—David Willson


Broken But Not Abandoned by Ronald L. Schwerman

To read Broken But Not Abandoned: A Veteran’s Journey to Healing and Hope by Ronald L. Schwerman, (The Wordsmith, 226 pp., $14.99, paper 2013) is to watch a train wreck in slow motion. Because the book is written in the first person, the reader knows that redemption will occur at some point.

Schwerman’s story—which he tells with the help of David Aeilts and Grace Smith—reaches out and grips the reader on many levels. It is a page-turner.

Schwerman, who was born and raised in Minneapolis, often played around railroad tracks, sometimes hopping a train and riding for a few blocks with his friends. His father worked for the railroads, taught his son how to operate signals, told him railroad stories.

Schwerman’s dad was a veteran of World War II in the Pacific. The family home was a kind of battlefield involving fights between mom and dad, fueled with anger and alcohol. For anyone who does not know what it is like to live in an alcoholic’s family, this book is a must-read. Alcohol, it turns out, became a nemesis in the author’s life for decades as well. ‘

The book is clearly written, and Schwerman’s honest disclosure of himself is at a depth of which I have never before seen in a book. There is no doubt that such honesty was crucial to Schwerman’s redemption into a successful life.  

On 27 February 1967, at Da Nang Airbase Schwerman, an airplane mechanic, was hit by a rocket. He lost both arms, one leg, and sustained critical internal injuries. After being hit, he was in such bad shape that a Navy corpsman pronounced him dead. For some reason, the corpsman who meant to throw his still-living body onto a pile of dead bodies, threw him onto a truck of wounded men instead.

Eydie and Ronald Schwerman

The story of Ronald Schwerman’s journey from brokenness in mind, body, and spirit to a life with hope and possibilities has spanned more than three decades and in some aspects will continue for the rest of his life. Fortunately, he has now kicked alcohol off the train, and his faith in the power of God is his constant traveling companion. Schwerman, who closes some of his chapters with biblical quotes, writes that the divine power on which he relied manifested itself in the form of family, friends, and medical personnel.

His story includes two divorces and a third marriage. He alienated both of his daughters, who themselves spiraled into the darkness of drug addiction. His verbal abuse of his family is extremely painful to read.  

Schwerman has now reached a level of healing and personal growth in which he can offer advice for a successful marriage, drive a van, and take trips with Eydie, his wife. Some of her thoughts on her husband’s life are included in the book.

Appendix 1 and Appendix 2 should be required reading for the families of veterans of any war, including the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. These final pages provide information on PTSD and some clear direction for returning veterans. 

“Waiting” is not an option, Schwerman says. “You have a problem that is affecting all of us. I have your back, and we will do this together, but you are the one with the services—you have to ask for the help.”

The author’s website is www.brokenbutnotabandoned.com

—Joseph Reitz