Our Sons, Our Heroes by Linda Jenkin Costanzo

Gold Star Mothers are the mothers whose sons (or daughters) didn’t come home from war. Their Vietnam War stories are documented in an oral history from Linda Jenkin Constanzo, Our Sons, Our Heroes: Memories Shared by America’s Gold Star Mothers from the Vietnam War (Sonrisa Press, 216 pp., $14.95, paper).

The organization began in 1928, for mothers who’d lost sons in World War I. It grew in numbers after the war, and was instrumental in attaining a small pension for surviving mothers. Gold Star Mothers offered support for the grieving, but also was devoted to services such as volunteer work in veterans hospitals.

According to Ann Biber, a former national president, the organization has dwindled since World War II, and is now quite small. But you do not have to belong to a formal organization to be a Gold Star Mother, and Constanzo has gathered the testimony of sixteen women, members and non-members alike, filling a small gap in the ongoing story of the legacy of the Vietnam War. In each account she first tells the story of the soldier or Marine who perished, then recounts how his mother carried on with life.

Every story is touching. Shirley Popoff, mother of Marine Corporal Curtis Crawford, relates how, shortly after her son’s death, she was harassed by an antiwar activist. She then became obsessed with grief, to the point that she turned into a crank at work, and was referred to counseling. Finally, she channeled her grief into constructive activities with the national organization, turning an ugly, bewildering experience into something positive.

The fullest entry may be Virginia Dabonka’s, which includes several letters from her son, PFC John Dabonka. He was an intelligent young man with some sweeping observations about the war, and an engaging writing style. His mother is similarly intelligent, and wise. But all of these accounts, as they try to make sense of senseless loss, also are about love.

Costanzo asked each contributor what she would say to her son if she could. Lance Corporal Stephen Boryszewski’s mother, Theresa, offers words that could speak for every Gold Star Mother:

“He was such a good boy. If I could tell him something, I would tell him, ‘Stephen, you are such a hero who sacrificed your life for the people of Vietnam, for your country, and for freedom. Stephen, I love you and wish you could be here. Love, Mom.’”

Mothers—or fathers, for that matter—are not supposed to outlive their children. For those facing lifelong grief over the loss of a son or daughter in war, Costanzo’s book offers a path out of despair.

—John Mort

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The Exec by Robert J. Moir

 

Robert Moir graduated from the University of Virginia in 1964. He attended on an NROTC scholarship, and entered the U.S. Navy after graduating. After being promoted to lieutenant, Moir received orders for PBR (Patrol Boat, River) training. It was 1966 and he was trained to patrol the rivers of South Vietnam on a heavily armed boat. He arrived in South Vietnam in March 1967.

Moir spent his tour of duty doing something I was completely unaware of when I was in the war zone. My only exposure to the rivers of South Vietnam was when we had water skiing parties. I noticed no PBR’s on those junkets.

It never occurred to me while I was in Vietnam that the U. S. Navy was patrolling those rivers. I thought the Navy was confined to large ships miles offshore, with the men safe and sound and eating great meals three times a day. Every page of Moir’s  book, The Exec: A Vietnam Memoir (Carolina Time Press, 226 pp., $19.99, hardcover; $12.99, paper), ruptured that ignorant point of view.

The book is organized into long chapters, but is dated like a diary and often reads like one written by a literate and questioning young man with a fine education. “Our mission as I understand it, is to make our assigned waterways secure for friendly vessels and to deny the enemy their use for transport of weapons and combat supplies,” Moir writes.

I was amazed at how often Moir bumped into men he had known in college at the University of Virginia. The Vietnam War was a small world for U-Va. grads.

Moir makes a few trips to Saigon to do administrative errands and  banking. His descriptions of the hotels and bars on Tu Do Street are so accurate they made me nostalgic for Saigon circa 1967. The writing is lively and fun—except when the war intrudes.

The most interesting part of the book begins with the chapter call “Backstretch” when Moir returns to My Tho from his R&R in Bangkok in November 1967, and My Tho comes under attack.  The next chapter, “Tet—War Up Close,” is even more exciting with lots of gripping combat scenes.

I’ve read a few PBR books and this one is as detailed and exciting and well-written as they get. Moir works in an office for part of the last section of the book, but gets dragged away from the paperwork during the Tet Offensive. There they were, “sailors about to be overrun by main force VC troops,”  he says. “Half the city was in flames.”

Moir ended his tour as the exec of River Section 533. He was responsible for “533’s personnel, patrol scheduling, assigned patrol areas, experiences with river traffic and hot spots, boat readiness, weapons inventory and logistic support.”

His fine writing makes all of this interesting and easy to read. From the sections about remote duty on the Co Chien to his very different duty in My Tho, the author finds reasons to comment on the war. He quotes Eisenhower saying that the United States should avoid a ground war in Asia unless our survival is at stake.

“The VC seem so embedded,” he writes. “Can we really hope to stabilize this chaotic place enough to foster democracy and help improve their standard of living? Even then, how long is it going to take?’’  Good questions.

Moir’s mission to deny the enemy use of the waterways to supply arms for attacks on South Vietnam’s cities was shown to be a failed one when the Tet Offensive blew up. The mission had to be radically redesigned after that event. By that time, though, Robert Moir was done with his tour of duty and had happily left South Vietnam and the war behind.

I highly recommend this book for anyone seeking to know the role of the PBR in the Vietnam War and the impact of the war on a well-educated and perceptive young man.

—David Willson

Psalm Twenty-Five & PTSD by Robert Scholten

The cliche is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. But Robert Scholten’s poignant and personal book, Psalm Twenty-Five &  PTSD: A Journey Into the Darkened Realms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Tate Publishing 188 pp., $12,99, paper) certainly delivers what the cover promises.

The reader is walked through what Sholten calls the “sunken trench” of PTSD alongside Bob, “a gunner on a Duster attached to the 173rd Airborne Infantry” in 1970. Nicknames are essential to this Vietnam War memoir, a revelation to me as a rear echelon Vietnam veteran.

When I began the book, I wanted more background on the author, but as I read on. I could see too much information would have been a distraction from this homily-like treatise. “War changes people, be they individuals or families or communities” is just one of the author’s observations.

Scholten’s honest recounting of his PTSD, as well as his mother and wife experiencing it along with him, clearly illustrates the shelf-life and shared pain caused by post-traumatic stress disorder.

The author shows us that thought processes, prayers, meals–in fact, just about any daily activity we take for granted—can be interrupted by flashbacks to lonely nights in Vietnam where danger lurked. One flashback in which Scholten had an M-79 grenade launcher in his lap ended with the thought that what was on his lap was his Bible .

Now a minister, the author recalls how he has lived with Psalm 25 since age sixteen, revealing that his closeness to God has guided him through most of his life. That includes his months in combat and the present day as he deals with flashbacks.

The importance of this book to veterans and those with PTSD is summed up by the author: “PTSD is a natural reaction and byproduct of experiences in war. For me it was Vietnam.”

Scholten, who had the combat moniker “Preacher Bob,” adds a concluding prayer which, he writes, can provide comfort to those dealing with PTSD:

“Let me have the privilege to pray with you personally and for anybody else who has taken the journey thus far through the trench of PTSD. We have tasted war with all its terribleness it dishes out to veterans and civilians alike. We despise the flavor it has left in our lives, yet many of our fellow veterans stand ready to go through it all again.”

This thought-provoking volume is meant to offer guidance for those experiencing PTSD. It is valuable and worthy of a place on your bookshelf.

—Curtis Nelson

Not All heroes by Gary E. Skogen

Gary Skogen, who is retired from the L.A. Police Department, served with the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division in Vietnam from 1971-72. He considers his twelve months in Vietnam one of the best years of his life. Skogen’s Not All Heroes: An Unapologetic Memoir of the Vietnam War, 1971-1972 (Dakota Institute, 258 pp., $29.95) is what the publisher calls an “unconventional, un-heroic, and unapologetic memoir of his time in Vietnam.”

Skogen’s tour was devoted to dealing with the rampant drug use among the troops, primarily marijuana and heroin. His book focuses on the dark underbelly of the war in Vietnam. He makes the point that the stereotype seen in movies and television shows of all soldiers in Vietnam being out in the boonies covered with mud and in serious jeopardy day and night is far from the war that most of us experienced.

Eighty percent of those who served in Vietnam saw little or no combat. That includes many of those who died from mortar and rocket attacks, friendly fire, drug overdoses, Jeep accidents, or hundreds of other ways.

As the cover blurb tells us, Not All Heroes describes a U. S. Army in free-fall, corroded by two-dollar heroin, 33-cent prostitutes, tense race relations, and an epidemic of fraggings. We are told this book shows us the “real war” in South Vietnam.

Keep in mind, though, that this was the war that was real to Skogen, not the war hundreds of thousands of other Vietnam veterans experienced.  There were many experiences in the Vietnam War and this is just one of them. All of them, in fact, were “real.”

Not All Heroes is organized into eleven chapters and an afterword. All of the chapters contain material that left me scratching my head in wonderment. But chapter four— “Settling In: A .38, a Blowjob, A Hooch, and A Jeep”—took my breath away.

I highly recommend this memoir to those who spent a boring tour of duty typing and filing memos, and to those who never saw any excessive behavior of the sort that is displayed in chapter after chapter of this well-written and totally believable book. It’s very likely that Skogen kept detailed records of his time in Vietnam, as the facts of the cases he writes about are obviously not invented.

I am tempted to buy this book for my mother and sister, as this is how they thought I spent my tour of duty: chasing whores and surrounded by drug use. In fact, I never saw even one heroin vial—or received a single blowjob. Today, more than forty years after the fact, I sometimes wonder if I was even in Vietnam.

—David Willson

Vietnam: Memories in Verse by Ken Williamson

Ken Williamson was an Army photographer in 1969. His fine photographs are on the front and back covers and throughout his new little book of poetry, Vietnam: Memories in Verse (Photo Gallery on the Net, 34 pp., $14.95, paper).

There is a great color photograph of Williamson taken at Cam Ranh Bay in 1969. He had just learned of his assignment to 815th Engineers in Pleiku. Later he was transferred to the 26th Public Information Detachment, USACAV. The color photos are a strong part of the book.

Williamson traveled the entire country of South Vietnam to document the operations of Army Engineers. He returned to Vietnam in 1998 and 2005 to revisit and photograph some of the places he’d photographed in 1969.

“The poetry in this book is a result of his emotional reunion with one of the most beautiful countries in the world and his coming to grips with the war no one wanted,” Williamson writes. No one? Someone must have wanted it.

The book begins with a four-page essay, “Why Poetry?”  In it Williamson writes: “I never thought of myself as a poet.” He credits a group, the Poet Warriors, with inspiring him to write poetry. He says he believes “there is a cleansing of the soul when one writes poetry.” Sometimes that happens when reading poetry.

There’s a baker’s dozen of short poems in this book. They cover a variety of subjects including the tunnels at Cu Chi, an orphanage, Highway 19, Hanoi, boots, Agent Orange, and napalm. One poem bravely offers up the idea that perhaps it was not a good idea to drop an A-bomb on Haiphong Harbor to put an early end to the war.

Williamson also includes short, cogent prose pieces that set the stage for the poetry and the photographs.

Soon another book by Williamson will be available: Saying Goodbye to Vietnam. This one will be comprised of 275 photographs taken in Vietnam in 1969, along with letters Williamson wrote home to his wife.  Because of the quality of Williamson’s photographs and his clear prose style, I look forward to that book.

The author’s website is http://kenwilliamson.biz

—David Willson

The Shadow of Arms by Hwang Sok-Yong

I’ve read other novels dealing with the Republic of Korean troops and the Vietnam War. All were combat novels. Hwang Sok-Yong’s The Shadow of Arms (Seven Stories, 576 pp., $14.95, paper), on the other hand, is the first Korean Vietnam War REMF novel I am aware of.

The back cover blurb of this immense book informs us that “a young corporal serving in the Korean Armed Forces during the Vietnam War is transferred to the Allied Forces Criminal Investigation Division in Da Nang. His assignment is to keep an eye on the black market that is flourishing in the country, feeding on the U. S. dollars pouring into an imperialist war.”

Those last two words really caught my eye. Rarely is a cover blurb on a Vietnam War novel marketed to an American audience written with a doctrinaire communist slant.

It goes on: “Trafficking, blackmail, profiteering and hoarding are set alongside the atrocities and brutalities of a hellish war.”  We are then told that this novel is different than other Vietnam War novels because the author’s voice is “the wry and compassionate one of a universal noncombatant.” Different? I don’t think so, as I’ve encountered many a “wry and compassionate” voice in other Vietnam War novels.

The author has written other novels, and he served five years in prison in South Korea, much of it in solitary confinement, for his choice of subject in his writing. He was born in 1943, and served in the military in Vietnam as a “mercenary” in the South Korean Marine Corps.

The Shadow of Arms, translated by Chun Kyang-Ja, was first published in 1985. It is based on the author’s military experiences in Vietnam serving with American and South Vietnamese forces during the time of the Tet Offensive.

Hwang Sok-Yong

I served in South Vietnam just prior to the Tet Offensive, and also was involved in the investigation of black market activities, mostly focused on South Korean soldiers’ abuse of their PX privileges. So while this story is not new to me, it is of great interest. The author was obviously there, involved, and he gets the details right.

Hwang Sok-Yong is in his seventies now, but this book was written in the 1980s so it is not the maunderings of an old man who has lost his wits. This is a new translation, occasionally hard to follow, but worth the effort for a reader curious about the subject—the Korean involvement in the American war in Southeast Asia.

I found it fascinating because I’d always wanted to know what the South Korean Army was doing about black market activities in Vietnam. This book tells that story.

There is wonderful stuff about Col. George Patton III, about the periodic changing of MPC to confuse the illegal money brokers, and the con-job that was the Strategic Hamlet Program—which, in reality, was run as a scam to line the pockets of corrupt ARVN officers.

The author is clearly sympathetic to the cause of the Viet Cong. This is rare in a Vietnam War novel not first published in post-war Vietnam. This novel describes and attacks the U.S.-led war effort, especially the atrocities and corruption, while giving the communist side mostly a free pass. That should set some American readers’ teeth on edge.

There is an engrossing detective story buried in this giant novel, but it is hard to get to amid sections on the My Lai Massacre, the story of Casualties of War, and just every other bad thing that the author found about the “imperialist” American war.

If he had chosen to focus the story on his detective and main character, this would have been a fun ride. Instead, we are lectured to in the introduction, then forced to plow through a book that says the war was “meant to promote the interests of the hegemonic capitalist power and hence could be terminated only when the capitalists at home finally came to object to its ultimate unprofitability.”

I guess I shouldn’t blame the author for his introduction, but I can blame him for writing a novel that hides the story away amid a welter of propaganda.

If you have the energy and desire, this book will provide you with more information about the black market in South Vietnam around the time of the Tet Offensive than you could ever need to know. Good luck with that.

—David Willson

Kickers by Patrick Lee

The cover of Patrick Lee’s Kickers: A Novel of the Secret War (CreateSpace, 380 pp., $13.95, paper) depicts an airdrop In Laos. It shows a package, probably rice, dropping after having been booted out of a low and slow-moving airplane. This novel is about the recruitment of young smoke jumpers by the CIA  to do this job, known as kicking. Patrick Lee interviewed smoke jumpers fifty years ago, and uses those characters and their stories as the material of this novel.

Lee, who practiced law in Washington, D.C., for forty-five years and now lives in Idaho, is a former smoke jumper himself. He made twenty-five parachute jumps into the Idaho Primitive Area fighting forest fires.

The novel starts in 1954 with a CIA agent and twenty French soldiers jumping into Dien Bien Phu as replacements for the dead. After the men land, they find themselves walking on the rotting corpses of those they are there to replace. Lee sets this scene of the French losing at Dien Bien Phu as well as any of the many authors I have read who have dealt with that subject.

The novel presents us with alternating chapters that go back and forth in time. One of the smoke jumpers ends up as a captive and we get details about how he is treated by his captors. Suffice it to say they do not treat him kindly. We also get a lot on the back stories of the main characters going back to childhood. We know them, and when awful things happen to them, we miss them.

The reader learns a lot about how the CIA chose, recruited, and trained the smoke jumpers to become surrogate warriors. They were taught to how to eat snakes, what to do when they ran out of water, how to behave when captured, and how to endure lectures from brainwashing captors.

Patrick Lee

We follow them to Saigon, to Tu Do Street, and into bars where they do what young men do in such circumstances. We follow them from the early years of the war to 1968 when LBJ announces his resignation from the presidency.

Lee is a good storyteller. He keeps the reader involved in the tales of these young men who were hired to kick thousands of pounds of rice out of airplanes to feed the Hmong fighters on the ground in Laos while they fought communists.

The rice was dropped in half-full sacks so they would not explode upon impact with the ground. One of the kickers comments that he hopes he will not be killed “in a dumbass war nobody knows about.”

If you are looking for a novel about the not-so secret CIA war in Laos and the involvement of the smoke jumpers this book is for you.

The book’s website is www.kickersthenovel.com

—David Willson