Above It All by Dennis Brooks

Dennis Brooks, who grew up in Slaton in West Texas, served in the U. S. Army from 1968-76. In Above it All (Amazon Digital, 549 pp., $14.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) he lists the medals he received only “to legitimatize the authority” for him to write about his time in the Vietnam War. Brooks received two Bronze Stars with V device, twenty-eight Air Medals, and two Purple Hearts.

Dennis Brooks does not consider himself an educated man or an author. But he wrote this book anyhow, and I am glad he did.

The cover and title give us a very good idea of the book’s subject: helicopters of every variety and their use in Vietnam, written by a man who served as a helicopter crew chief and a door gunner. The book is dedicated to A, B, and C Troops of the 1/9th Cavalry.

Brooks gives us a lot of information about his childhood in West Texas as well as his four years in Modesto, California. Brooks loved horses and spent a lot of time with horsemen, caring for horses. Brooks’s rough-and-ready writing reminds me of the books I’ve read by cowboy authors I love: Will James and “Teddy Blue” Abbott.

I can see where Brooks’s writing style and narrative voice might set some readers’ ears on edge, but not mine. I am fine with his using “sea rations” for C rations and “Mountain Yards” for Montagnards.

When the door to the airplane opened as he arrived in Vietnam, Brooks writes, “the heat came down the ilea and hit me dead in the face.” When he is writing about the manner that the malaria pill affected his body, he comes up with, “You didn’t wipe your ass, you just kind of blotted it.”  When he talks of a friend he loved, he says, “He was John Wayne in my eyes.”

Brooks is a great storyteller and puts on no airs in the book. Every line smacks of authenticity and the flavor gained from having been there and having thought a lot about flying in Loaches and slicks and having spent hundreds of hours firing an M -60 machine gun, freestyle (not the mounted kind) out of the door of the chopper.

Brooks joined the Army to avoid the draft when he got “the dreaded brown envelope.” He has a valid point that his lack of a high school diploma would have destined him for infantry.  “Helicopters were for us,” he says of himself and his best friend who did not pass the Army physical.

Brooks got his wish, and was trained as a Huey helicopter crew chief. He served in Charlie Squadron, 1st Cavalry Division, 9th Cavalry and makes the point repeatedly that enemy ears were taken and displayed on the troops’ flight helmets.  VC skulls were displayed on their Hueys’ skids.

Brooks does not write as a hardened or emotion-deadened warrior. He freely shares his feelings with the reader, and his writing is moving. When he described his personal encounters with General George Casey and of the general’s death in a helicopter crash in Vietnam in 1970, I could feel the sense of loss that Brooks felt. When Brooks’s friends die—and many do—his pain is communicated, as well as his survivor guilt.

One of the main characters in Above it All, is Brooks’s dog Tiger, who gets a lot of ink in this massive book and deserves every bit of it. Brooks does a fine job making the reader care as much about Tiger as we do about Will James’ horse Smoky, one of the great animal characters in American fiction.

Brooks’s language reminds us on almost every page that when he says he is “a cowboy at heart,” he is not kidding.  “Cowboy up,” “Back in the Saddle Again, “long gone pecan,” “Didn’t know crap from Shyola,” and “long row to hoe ahead of him,” all work well to remind us of his West Texas roots.

When he got out of the Army, Brooks worked for a considerable time as cattle foreman on the Bushnell Brahma Ranch in Oklahoma. His struggles with PTSD make me think he would have better off never to have left cattle and horse ranching. But that was not a choice he got to make.

Brooks’s attitude about serving in the military upon receiving his draft notice (“Time to pay rent on all that freedom I had taken for granted”) carries him only so far. In discussing the option he did not take of going to Canada to avoid military service he is not scathing or dismissive of those who took that route.

I highly recommend Above it All to those looking for a book about helicopter warfare in Vietnam and who crave combat action sequences that make you feel as though you were almost there with Dennis Brooks and his friends.

—David Willson

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