Red Stick One by Kenneth Kirkeby

Kenneth Kirkeby served in the Marine Corps as an intelligence specialist in the Vietnam War. He draws from that experience in Red Stick (K. Kirkeby, 272 pp., $15.95, paper), a fine thriller/adventure novel.

The book opens in April of 1970 on “the plateau” in Vietnam. I love precise writing in fiction and this novel is written with precision on every page. Whether it’s a recently shot deer being skinned out or coffee being made, the reader is involved in all the details and they are rendered in exact and descriptive language.

We are introduced to Staff Sergeant Virgil Cleary on the first page. In the course of this book we learn a lot about him. As the novel opens Virgil Cleary is a lance corporal in his fifth month in country, and the point man and leader of a five-man recon team.

I was immediately involved and eager to learn the outcome of the team’s struggle to reach the plateau amid rock slides and deep finger ridges. Things do not go well, but it is not until deep into the novel that we revisit this episode in Virgil’s life. Before that, we spend a lot of time with Virgil as he evades the enemy and eventually is rescued.

Virgil is a man of few words, (he is half Creek Indian and was raised in isolation by his grandmother), but occasionally offers profound statements. One example: “War is mostly about having friends and losing them.”

After we hear about Virgil’s boyhood and his adoption (of sorts) by a foster father, the novel becomes an on-the-road story novel in which Virgil journeys across the country (mostly hitchhiking) from the east to west pursuing the killer of his foster father. He has many adventures. We encounter a Vietnam veteran who sells guns in Butte, Montana, and tells Virgil that “guys at the airport are spitting at guys like you and me when we are rotated back.”

This rousing thriller/adventure novel of pursuit has a hero who is easy to root for. I know I did. He’s a little guy, an underdog, half Indian with dark skin, who is often underestimated by adversaries. I’d like to see him in another novel.

I am a big fan of the outdoor adventure novels of C. J. Box, and Kirkeby—a VVA member—belongs in that lofty league. I highly recommend this novel to those who are looking for a book to take their mind off of their troubles. It is the perfect escape from the humdrum.

—David Willson

My Story by Gary Lyles

 

The purest truths come from personal experiences. Gary Lyles’ My Story: Vietnam 1968, 196th Light Infantry Brigade (E-Book Time, 263 pp., $14.95, paper; $5.95, Kindle.) scores an A-plus for honesty in recollecting his experiences as a United States Army infantryman in Vietnam.

The book came to life from “a barely legible pile” of “random handwritten thoughts” and “a shoe box full of memories,” Lyles says. For decades, he could not write about Vietnam. He believed he needed to incorporate what “he had learned about the war” to give his experience perspective.

But Lyles finally decided, he writes, that that effort would “add little to the personal story.” He realized that what he had done spoke for itself, and that incorporating the history of the war did not relate to his combat life. Consequently, Lyles writes with a candidness that might embarrass lesser men.

From the day he arrived in-country and was assigned to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Lyles knew he had entered a nightmare world. Fear was his constant escort. Within a month, he was ordered to kill two prisoners, refused to do so, and watched in stunned horror when two fellow soldiers carry out the murders. Several months later, with great disinterest, he watched an American apply pressure to a VC’s chest wound by standing on it until he died.

Lyles spent most of his tour in the Central Highlands where his unit “stayed in the field continuously.” He took part in many firefights. He learned as much as possible from more-seasoned grunts. Chosen to lead a squad, he mastered the art of directing artillery, as well as setting and avoiding ambushes. Two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, and promotions from E-3 to E-6 within a year validate Gary Lyles’ battlefield proficiency.

As much as he learned to hate the enemy Lyles also respected their skills. As he puts it: “I knew that the NVA would be advancing behind the barrage of artillery fire. Years of experience had given the NVA the ability to walk artillery in toward their objective with the ground troops following extraordinarily close behind the exploding shells.”

Lyles’ imagination often became his strongest enemy. What he saw compounded his fear for what might happen next. When his unit deployed to the DMZ, his worst fear materialized during the battle for Nhi Ha village: He and four other men were cut off while manning a listening post.

“As I peered up over the edge of the crater, my heart sank,” he writes of that horrific encounter. “Hundreds of NVA soldiers had just cleared the wood line and were advancing at a slow walk. Artillery flares lit up the night sky. The flares swinging from the falling parachutes made the shadows of the advancing soldiers move in an eerie manner. They were uniformed soldiers camouflaged with leafed branches attached to their helmets, pistol belts, and webbing. They were moving in our direction with bayonets fixed.”

The 196th Light Infantry Brigade crest

His courage, though, constantly overpowered his fears. Lyles and three of the other men survived being overrun, but in a footnote he says, “The vision is seared into my brain. I had nightmares for years because of it.”

Lyles does not waste words. He describes and gives his opinions about events and people and then moves on without explanations. His just-the-facts accounts of interactions between American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians introduces many questions to ponder. He fully understands—but without specifically saying so—that his knowledge is truth born of battle.

Books such as My Story offer history lessons that subliminally reveal that there is no truth to history beyond what each individual learns on his own.

—Henry Zeybel

Women Made Me Do It by Tony Marlin Buchanan

WOMEN COVERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

For Tony Buchanan, life and two tours as an advisor to a Vietnamese Ranger Company (in 1966-67) are inexorably wrapped up in the arms of two women he had loved since childhood. Buchanan, who joined the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve in 1957 as an underage E-1, went on to serve three stints in the 101st Airborne Division and as a MACV advisor in 1966.

In Buchanan’s memoir, Women Made Me Do It (Warwick House, 105 pp., $9.95), he writes about his ten-year rise from Private E-1 to Staff Sergeant and his difficult assignment with an under-strength South Vietnamese Ranger Company. He spells out the details of a scrappy, tough, lonely childhood and how he grew to manhood in the rice paddies, jungles, and villages near Xuan Loc.

Throughout all of it, Tony Buchanan longed for the love, tenderness, and comfort of two different women who sheltered and embraced him: Frances and, later, Linda.

Buchanan was one of nine children who grew up in grinding poverty in Brevard, North Carolina. Constant movement plagued his early years. Eventually the family returned to North Carolina, but Buchanan’s father drifted in and out of the picture. They struggled to eat, to live, to get by. At one point, the family lived out the summer in a tent.

Tony Buchanan’s long-suffering mother held the family together. Schooling was spotty, difficult, and ended for him in seventh grade.

He caddied at a golf course, got into scrapes with his brothers and older boys, developed into a pint-sized boxer, and didn’t take kindly to sitting still in class. He stole a car, went on a joyride, vandalized property, and learned his way around street people. He was headed for worse trouble when he met Frances, his first love.

But after Frances dumped him, Buchanan freaked out. The next morning the five-foot-three, 117-pound, fifteen-and-a-half year old visited five military recruiters. The Coast Guard recruiter told him to get the family Bible and write in it that he was eighteen years old. That bit of mischief got him into the Coast Guard Reserve.

After six months active duty, he came home. Frances spurned him again, so at age eighteen Buchanan transferred to the U.S. Army. He had Infantry School at Ft. Benning and jump school at Ft. Campbell. In 1961 he got married, but almost from the beginning the marriage began crumbling. His wife moved back home, he had a string of new lovers, and then Buchanan volunteered for the Vietnam War.

He served with a Ranger Advisory Team working with a South Vietnamese Ranger Company that was dispirited, under strength, and underpaid. Visits from ARVN family members in the field, corruption, and patronage plagued the unit. American advisors could make recommendations, but did not command the units they worked for. Morale was often dangerously close to mutiny.

A U.S. Army Ranger working with South Vietnamese forces circa 1966

Buchanan tried to instill American-style discipline, but learned that the company did better with guerilla-style raids, night ambushes, and hit-and-run ops. His street smarts helped make him effective—and lonely for women. Throughout the next year, Buchanan sought out prostitutes and ignored his stateside family.

Buchanan served well, and instilled a fighting edge in the men he advised. He also was wounded, went through a divorce, and faced near exhaustion from combat.

Buchanan—who received  the Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal, Purple Heart, and Vietnamese Ranger Badge—was discharged in September 1967. He found his second great love, Linda, in 1978.

In his memoir Buchanan’s writing is honest and direct. But a weakness of the book is that he does not explore his emotional responses to the traumatic events in his life. His mother instilled toughness in him, so maybe we should not complain too much about the small details of a true warrior.

—Robert M. Pacholik

Condemned Property? By Dusty Earl Trimmer

In Condemned Property?: Our Most Unpopular War Continues for Americans Who Fought in Vietnam… WHY? This is Their Story and Mine (Dog Ear Publishing, 484 pp., $29, hardcover; $25, paper) “Dusty” Earl Trimmer provides a look at his service in the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1968-69. The book also contains the stories of other Vietnam War veterans, along with Trimmer’s strong opinions about the war and those who fought in it.

Trimmer wrote the book, he says, “to honor our fallen warriors during and after the Vietnam War,” along with “living warriors of that war who are still fighting their demons.”

Trimmer believes that the war “should have and could have ended… with a complete American victory!” He lays a large share of the blame for the fact that there was no “American victory” on Americans who protested the Vietnam War, as well as the U.S. news media.

The war, he writes, “was always about stopping communism. It was not a revolution by loyal patriots, as the Viet Cong were used and discarded by North Vietnam. The Ameri-Cong left-wing media and the left-wing protestors were also used TO DEFEAT THEIR OWN FELLOW AMERICANS!

Trimmer goes on to say that Vietnam veterans “are NOT condemned property. Although the media would have Americans believe that, with generations of very inaccurate reporting—actually, they have been LYING! Many of us are still fighting to survive; many of us are winning again, just as we as a generation have always been…winners!

A note about the book’s subtitle: the Vietnam War certainly was, as Trimmer notes, “unpopular.” However, it wasn’t “our most unpopular” war; that sobriquet belongs to the American Civil War, which divided the nation so drastically that Americans took arms against other Americans.

—Marc Leepson