First Light by S. Elliot Lawrence

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S. Elliott Lawrence’s First Light: A Novel of Close Combat (CreateSpace, 444 pp., $19.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) closely follows the 1968-69 Vietnam War tour of Lieutenant Kenneth McKenzie. The lieutenant serves with the First Cavalry first as an platoon leader. He fills out the second half of his one-year tour as the Division Protocol Officer. McKenzie grew up in Oregon and the novel often alludes to the Pacific Northwest and his boyhood there.

Lawrence shares the above biography with his character. A Vietnam veteran, he is a retired trial attorney who can write and how knows how to tell a story. His main character is the lowest of Army officers, a second lieutenant. That was rare in Vietnam since most newly minted officers chose extra training before they left the United States, which resulted in them being first lieutenants when they arrived.

Our hero was in a big hurry to get to the First Cav, so he volunteered to go to Vietnam right out of OCS, with no jump school or other foot-dragging exercises.  That’s why he was not highly valued when he arrived in country.

Lt. McKenzie fooled the powers that be, though, by surviving his first few weeks and then months in the field and doing a good job as an infantry platoon leader. His priority was to keep his men alive while also following orders. When orders placed his men at serious risk for no apparent reason, McKenzie butted heads with his commanders. This led to quite a bit of drama in the novel and to the young LT’s reassignment.

Lawrence brings his characters alive—the lieutenant and the enlisted men and officers he served with, both good and not so good. When they die, this reader felt their loss, and believed that the lieutenant felt their loss as well.

Lawrence, center, in Vietnam in 1969

The filth and suffering of being in the field for weeks at a time without clean water, clean clothes, and decent food is well communicated. We encounter such oft-told horrors as ham and lima beans and worse. John Wayne is meantioned, but Audie Murphy surprisingly also is name-checked. REMF’s are also encountered.

Our hero becomes a REMF in the second half of his tour, but that part of the book is not as long as the combat section. The emphasis is the hero’s combat experience, but Lawrence also presents a good, solid representation of the life of a Division Protocol Officer.

I enjoyed this well-told story from beginning to end. My only carping remark would be about some lamentable editing: “heals” for “heels”; “people” for “purple”; and on and on. For those who lack training and experience as an Army stenographer (which I was), perhaps the lack of proofreading will not trouble you, and the excellent story will carry the day. I hope so.

—David Willson

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