Stephen Paul Campos enlisted in the U. S. Army in 1968 to avoid being drafted. He thought that if he enlisted, he would not be sent to fight in Vietnam. This myth was encouraged by his recruiter, no doubt.
As it turned out, Compos not only served in Vietnam with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade from 1968-69, but he put in another year of service when he returned to the United States. Campos wrote his novel, Stone Pony: Forgiven but Not Forgotten (Tate Publishing, 384 pp., $25.99, paper), he says, “to set the record straight.”
Several aspects set this memoir apart from other combat infantry rifleman books. The two main differences are the horrific accounts of so-called friendly fire incidents, and the frequent mention of God. More than once, Campos refers to Vietnam as “this land that God even seemed to hate.” He also writes that the first friendly fire incident “shakes him to his core.” That’s the first of several uses of that phrase.
Compos bitterly complains about women back in America who “burned their bras trying not to conform.” I searched for one verified incident of bra burning in America at the time, and found none. I did find plenty of draft card burning and some flag burning.
Campos says draft card burners “should have been sent to Nam, not us.” That strikes me as strange because Campos also writes, “we felt proud to be there to defend the world from communism and to bring peace to Vietnam.” So, in essence, he’s saying that defending and bringing peace should be a punishment. And would he really have wanted to be fighting next to a man who had been sent to Vietnam as a punishment for burning a draft card?
Campos was glad to leave Vietnam behind. He refers to the place as a “hellhole of a country filled with death, despair and sorrow.” He also calls that land “this living hell hole.” He feels that “our military was doing a stellar job in the field. We had won every battle we fought in Nam.”
Campos believed that when he returned to America there would be a “great celebration for us.” That did not happen. “Joy turned into a nightmare,” he writes, when he hears protesters chanting, “baby killer, murderer, loser.” That’s when he says his war just started because he’d expected people to be screaming, “Welcome home. You won the war. We’re proud of you.” He was in shock. “It was a political war,” he writes. “We were not allowed to win.”
We encounter John Wayne more than once, and we run into Ozzie and Harriet. Not David or Ricky, though. We “get out of Dodge” and we get a list with Audie Murphy, John Wayne, and James Stewart as American heroes who always win and end up with the girl. We hear about Black VD, Dear John’s, Tarzan and Jane, and the Bob Hope Show, which Campos attended but freaked out when he saw it was being filmed.
“I was hoping none of my friends or family would see me on television,” he writes. “They might think I was enjoying myself over here and not really fighting a war.”
Campos almost died of malaria because he was raised to mistrust doctors, but he pulled through. Perhaps the high fever muddled his memories a bit, as he refers to John Wayne as being in To Hell and Back. That film starred Audie Murphy; Wayne was not involved.
Stone Pony is one of the more graphic and honest of the infantry memoirs, especially where the recounting of multiple friendly fire incidents is concerned. If that is what you are looking for, I recommend this book.