Dick Denne is a man who can think for himself, an ability that caused him a lot of trouble.
Halfway through Sorry About That: A Story from A Soldier’s Heart (CreateSpace, 172 pp., $15.95 paper, $2.99, Kindle), I almost stopped reading because I thought I saw what was coming: a my-country-right-or-wrong teenager who fights valiantly only to be punished for figuring out that the Vietnam War is totally wrong and for teaching that message to his fellow soldiers. But I continued reading, discovering that Denne’s punishment was worse than anything I imagined.
Dick Denne writes about his 1966-67 experience in Vietnam, which consisted of eight months in the jungle as an RTO and four months as a Huey door gunner, surviving four helicopter crashes. He goes on to describe years in and out of military prisons. His story is exceptional and well told.
Denne grew up as somewhat of a prodigy. His life’s goal was to become a standup comedian, and he started developing routines at age three. Along with performing in high school revues and plays, he studied history on his own. At age twelve, he learned to parachute and made it a weekend sport.
Expecting to be drafted, at seventeen Denne enlisted in the Army and signed up for duty with Special Services as an entertainer. Personnel demands detoured him into an 11 B infantry slot with the 327th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Denne’s quick wit and sense of responsibility made basic, AIT, and jump school easy.
Denne managed to land a gig as an entertainer on his second night in Vietnam. During in-processing a sergeant recognized Denne’s misassignment and arranged for him to perform at the NCO club. He bombed.
At the same time, the 327th and a superior-size NVA force were locked together in battle near Trung Luong. On his third day in-country, Denne joined that fight and remained in the field for the next eight months. His accounts of using humor to break the tension while waiting for combat to begin are memorable.
The transformation from model soldier to model protester is at the core of the book. Denne’s conscientious attitude made him a highly reliable infantryman and door gunner. It also made him speak out passionately after determining the war was wrong. The upshot: he was sent to prison within five months after returning from Vietnam.
For two years, until he received an honorable discharge, Denne alternated between military prison life and going AWOL. The abuse and torture he and his cellmates suffered matched the atrocities that took place at Abu Ghraib prison. Undoubtedly, Denne was a victim of PTSD, but nobody recognized the problem at that time.
He credits his change in belief to thinkers such as Martin Luther King, Noam Chomsky, Bertrand Russell, and the mysterious Tiger Man, whom he met while fighting alongside Montagnards in the Central Highlands near Pleiku. Denne lightens his philosophical sections with references to movies, television and radio shows, novels, songs, and poems. And he shares his conversations with Harvey, his six-foot-tall Pooka.
“What is the personal cost of war?” Denne asks. His answer is that combat influences every day of a soldier’s life that follows. Consequently, a nation must have an irrefutable reason for prosecuting war; otherwise, the nation betrays the citizens who do the fighting.