Tom Bellino served as a Navy psychologist during the Vietnam War. The main character in his novel, Bac Si (Outskirts Press, 188 pp., $24.95, hardcover; $14.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle), is Navy Lieut. Thomas Staffieri, a psychologist assigned to the hospital ship Repose off the coast of Vietnam.
The novel begins on December 22, 1968, in the Neuropsychology Unit of Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. We are introduced to an eight-year-old girl named Quynh, a patient in Pediatric Neuropsychology for a brain disorder. Quynh suffers from mutism, initially. Later she manifests PTSD. Lieut. Staffieri’s relationship with this little girl—and learning Vietnamese to communicate with her—becomes important later in the novel.
Staffieri does not spend his Vietnam War tour of duty quietly on a hospital ship. Instead, he is sent on a special mission due to his language skills and his training in psychological interrogation. Staffieri lands in Da Nang, and is then taken to the Repose. In short order, he is on a mission to locate and capture an enemy general and to sedate and interrogate him in the field—in the famed tunnels of Cu Chi. His team brings along a “medical box,” which contains a secret something to be used on the general and on his soldiers. It turns to be LSD.
All transpires as planned. The general is given LSD and his troops’ water is spiked with the stuff. The upshot is that the general tells all and the troops are confused and disoriented. Troop movements and offensive plans are revealed by this Manchurian Candidate. The hero ask at one point, “Didn’t they know that we were there to liberate them from the evils of communism?”
Mostly the book moves right along and seems well researched. We get mentions of Agent Orange, napalm, Bob Hope, and pho. The men munch on Hershey bars, which I had trouble believing, as my Hershey bars in Vietnam fell prey to the heat or red ants.
Lieut. Staffieri is awarded a Silver Star and comes home in one piece. He encounters antiwar protesters who ask, “How many babies did you kill today?” He comments that he was not spat upon. He lives with PTSD for years, having nightmares. He grapples with thinking of himself as “a monster, a killer, a baby killer.” One of his friends dies from Agent Orange exposure.
The title, means “doctor” in Vietnamese, which is what the hero is called by little Quynh at the beginning of the book. I hope that Bellino writes a memoir of his time off the coast of Vietnam on that hospital ship. I’m sure that would be worth reading.