For the Sender by Alex Woodard

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Author and singer/songwriter Alex Woodard has put together a most unusual book: For the Sender: Love Letters from Vietnam (Hay House, 233 pp., $19.99, hardcover; full-length CD of songs included). Woodard has taken a batch of real love letters written from an airman in Vietnam to his wife back home, and combined them with heartfelt imaginary letters his daughter could have written to her deceased father. Then, Woodard wrote songs based on these letters.

The airman, Sgt. John Fuller, apparently succumbed to the effects of PTSD after the war. He drank too much, was unfaithful to his wife, and never was at peace with himself. In 1998, John Fuller was shot to death by a locksmith who was changing the locks on Fuller’s girlfriend’s house after a domestic altercation. When Fuller charged him armed with a weapon, the locksmith defended himself.  No charges were filed against the locksmith.

John Fuller’s daughter Jennifer, born in 1970, was devastated by the loss of her father. She retreated into a shell of anger and depression for several years. One winter day while helping her mother move, she came across a box of letters with “Love Letters from Vietnam” written on the lid. Overwhelmed—and not sure how to cope with this treasure chest of letters from her father—she contacted Alex Woodard. He agreed to put the letters to music, with lyrics adapted from her father’s words.

He also composed responses to letters written by Jennifer to her father as if Woodard were John Fuller himself stationed in Vietnam. Only a special kind of writer could undertake such a challenging endeavor and make his imaginary written responses sound believable.

Alex Woodard is not a veteran of any branch of service. However, he is a staunch advocate for veterans. He describes in detail several encounters he has had in recent years with veterans of the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He went surfing with one group who claimed it helped them cope with PTSD. He worked with another group learning to ride and care for horses as part of their recovery from PTSD and traumatic brain injury. He describes encountering a man who rescues dogs from kill shelters and trains them to be service dogs for veterans.

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Alex Woodard

 

Much of the book is about Woodard’s own life experiences, such as the near loss of his mountain home to a forest fire and the subsequent flooding and mudslide. It is disconcerting at times when he inserts a letter from Sgt. Fuller or Jennifer Fuller into the middle of his story on a totally different topic.

However, the CD included with the book that features Woodard as Sergeant Fuller and his friend Molly Jensen as Jennifer more than makes up for the occasional distraction.

Trusting Alex Woodard to read letters from her father and then to write letters as if they were written by her father to her turned out to be a truly healing experience for Jennifer Fuller. It helped her find peace and forgiveness and move on with her life.

The author’s website is www.alexwoodard.com

—James Coan

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The Price They Paid by Michael Putzel

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Michael Putzel is a journalist who covered the war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos for the Associated Press for two-and-a-half years. Putzel’s The Price They Paid: Enduring Wounds of War (Trysail Publishing, 364 pp., $25.99, hardcover; $14.99, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is the true story of Maj. James T. Newman, commanding officer of C Troop, 2/17 Air Cavalry.

Newman is the ostensible subject of this large and detailed book. But the true subjects are the helicopter pilots and crewmen who flew for Condor Six, Newman’s call sign.

Maj. Newman remains a mystery, even at the end of this long book. His men laud him as the finest leader they ever knew. His coolness under fire and bravery are supported again and again by descriptions of many, many helicopter actions he was party to. But it also is said of him that he was “an officer but never a gentleman.” He treated service people like scum, and is described as a scumbag in his treatment of women, including those to whom he was married.

After he left the Vietnam War, Newman was destined for great things in the Army, none of which transpired due to his own bad behavior. He was a barely educated ex-enlisted man from a backward town in Georgia, we are told.

The book is packed with helicopter action. All of the events are carefully documented and described. Those events alone are reason enough for me to understand why Maj. Newman did not do well with peacetime Army life.

The war is described by one participant as that “bag of shit.” Another veteran, bitter that he received an ungrateful reception when he returned home, said that “they could have won if the United States had devoted enough to this fight.”

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Michael Putzel

Maj. Newman was in terrible pain for the rest of his life from wounds received in Vietnam, but he refused to take any medication. He received $8,000 a month in various annuities, but he wrote most of his children out of his will. We are told that no one found a plausible explanation for the changes in Newman, but I see those explanations on virtually every page of this book.

Agent Orange, fragging, drugs, and PTSD are all dealt with in this book.  Also, this book has one of the most distressing covers I have ever seen. It was designed by Gwyn Kennedy Snider and is taken from an actual photo of a uniform of one of the Condors who came to a very bad end.

This is a hard book to read, not that it is badly written or told, but the subject matter is upsetting. I highly recommend it to anyone who believes that war is a good thing and that carpet bombing is an effective method of attaining world peace.

The author’s website is http://michaelputzel.com

—David Willson

Gold in the Coffins by Dominic Certo and Len Harac

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Dominic Certo’s highly praised first novel, The Valor of Francesco D’Amini, was published in 1979. So it has been a long wait for his next one, Gold in the Coffins (Harmita Press, 268 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle).

Certo served with the 7th Marines in Vietnam.  Co-author Len Harac is “a frequent participant in military-style tactical training programs.”

A terse blurb on the back cover accurately sums up this well-written thriller. “Gold in the Coffins follows the story of a tight band of retired Marines who bonded during a bloody tour of duty in Vietnam, only to find themselves facing a darker enemy back home, the demons of Wall Street.”

The hero, Donnie DeAngelo, enters into a “diabolical venture” with a Wall Street power broker who plans to force DeAngelo into bankruptcy and then loot his company and leave him and his friends with nothing. This world of IPOs and reverse mergers is a mystery to me, but the authors handle the ins and outs of it deftly, making it seem as evil as I always suspected it was.

This system was the one that Donnie and his buddies thought they had fought to protect, but they find that it isn’t set up to protect them. It is mentioned more than once that these Marines did not get heroic welcomes when they returned home. Mention is also made of “all the Napalm, Tear Gas, Agent Orange and explosives” they were exposed to and the possibility that they might have wrecked their brains.

Donnie DeAngelo was a Navy Corpsman who served with the Marines in Vietnam. The loyalty and tight teamwork that was built then is brought in play back home to save the day. I am not going to give away the ending, but I will say that evil Wall Street is defeated in a way that I only wish could happen in real life more often.

The VA is name-checked several times and not in a flattering manner.  John Wayne is also discussed. To wit: “John Wayne never taught us how to deal with losing our amigos, just how to walk tall and kick ass. I wonder why they leave that part out of the movie scripts?”

This is a thoughtful and exciting thriller with lots of Vietnam War references. The flashbacks to the war are the strongest parts of the book.  I’d like to see another war novel from Certo, but until then, this book will do just fine.  I highly recommend it.

Certo’s website is http://dominiccerto.com

—David Willson

Stand-By One! by Vernon Grant

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Good news for Books in Review II readers. A second edition of Vietnam veteran Vernon Grant’s Stand-By One! has just been published ( Little Creek Press, 40 pp., $9.95, paper) and his wife Betsy Grant is now on a book tour with her late husband’s cartoon collection. Grant’s cartoons are familiar, but they are as descriptive and humorous now as when he drew them in 1969.

Last November, in a review of Grant’s Point Man Palmer, I wrote: “Cpt. Grant received his Army discharge in 1968 after his tour of duty in the Vietnam War. That’s when he began publishing his cartoons and graphic novels. Stand-By One!, published in 1969, presents panels in which Grant occasionally inserts himself in his depiction of a soldier’s routine in the field, off duty, and in stand down.”

The characters in these humorous and ironic situations include PFC Goonfunkle and other soldiers in foxholes, on patrol, during R & R, and after coming “back to the world.”

These un-numbered pages contain drawings revealing typical and quirky scenes such as troops identifying a rescued Vietnamese villager wearing a Ho Chi Minh tee shirt as having been “re-educated” and four officers standing at an entrance to the “Hanoi to Saigon Subway.”

One combat scene shows two soldiers under a ” rocket attack,”  except it’s raining down copies of Playboy magazine, C Rations, and a television. The caption reads: “It looks like they’re running low on ammunition.”

Another carton shows a Vietnam veteran sitting with his date in a restaurant. He says to the waiter: “A beer for me and a Saigon Tea -er- a coke for the lady.” Grant has also drawn tanks with bayonets affixed and a soldier in counseling with a Chaplain in which they both wear Mickey Mouse ears.

 

The best way to appreciate these cartoons is to see them together in Stand-By-One!, an affordable last-minute holiday gift. Betsy Grant’s website is http://bvgrantstudio.com

—Curt Nelson

The Crossing by Michael Connelly

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It’s been a year since Michael Connelly‘s nineteenth Harry Bosch detective procedural, The Burning Roomcame out. I’ve been a giant fan of Connelly and his Bosch novels since the first one, Black Echo, burst on the scene in 1992, getting great reviews and garnering big-time sales.

It’s always a special treat to read these fast-paced, cleverly plotted thrillers featuring Vietnam veteran Harry Bosch, the iconoclastic LAPD homicide detective who had a rough childhood and who served as a tunnel rat in the Vietnam War. Bosch’s service in the war is a theme in several of the books, and gets mentioned often in others. Lately, as Bosch has reached retirement age, his war service is only touched upon. And that’s as it should be.

In The Crossing (Little Brown, 400 pp., $28), which came out early in November and became a No. 1 bestseller, the war is mentioned only once. It comes when Harry is contemplating his worth as a father (something he does often). He ruminates on the fact that he’d never taken his teenaged daughter camping. “He had never been taken camping,” Connelly writes, “unless his time sleeping in tents and holes in Vietnam counted.”

While Harry’s Vietnam War service is not central to the book, Harry Bosch certainly is. His good and not-so-good traits that we have come to know over the years are on full display. On the good side: He is a relentless seeker of justice for those who have been murdered or harmed by criminals. He is a smart, brilliant, hard-driving crime solver. He has little use for ticket-punching, self-serving LAPD bureaucrats and politicians. He is a dedicated, if oftentimes baffled, single father of a teenaged girl. He is a survivor who skillfully has come through more than his share of post-war violent confrontations with criminals.

On the not-so-good side: His relentlessness often leads to serious rule-breaking. His disgust with the LAPD lifers often leads him into personal trouble–and trouble for the cops he works with. And lately, he makes a few crucial mistakes as he goes about his crime-solving.

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Connelly

In The Crossing—which I happily just binge-read—Bosch has just retired and reluctantly takes a temporary job with his half brother, Mickey Haller. He’s the flamboyant “Lincoln Lawyer,” who loves taking on difficult cases–and craves the media spotlight.

Haller’s representing a former gang member who is in jail for horribly raping and murdering a woman. The evidence looks extremely solid. Haller doesn’t care; he believes the guy is innocent and is ready to use any legal technicality to help his case. Bosch does care—and only agrees to investigate the case after he’s convinced the client is innocent.

Connelly spins out his usual convoluted but extremely clever plot flawlessly. Even though you know who the bad guys are early on, the pages still keep turning as Connelly puts one roadblock after another in front of Harry and things get exciting and tense as the book moves toward its inevitable violent conclusion.

If you like rapid reading police procedures that are a cut above in literary merit, you can’t go wrong with The Crossing–or any of the Harry Bosch books.

—Marc Leepson

 

Brown Water Runs Red by Bob Andretta

 

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In his 1961 minor classic, Among the Dangs, George P. Elliott tells the story of an anthropologist who becomes a member of a primitive jungle tribe. The anthropologist’s deep immersion in the tribe’s culture ends when he realizes If he “had stayed there much longer I would have reverted until I became one of them until I had lost myself utterly.”

Eight years later, U.S. Navy Lt. Bob Andretta brought much of that fiction to life for himself as an advisor to Vietnamese Coastal Group 14, stationed fifteen miles south of Danang.

In six months with the Group, Andretta was struck by lightning, shredded by shrapnel, blown off a boat, and shot through both legs. After receiving his third set of wounds, he turned down a third Purple Heart and forfeited an opportunity to leave Vietnam early. His desire to help the Vietnamese outweighed all other considerations.

Andretta relates his Vietnam War experiences in Brown Water Runs Red: My Year as an Advisor to the Vietnamese Navy Junk Force (CreateSpace, 428 pp., $20, paper; $8.75 Kindle). Many of the operations he writes about were new to me.

As the leader of three Americans assigned to Group 14, Andretta immersed himself in the war and Vietnamese culture. He participated in practically every search and destroy mission; observed every social custom; doctored children infected with boils and other illnesses; and built a maternity ward and a two-room school for the hamlet of Doi.

Along with South Vietnamese sailors, Andretta worked closely with Ruff-Puffs—Regional Forces (RF) and Provincial Forces (PF). The Navy delivered Ruff-Puffs to coastal or waterway sites where they patrolled on foot. When possible, everyone engaged the enemy with firepower from water and land.

Despite the depth of his involvement, after a few weeks or so, Andretta said, “I felt so isolated; like I had gone to a different world.”

Andretta writes in a straightforward, conversational style that gives the book a humorous tone. He does not hide his feelings, and it is easy to relate to him. His knack for depicting personality traits brings characters alive. His scenes of the aftermath of battle clearly support his transition from a dedicated warrior to a man who abhors war.

He learned by doing. While hospitalized at Danang with an amoebic abscess of the liver, he helped unload CH46 helicopters overflowing with Marines killed and wounded in the A Shau Valley. Even though he had already been seriously wounded, the carnage shocked him.

Shortly after, following another Group 14 “great victory” at “ambush corner” on the Thu Bon River, he saw the napalmed remains of enemy soldiers (men, women, and children) and experienced an epiphany: “Suddenly I hated the country. I hated this place. I hated the war. I hated the people. I wanted out.”

After six months of search and destroy missions, he understood that his men “were just the bait. The artillery and aircraft had done the rest.” Only the body count mattered to his superiors, he decided.

Andretta He accepted a transfer from Group 14 to ragtag Group 13, north of Danang. Group 13 saw little action. Nevertheless, Andretta worked hard to improve a dismal area. From that point, the book resembles an interesting travelogue more than a combat saga.

Ignoring his antiwar sentiments, Andretta connived to participate in a final sweep with a nearby Army unit; the helicopter in which he rode was shot down. He said, “It did not take much reflection to conclude that I was more than just a bit crazy.”

Then he accompanied a SEAL team on a “special patrol” that ended in a shootout. “There was no time to be frightened; only to shoot well,” he said. Outnumbered, the SEALs fled: “That was probably the fastest I have ever run,” Andretta noted.

After he completed his tour, Andretta flew to San Francisco, and encountered a “not very pleasant homecoming, and that’s an understatement” from war protesters.

By remembering his Naval Academy classmates killed in action, Andretta repeatedly conveys the remorse felt by  survivors for friends who died in the war. He recognizes that many survivors never achieve release from their sorrow.

Andretta enhances his narrative by blending an excellent collection of photographs with the text, rather than lumping them together in the middle of the book.

After retiring from the Navy in 1972 due to combat-related disabilities, Andretta became a lawyer and then a judge. He stepped down from the bench in 2007. His wounds still cause him problems that require surgery.

—Henry Zeybel

The Grunt Padre by Daniel L. Mode

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Vincent Capodanno was the youngest of ten children born into an Italian Catholic family. His heroic life is told cradle to grave in The Grunt Padre: The Service & Sacrifice of Father Vincent Robert Capodanno, Vietnam, 1966-1967  (CMJ Publishers, 202 pp., $15.95, paper) by Daniel L. Mode.

Father Mode, a chaplain in the Navy Reserves, traces  the life of Capodanno, a Navy Chaplain and Medal of Honor recipient, from his birth on Staten Island in New York, through his time at the Maryknoll Seminary in  Ossining, New York, to a mission in Taiwan, and finally to his Marine Chaplaincy in South Vietnam. That’s where the “Grunt Padre” said his last Mass, on Hill 327 near the village of Dong Son, in September of 1967.

Vince Capodanno was born on February, 13 , 1929, and “grew up during the most patriotic time in American history,” Mode writes, “with Victory Gardens, War Bonds, and blood drives. The World War 2 armistice was signed just before young Vince decided he would enter the Marknoll Seminary.”

Fr. Capodanno was ordained in June of 1958. He soon set sail for Taiwan, his first missionary assignment, where he enjoyed the teaching despite his difficulty learning the local dialect. But the language barrier had a positive effect—making him a better listener. Later in Vietnam, Mode writes, “he would attract the confidence of young Marines partly because of his unique capacity to hear what they said and what they didn’t say.”

Nineteen-sixty-five was a watershed year for Fr. Capodanno. His six-year term in Taiwan ended and he wrote to the Navy Chief of Chaplains in Washington about joining the Chaplain Corps, asking to serve with the Marines in Vietnam.

In November, 1965 Fr. Vince became Lt. Capodanno at the Naval Chaplain School in Newport, Rhode Island. After completing a three-week course at the Field Medical Service School at Camp Pendleton, he went to Vietnam during Holy Week in 1966 when American casualties averaged 400 a month.

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Why did Fr. Capodanno leave the relative safety of mission work for wartime ministry? “In October, 1966 a reporter in Vietnam asked him why he became a chaplain and he answered, ‘I joined the Chaplain Corps when the Vietnam War broke out because I think I’m needed here as are many more Chaplains.'” He was “drawn to the cutting edge where he would not just be a Catholic priest, not just a military Chaplain; but a Marine,” Mode adds.

He was assigned to the 7th Marine Battalion headquarters at Chu Lai. Eight months later he was transferred to the 1st Medical Battalion. In January 1967 he extended his Vietnam tour by six months, which put Fr. Capodanno on a path for that final Mass on September 3. The next day, during Operation Swift, Fr. Capodanno was killed in action while ministering to wounded Marines.

The details of that fatal afternoon that resulted in Fr. Capodanno receiving the Medal of Honor are presented by the author in this thoroughly researched account. Reading these and the testimonials bring the reader as close as possible to the firefight without being there.

—Curt Nelson