Bringing Vincent Home by Madeleine Mysko

Reviewing a book this long after it was published (in 2007) is unusual. But Bringing Vincent Home (Plain View Press, 2007; 182 pp., $14.95, paper) is an unusually compelling novel, and letting readers know about it ten years late still seems a lot better than not letting them know at all.

Author Madeleine Mysko has written a Vietnam War story that is remarkably true to life— but just as remarkably different from the conventional fiction of that war. Mysko served as an Army nurse whose wartime service was not in Vietnam but at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas—specifically in the center’s burn ward, then and now the Army’s main facility for treating soldiers with severe burn injuries. The burn unit is the setting for her novel, which is narrated by the middle-aged mother of one of the casualties being treated there.

Both the setting and the narrative voice are not the familiar ones in Vietnam War novels. The story takes place in a Texas hospital, not on the battlefields of Vietnam. It’s not told from the viewpoint of the generation that fought the war (or avoided it or protested it— that is, the author’s generation), but by a member of the previous generation, a woman who reached adulthood in the very different wartime America of World War II. For both those reasons Bringing Vincent Home reflects a different angle of vision, putting a new and illuminating light on the Vietnam War for today’s readers.

In the novel’s opening sentences, the narrator, Kitty Duvall, answers the phone in her modest home in Baltimore one day in August 1969 and is told by an Army casualty officer her that her son Vincent, the youngest of her three children, was wounded in Vietnam and will be evacuated to Japan and then to Texas. Three short paragraphs later, Kitty is walking off a plane in San Antonio, hoping to stay as close to her son as she can during his treatment.

In the 170-plus pages that follow, through Kitty’s eyes we witness Vincent’s physical and emotional ups and downs and are introduced to nurses, doctors, and chaplains who care for him through those swings. We meet her older son and her daughter, who has become an antiwar activist and whose certainties about the war clash with Kitty’s deep confusion about it.

We see relatives and girlfriends visiting other patients and glimpse their anguished efforts to deal with their men’s pain and disfigurement. We share Kitty’s memories and feelings, too, including the comfort she gets from her deep Catholic faith and her conflicted feeling about the same faith because it will not let her end her marriage to the abusive, alcoholic husband who abandoned the family many years before.

All of this comes across with perfect-pitch authenticity. Details of time, place, perspective, and emotion are all completely plausible. Kitty Duvall is as real as any fictional character I remember.

Madeleine Mysko

If I hadn’t known that the author was not a burn patient’s mother or anywhere close to Kitty’s age, I would have been certain I was reading real-life memories, not fiction—a narrative that is all the more powerful when we remember that nearly half a century after this story takes place, wounded American troops are still arriving in the burn unit from distant and controversial wars.

Madeleine Mysko has crafted a novel that is as believable as it is moving. I hope it will continue bringing Vincent home to readers for a long time to come.

The author’s website is mmauthor.com/bringing-vincent-home

—Arnold R. Isaacs

Arnold R. Isaacs, a former Vietnam War correspondent, is the author of Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia; Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and 
Its Legacy; and, most recentlyFrom Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani Americans and Afghan Americans in Post-9/11 America.

Paper Airplanes and Serial Lovers by p.a. delorenzi

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Peter DeLorenzi is a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, having served a 1968-69 tour of duty at Vandegrift Combat Base in Quang Tri Province in I Corps.  He lives, works, and writes on beautiful San Juan Island in the state of Washington.

DeLorenzi, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, has a rare way with a turn of a phrase. He displays that to great advantage in Paper Airplanes and Serial Lovers: The Making of a Poet (Outskirts Press, 126 pp. $14.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle), a collection of fine poems.

Here is one from DeLorenzi’s prison years:

 

the bare concrete floor

meets my naked feet

time after silent time

as I traverse

my steel enclosure

and let my mind rappel down

the glass smooth face

of the distant cliffs

of freedom

This poem is called “Sleepwalk-1980.” That year, DeLorenzi writes, “found me on trial for my life for the killing of a man in Oregon that was assaulting a woman. It’s a long story.”

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Peter DeLorenzi

He goes on to tell the reader that there are not a lot of events about prison life he cares to share with us. He does say, it’s “a tough way to wake up each morning. Stay free.”

That’s good advice for those among us who can envision being in such a place. I can, and I thank Peter DeLorenzi for his vivid poems warning of what can happen faster than you can imagine.

Read this book of powerful poems and appreciate how DeLorenzi has turned his experiences into these verses. He tells us he’s been doing his best “to be a good human being.”

There’s no greater goal for any of us. His poetry inspires me to do the same.

—David Willson

Neighbors in Arms by Larry Pressler

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“The formulation of foreign policy is a complex and byzantine process in the United States.”  That’s how former U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) explains foreign poicy in general, and U.S./India/Pakistan relations in particular, in his new book, Neighbours in Arms An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent (Penguin Viking 288 pp. $29, hardcover; $25, Kindle).

In this book Pressler unravels the story of how the U.S. wound up weaponizing a new and unstable government in Pakistan while forcing the world’s second largest democracy, India, to seek weapons from the communist block. Pressler, a Vietnam War veteran and Rhodes Scholar from rural South Dakota, reminds the reader of the contrast between the technology of atomic warfare and agricultural simplicity.

He examines what once was known as the Military/Industrial Complex in this country and its spreading influence in foreign policy and the India/Pakistan nuclear situation with reasoned logic. He succinctly shows how the enterprise has grown since the Eisenhower years into what he calls the Octopus.

Pressler explains how its ever-growing tentacles reach into virtually every aspect of foreign policy, as well as the American economy. He sheds light on the growth of think tanks and intellectual-sounding non-profits staffed by former military and political figures financed by veiled contributions from special interests and advanced by highly paid lobbyists as they seek to change congressional and presidential checks on foreign policy that impede profits flowing to the Octopus.

Pressler, along with Sen. John Glenn, sought to add restrictions on the nuclear arms race. The Pressler Amendment, as it became known, was designed to prohibit sales to governments that seem to have other interests or are unstable. It was an attempt to curtail arms sales to governments that might support terrorism or were exploring becoming members of the nuclear club.

As terrorist groups using religion as justification began spreading in South Asia, some senators became concerned that an unchecked U.S. increase of arms sales would encourage governments to seek their own nuclear capabilities. The Pressler Amendment was Congress’s attempt to stifle such endeavors by requiring presidential certification that sales to foreign governments not be used to develop nuclear arms.

Pressler divulges the machinations of the Octopus as it worked to thwart efforts to curtail arms sales to Pakistan. He foresaw Pakistan becoming a nuclear nation that supported terrorism. Believing correctly that the Pakistan government was unreliable, Pressler feared that nation’s ability to protect its nuclear weapons would be suspect.

He points out that Osama Bin Laden was secreted in Pakistan for years, along with other terrorists. Pressler’s big fear is that Pakistani nuclear arms would get into the hands of well-financed terrorists, causing unimaginable consequences.

Pressler makes a lucid, carefully documented argument. He shows that the current Military/Industrial Complex is a powerful shadow overhanging our democracy. After serving in the Vietnam War, Pressler has dedicated his life to honorable service to our nation, only to be thwarted by the dark side of politics. That is, after serving twenty years in the Senate, he was defeated because of his opposition to the Octopus.

111111111111111111111111In the book, Pressler describes what he saw as a last opportunity to change the balance of the U.S. Senate by running as an independent. He believes that the current dysfunction in both parties has given an opening for a small number of independents to exercise control.

He admits he was angry and disappointed that there seems to be no room for a moderate, so he ran once for the Senate after being out of office for over a decade. Pressler ran the race he wanted: clean, no name calling, no hi-jinks, only to be overwhelmed by the Octopus at the last minute. Citibank, one of the state’s largest employers, insinuated that jobs in South Dakota would be lost if Pressler won.

This is an important book, a true story that sheds light on the bare knuckles and ugly sides of politics in America. It is a trumpet in the night.

My fear is that its story might be ignored or discounted.

—Bud Alley

Feet of the Messenger by H.C. Palmer

H.C. Palmer was drafted into the Army and served as a battalion surgeon in the the Vietnam War. He’s also been a cattle rancher. Palmer’s poetry makes the reader aware of the high cost in young male flesh of war in a new way—kind of like a kick in the guts. It’s on display in his first book of poetry,  Feet of the Messenger: Poems (BkMk Press, 80 pp., $13.95)

Here is one example:

December 14, 2010, VA Hospital

 

Kansas City, Missouri

Back from his tour of Afghanistan, the soldier says,

Half my foot is gone, Doc, but I’m still in the Guard—

a peacetime soldier now.  I take his foot, a stub

grafted at the arch, trace the spongy edges with my fingers.

No feeling. He laughs.  Beautiful

work, don’t you think? 

 

Thanks for this beautifully brutal poem, Dr. Palmer. And for seventy-five more pages of equally beautiful poems.

The book includes a wonderful quote from Karl Marlantes:  “It won’t hurt you. It’s just to kill plants.”

I thought of that quote last night when I awoke screaming from the pain in my right knee. Then I laughed. That’s the power of poetry.

The more than seventy-five pages of poetry in this beautiful book all have impact on the reader, and they also have messages that all of us need. That’s also the power of good poetry.

H.C. Palmer

I wish I could include more of Palmer’s poems in this review, but space prohibits that. The poem on page 41 is a poem everyone needs. It’s a lucid conversation with an infantryman who is “cradling a bullet in his brain.”

He thinks he’s going home to the Madison River Valley in Montana. He talks of the 24-inch rainbow. My heart was breaking as he was loaded into the dustoff for Ton San Nhut Hospital. He’s not going to make it back to the “most beautiful place in the world.”

Palmer has founded and leads a writing program for veterans in Kansas City. I wish I was in that class.

—David Willson

Coffins of Tin by J.C. Handy

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The pseudonymous J. C. Handy was drafted into the U. S. Army and served a tour in Vietnam in 1967. The prologue of his fine novel Coffins of Tin: The Unseen Angels of Viet Nam (Batlemente, 387 pp., $19.99, paper; $24.99, hardcover) informs us that the “remains of 58,193 soldiers were repatriated to American soil by Graves Registration personnel throughout Viet Nam.  Thirty-nine years after the war’s end, these compassionate and brave individuals die a little each day from invisible wounds inflicted by all they had seen and done to reclaim the Fallen. Coffins of Tin is the story of but a few.”

Graves Registration (GR) is the subject of the book. It opens in October 1967, and we are immediately introduced to the main character, Mitch McCasey. We follow him throughout his time in Vietnam. McCasey is stationed in Da Nang Air Base, aka Rocket City. He arrives, in fact, during a mortar barrage.

My first thought upon reading the first page of this novel is that Mitch would be in Vietnam for the Tet Offensive. I was right, but I had to get through most of this big book before that time arrived. During those many months we are introduced to every aspect of Graves Registration.

Mitch is a Conscientious Objector, and he is assigned by a vindictive sergeant to GR. Mitch accepts the assignment, even though he had the right to reject it. He accepts the assignment and the reader is not told why, although Mitch readily accepts every bad thing that comes his way. I had the thought that Mitch was paying penance for some sin that we don’t know about.

It turns out that I was right about that, but by the time we learn what the sin is, the book is just about over. By that time we have witnessed Mitch falling in love with a Donut Dolly named Beverly, who, like Mitch, is from Chicago. She’s blonde and petite like Sandra Dee and “as American as apple pie.” That works well, as we are told that Mitch resembles Bobby Darin.

Capt. Garcia runs GR and provides protection for “the remains,” which is what the bodies are called—and also for those who work for him. Dignity and respect are always priorities and are always maintained.

When I was stationed at Tan Son Nhut, I remember eating lunch with some GR guys. There was always room at their table in the mess hall. They exuded the faint odor of formaldehyde, which put a lot of soldiers off.

Handy introduces us to each function of GR as Mitch is, and we learn along with him. He learns to chart the remains as they arrive in body bags, which are not called body bags. They had a special name, as did everything in GR.

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Graves Registration personnel prepared transfer cases in Vietnam for shipment home. From “Assuming Nothing: How Mortuary Practices Changed During The Vietnam War” by Donald M. Rothberg in the Aug/Sept. 2001 print issue

This book is unlike any other I’ve read about tours of duty in the Vietnam War. But some things are similar, including the fact that John Wayne is mentioned several times. But far more space is devoted to charting and embalming than to any of the many dead horses of Vietnam War literature.

I highly recommend this well-written novel to all readers, as never before has the horrendous cost of war been more clearly explained—and in a way that is never boring.

Warning: The book tells a sad tale. How could it not? The relentless numbers of death are presented, both in the abstract and in the loss of characters we come to have affection for.

Read this book and weep. I dare you to do otherwise.

For ordering info, go to the author’s website, www.jchandy.net

—David Willson

Indian Country by John T. Young

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John T. Young joined the U. S. Army in 1969, and served for a year in the Vietnam War with the Army Security Agency (ASA). After he left the Army in 1972, Young studied journalism at the University of Arizona and later worked as an instructor for Army Intelligence at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

The evil plot behind much of the thrills and chills in Young’s anti-terrorism novel, Indian Country (IngramElliott, 246 pp., $14.99, paper; $8.99 e book), is the intent to bomb Los Alamos. The hero of this fast-paced thriller is Wayne Kincaid, who is undercover and who is often in jeopardy. Of course, Kincaid’s cover is blown before he can expose this sinister plot.

The plot: al-Qaeda is smuggling weapons through our all-too-porous border with Mexico. The reader can’t help but think, “We must have a wall, sooner rather than later. Maybe it is already too late?”

Wayne Kincaid is an Iraq War veteran and an undercover DEA agent, but he seems to be mostly on his own in this battle against international terrorists, and everyone else seems to be a double agent. We are made aware of the “devastating global consequences” if Kincaid is not successful in thwarting a fiendish enemy. They hate us, and they make clear their reasons for hating us.

After the 9/11 attacks, John Young joined the FBI as a counter-terrorism analyst, and then went to work for the Defense Intelligence Agency. This novel is written out of that experience and also out of the time Young served in Iraq with the Joint Special Operations Command.

Young lives in Tucson, so the details of the Southwest United States landscape ring as true as does everything else in this well-researched and scary, portentous novel. If there is a message in this thriller, it is be afraid; be very afraid. It is a message that has fueled many novels of this sort, and it works well here.

Young includes some familiar details such as “a spitting bitch” in an airport and calling a combat zone “Indian Country,” a symbolic reference to “the U. S. Army’s battles against Native Americans in the nineteenth century,” as Young puts it.

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John T. Young

We’re told that Kincaid is a descendant of the ranchers who settled in Texas in the late 1840s and who fought Comanches. That’s a book I’ve read many times—until I started rooting for the Native Americans.

I have not reached the point where I’m rooting for al-Qaeda, however, and I don’t predict that is ahead for me.

On the other hand, if I live long enough and get sick enough of the plot clichés that prop up books such as this one, it could happen.

—David Willson

What Now, Lieutenant? by Robert O. Babcock     

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The book title’s question recurs throughout Robert O. Babcock’s What Now, Lieutenant? An Infantryman in Vietnam (Deeds, 422 pp., $19,95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), an incident-jammed memoir that links a stream of anecdotes—some gruesome, some humorous—that highlight the kaleidoscopic tour of a young, proud, and impressionable Army infantry officer in the early days of the Vietnam War.

Bob Babcock’s memory swarms with “alarms and diversions” as the old officer’s training manual put it. He presents these through excerpts from his letters home and adds extended commentary on the day-to-day operations while he served as leader of Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion/22nd Infantry Regiment in the 4th Infantry Division.

What is striking about this memoir is the degree to which—despite his experiences with friendly fire, obtuse and careless orders from the higher ups, and even a bout of malaria— Babcock “keeps the faith,” maintaining his respect for his fellow company officers, his troops, and the overall mission.

This is a record of the early days (1966-67) when the Vietnam War was being fought as crisis management and the main goal of the generals seemed to be publicizing (and often exaggerating) the daily enemy body count. Though Babcock and his men see little evidence of progress toward achieving any strategic goal, they continue to follow orders with courage and honor—though, of course, not always without grumbling.

Endemic command SNAFUs notwithstanding, the author repeatedly asserts he was proud to have served and, most importantly, to have won the respect of the men of Bravo Company. During his tour, the company lost only three (two to friendly fire) of the 180 who served in the unit.

Babcock quotes, apparently without irony, Gen. William Westmoreland’s Thanksgiving Day message from the back of the 1966 holiday menu sent to the troops in the field: “May we each pray for continued blessings and guidance upon our endeavors to assist the Vietnamese people in their struggle to attain an everlasting peace within a free society.”

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Bob Babcock

These words may have rung stirringly back at headquarters. But Bancock records his unit’s day-to-day operations in the field as a kind of endless rushing about to suppress enemy brushfires.

The memoir also reminds us that the war tactically changed year-by-year. For instance, the men of Bravo Company, serving in the Central Highlands in 1966, viewed the impoverished indigenous Montagnards with a mixture of pity and contempt. On the other hand, the increasingly guerrilla-savvy Army Special Forces at the same time were beginning to employ these very pro-American natives as trusted warrior-guides.

Aside from offering insights into the daily grind of a field unit in an early phase of the Vietnam War, the author describes what it was like to arrive back in The World after this tour of duty.  Babcock recalls that in 1967 there were neither welcome home celebrations nor antiwar protests. His discomforting conclusion at the time was that most Americans just didn’t care much one way or the other about the war that had drastically altered his life and the lives of his fellow Bravo Company infantrymen.

Babcock supplements his memoir with mini-bios of many of those men, tracing the survivors’ post-war careers and current status in civilian life. He also includes a chapter titled “Advice for Today’s Lieutenants.”

— Paul Kaser

Note: Babcock’s memoir—first published in 2008 and re-issued in 2014—should not be confused with Marine Corps Gen. Richard Neal’s 2017 Vietnam War memoir of the same title.