Ride a Twisted Mind Home by J. Dixon Neuman

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The pseudonymous J. Dixon Neuman is a  U.S. Navy veteran who was born and raised in the Allegany Mountains and served in the Vietnam War with Swift Boats and a Navy Support Activity.  The events his novel, Ride a Twisted Mind Home (Xlibris, 414 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $23.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), he tells us, are ripped from the pages of his life.

The main character, Jake Brewer, is modeled on the author. He is of Christian faith, which helped him to survive two brutal tours of duty in the Vietnam War. Early in the story, his marriage is rocky, but gradually gathers strength. Jake battles with PTSD and recovers enough to complete his military career.

The other primary protagonist is a member of the Slater Family, a group of primarily career criminals who learn stern lessons about life in prison. The Slaters are  “a family of vengeful troublemakers. These longtime residents of Sterling County are headed to war.” And that is where they end up. Prison, we find out, is not be the best preparation for military service.

The writing tends to be a bit overemotional. Early in the novel—actually, in the second sentence—Newman writes: “Gravity sucks them into a black hole of disastrous consequences.” That is hard to imagine. But we don’t have to imagine it, as the next few pages describe said black hole in great detail.

There are no Vietnam War battle scenes in the book. The war is mentioned, but only occasionally.  For example: there is “a warped half-crazed Vietnam vet with a chip on his shoulder,” and Dustoff pilots are referred to in passing.  This novel does include many mentions of “assault, rapes, arson, stalking and ongoing destruction,” but only in a peacetime environment. PTSD and trips to the VA are also mentioned in passing.

Many disgusting references are in this novel, enough for it to be characterized as more than occasionally disgusting in tone. I warn readers that this novel is not for the faint of heart—or the easily revolted.

I found myself resenting having to read this book for review. Rarely do I feel that strongly negative about a review novel—almost never, in fact.

The excessively vernacular writing in this book also made it a struggle to read. I would not describe myself as faint of heart, but perhaps in my old age I am becoming more easily offended when confronted with descriptions of individuals whose bodies and clothes stink or are rotting off their bodies.

When I worked decades ago as a welfare worker, I encountered such people from time to time and was able to deal with them with compassion, but this novel’s characters tested my patience—and my compassion.

—David Willson

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Under Fire with ARVN Infantry by Bob Worthington

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Over the years American Vietnam War veterans have written countless books about their war experiences. In Under Fire with ARVN Infantry: Memoir of a Combat Advisor in Vietnam 1966-1967 (McFarland, 240 pp. $29.95, paper), Bob Worthington brings us a story, as the subtitle indicates, of an American adviser assigned to the South Vietnamese Army, the ARVN. By his reckoning, during the U.S. involvement in Vietnam starting in 1945, more than 66,300 American advisers worked with the South Vietnamese military.

In a relatively short and compact book, we are introduced to a side of the conflict not commonly considered or explored. All of us in Vietnam knew there were advisers for most everything, but back then didn’t think about it all that much.

Worthington begins his story in the late 1950s when he was out of high school and not ready to handle college. So he enlisted in the Marines in early 1957. He takes us along on his adventures in boot camp and his release from the Marine Corps two years later to return to college. From the Marine Reserves he transferred to Army ROTC and then to active duty.

He got married, and he held a series of jobs at home and overseas. Before he went to Vietnam Worthington completed Special Warfare Training and the Military Assistance Training Advisor course at Ft. Bragg, as well as Vietnamese language school at the Presidio. In-country, Capt. Worthington worked with ARVN units in Da Nang, Hoi An, An Hoa. and other areas of I Corps.

Worthington relates his experiences and reactions using little direct dialogue, opting instead for indirect quotes and attributions. He goes into detail about encounters with the NVA and VC, replying primarily on his daily journals and unit histories. The Vietnamese officers and personnel he worked with are well portrayed. His descriptions of riding on an O-1 Birddog and on board a fire mission with a Snoopy Gunship alone are worth the price of admission.

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Worthington (left) in Vietnam

He briefly goes into “oft ignored” inter-service rivalries, and the derisive attitude of some U.S. officers about the Advisory programs. After a second tour as an adviser in 1968-69, Worthington left active duty and earned a Master’s and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. He was involved with research on returning troops and POW’s, and was a psychological consultant with the Army’s Health Services Command.

Worthington found success in civilian life as a writer, University of New Mexico professor, and business owner. Under Fire with ARVN Infantry is a good story by a good man—and a good soldier.

—Tom Werzyn

Uncommon Valor by Stephen L. Moore

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Uncommon Valor: The Recon Company That Earned Five Medals of Honor and Included America’s Most Decorated Green Beret (Naval Institute Press, 422 pp.; $23.14 Hard, $21.96 Kindle) is a Vietnam War history book for the ages.

More bluntly put: The book is a helluva good war story. In this recon world things went right about half the time. Sometimes a well-conceived plan would fail and people died. Sometimes an audacious plan would work like a charm. That world was no reasonable place to go, but it was exactly where young, fit, tough guys wanted to be.

Stephen L. Moore, the book’s author, really has his stuff together. Readers will find interesting stories of combat or intrigue on page after page. He assembled this history based on interviews with men who were on the scene, along with citations for awards, official reports, archival material, newspaper and magazine articles, memoirs, secondary sources, and personal records. Moore has written seventeen other history books about World War II and Texas.

Uncommon Valor portrays the exploits of a small collection of American men from Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Air Force personnel, and CIA field agents in the Vietnam War supplemented by indigenous people. They all secretly operated behind enemy lines in Laos and Cambodia.

Code-named the Studies and Observations Group (SOG) and stationed at Forward Operating Base No. 2 (FOB-2) near Kontum in the Central Highlands, SOG reported directly to the Joint Chiefs and the White House. The main mission was to disrupt North Vietnamese operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They also took part in downed pilot and POW rescue missions.

The book recreates the history of FOB-2 beginning with its original thirty-three Green Berets. Because a significant amount of paperwork was destroyed to maintain secrecy, Moore centers his account on the activities of five Medal of Honor and eight Distinguished Service Cross recipients whose actions were thoroughly documented.

Moore bestows the greatest recognition on SFC Robert L. Howard, one of America’s most decorated warriors. Howard served in the Army for thirty-six years and retired as a colonel. His exploits, along with similar actions performed by other men from FOB-2, defy logic and the odds. As Moore tells the story, every man from FOB-2 was a hero.

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Stephen Moore

The SOG program demanded the most competent warriors available, and fortunately those who were best qualified volunteered for the task. Photographs, a glossary of terms, notes, bibliography, a roster of SOG troops at FOB-2, and an index round out the book’s structure.

I was only vaguely aware of SOG before reading Uncommon Valor and found it highly informative. I believe even those familiar with SOG might be enlightened by the insights provided by Moore’s nearly one hundred interviewees.

The author’s website is stephenlmoore.com

—Henry Zeybel

Rat Six by Jack Flowers

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Clifford Price, the hero of Jack Flowers’ novel Rat Six (Page Publishing, 452 pp. $36.95, hardcover; $22.95, paper; $9.99 Kindle), like hundreds of thousands of other young Baby Boomers, was drafted into the U. S. Army and served in the Vietnam War. His grandfathers had served in the First World War and his father in World War II.

After being selected for OCS, Price served in the Army Corps of Engineers. He arrived in Vietnam in 1968. For a few months he commanded a platoon of bridge builders, but then volunteered to lead the 1st Infantry Division Tunnel Rats, one of the most dangerous jobs in the war.

In his new job Price was eligible for the Combat Infantryman Badge, a goal of sorts for him.  His mindset was antiwar, but as a tunnel rat that attitude was not one that would enable him to survive. Price and his fellow tunnel rates descended into tunnels armed only with a flashlight and a pistol and their training in how to ferret out the enemy below.

The tunnel rats navigated the tunnels, seeking intelligence, and then would destroy the tunnels and any food and other materiel stored there. The novel well communicates the terror that the tunnel rats felt when they went under ground and pursued the enemy in his own very alien habitat.

In the novel, our hero must deal with a soldier who has made this pursuit of the enemy in the tunnels his domain—a man called Batman. His actual name is Bateman and he had been in Vietnam for several tours, making a career of being a tunnel rat.

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Jack Flowers

Sgt. Bateman is a scary guy who nobody dared mess with, but Price has to mess with him when put in charge of the tunnel rat team. Most of the drama and conflict in this novel has its source in the battle between Price and Batman, who had seized control of the tunnel rat team through the force of his personality and his success in killing the enemy.

This novel held my attention, and I recommend it to anyone who has interest in the underground war in Vietnam between our tunnel rats and the entrenched VC who were totally at home in the dank, dark recesses of Vietnam’s vast tunnel complexes.

The author’s website is ratsix.com

—David Willson

Vietnam: There & Back by Jim “Doc” Purtell

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“Truth cuts to the bone,” according to Jim “Doc” Purtell.

He uses a truth-above-all writing formula in Vietnam: There & Back: A Combat Medic’s Chronicle (Hellgate Press, 182 pp. $12.95, paper; $4.99. Kindle) to examine his year with Charlie Company of the 1/6th in the 198th Light Infantry Brigade operating out of Chu Lai in 1968-69.

After growing up in rural Wisconsin with eleven brothers and sisters, Purtell enlisted in the Army to escape a domineering father. He was nineteen years old when he arrived in the war zone. Before entering the Army, he knew nothing about Vietnam and had never traveled more than ninety miles from home.

Purtell readily recalls the trauma he felt throughout eight months in combat. He frequently uses the word “scary” to describe life-threatening situations—and those come before the shooting begins.

As a medic, he experienced the downside of humping with the infantry: Back-to-back-to-back ambushes on the same day; a mortar salvo that instantly killed four men; needlessly taking one hill and then another; and being constantly undermanned and overworked.

In his unit, medics normally served six months in the field and then moved to duty at the LZ Bayonet Medical Clinic. A shortage of medics, however, kept Purtell in the field for two additional months, a time when the intensity of his company’s combat encounters increased disproportionately.

Short-timers often insisted on walking close to him in case they were injured. Using this tactic, three men suffered wounds beyond Purtell’s ability to save them. He describes such horrendous events bluntly and succinctly: For example, “Busse had been hit in the heart, and blood was gushing out of his chest with tremendous force.”

Medic school had emphasized how to treat people in a hospital and not on the battlefield, he says. He believes that the trainees were not shown what battle wounds really looked like because the instructors feared the wash-out rate would soar. As a result, Purtell felt guilty that the inadequate training forced him to learn doctoring under fire.

At times, he records his emotions in a voice brimming with puzzlement, plus a touch of naivety. He repeatedly questions why he joined the Army, his role in life, and the meaning of his existence. Occasionally, he appears to be a stranger to himself.

Purtell tells of one incident that still haunts him. At the same time, he describes his heroics in a matter-of-fact tone that strongly relies on what others have said about his actions. He gave me the impression that he unselfishly risked his life out of respect for the men with whom he served. Their needs were the impetus for his devotion to duty.

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People, he writes, “have a better understanding of what we went through over there,” he says. Furthermore, reliving the war gave him a clearer understanding of his life’s course. Doc Purtell worked strictly from memory and says that once he started writing the book,  he found himself “typing as quickly as my fingers would hit the keys.”

The final product contains seven photographs that include him, but he forgoes notes, bibliography, or an index.

Following the war, Purtell earned BA and MA degrees that led to a career in veteran counseling.

His website is jimpurtell.com

—Henry Zeybel

Augie’s War by John H. Brown

augies-war-cover-frontThe blurb on the back of John H. Brown’s novel Augie’s War (Black Rose Writing, 233 pp., $16.95, paper; $.99, Kindle) says it is “an outrageously funny, but deadly serious novel of war, family and coming of age.” Brown was drafted into the Army and served in Vietnam in 1969-70 as an enlisted man in a rear-echelon job with the Americal Division. After getting out of the Army, he worked in public relations, and today writes a wine-and-food column in the Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette-Mail.

I can tell from reading the novel that it was a challenge for John Brown to turn his Vietnam War experiences into an action-packed, spell-binding novel. But he has come up with an amusing and very-well-written book.

In it, the reader learns a lot about how the Office of Awards and Decorations works, as that is where the hero, Augie Cumpton, spends his Vietnam War tour of duty. Much of this comic novel is padded with Augie’s flashbacks to life back home in the family bakery.  In Vietnam, his job entails doing paperwork for medals and awards. He is blackmailed by the threat of friendly fire if he does not do as he is told.

During the course of the novel the reader encounters many of the usual things that Vietnam War novels seem to be required to include. That includes more than one mention of John Wayne—one being “a black John Wayne,” along with Red Cross Donut Dollies, rocket attacks, R&R, “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” the Domino Theory, the Tet Offensive, the Black Clap, shit burning, Sgt. Rock, Ham and Motherfuckers, Bob Hope, and REMFs.

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John H. Brown

Not to mention the admonition that you should keep your head down during rocket attacks—and a few dozen other familiar tropes. Despite my cavils, I highly recommend this novel, including the Italian bakery sequences.

That’s mainly because of my surprise—and gratification—at finding one more worthy Vietnam War REMF novel. At this late date, I’d given up that another one might appear. And I suspect this book won’t provoke a flood of more fictional REMF material.

I’d like to be wrong about that.

The author’s website is augieswar.com

–David Willson

Bourbon & Bullets by John C. Tramazzo

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It’s hardly news that military men and women have been known to enjoy a stiff drink. “American service members carried whiskey into battle from Valley Forge to Gettysburg, Manila, and Da Nang,” John C. Tramazzo writes in Bourbon & Bullets: True Stories of Whiskey, War, and Military Service (Potomac Books/University of Nebraska Press, 296 pp. $29.95, hardcover and Kindle). It “bolstered their courage, calmed their nerves, and treated their maladies.”

Less well known is the significant role that this country’s veterans have played in whiskey production. That’s the subject of Tramazzo’s entertaining book, which is packed with fascinating details.

During the 1960s, many young people “rejected everything their parents stood for, including their alcoholic beverage of choice,” Tramazzo—a U.S. Army captain who has served in Afghanistan—notes. “Bourbon nearly disappeared from the American drinking scene. However, overseas sales helped keep bourbon afloat, thanks in particular to sales on military bases.”

Tramazzo, who runs the bourbonscout.com website, recounts a story the famed Vietnam War correspondent Joe Galloway told about riding in a helicopter during the siege of Plei Mei Special Forces Camp. “When the Huey landed, a sergeant major ran up to Galloway along with an angry field grade officer. [Galloway said,] ‘The dialogue goes something like this: Who the hell are you? A reporter. Son, I need everything in the goddamn world from food and ammo to water, medevac, [and] reinforcements, and I wouldn’t mind a bottle of Jim Beam. But what I do not need is a goddamn reporter!’”

That was in 1965, the year the Army drafted Bob Stillnovich, who later led a platoon in the Thirty-Fifth Infantry Regiment and served nearly eighteen months in what Tramazzo calls “the most dangerous jungles of South Vietnam.” Afterward, Stillnovich pursued several lines of work, eventually co-founding the award-winning Golden Distillery (now part of Old Line in Baltimore).

Another entrepreneurial Vietnam War veteran, Thomas E. Bulleit, Jr., was a Navy corpsman attached to a Marine battalion north of the Da Nang Airbase in 1968. During the battle of Khe San, Bulleit asked himself: “How can men come to this?” Nineteen years later, a successful lawyer, he established a bourbon company, now part of London-based Diageo. In 2016, Bulleit bourbons won gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

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Hootch party in Vietnam with Jim Beam & friends

Amid this celebration of booze, Tramazzo sounds a cautionary note: “[W]hile whiskey has comforted and intrigued me and played an important role in the American military community, one cannot ignore that it has been, and always will be, destructive when abused. No group understands that reality more than veterans of war do.”

He says he was “proud to discover” that a World War I veteran, Bill Wilson, co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935.

–Angus Paul