Hope in the Shadows of War by Thomas Paul Reilly

Thomas Paul Reilly is an award-winning columnist and the author of many books. He often advocates for causes important to military veterans.

His latest novel, Hope in the Shadows of War (Koehler Books, 278 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle), has a few short scenes that take place in Vietnam during the war, but primarily the book deals with the life of Vietnam War veteran Timothy Patrick O’Rourke who is struggling in 1973 America to find his way after a tough tour of combat duty.

He has a seriously damaged leg that has left him with a pronounced limp. This leaves Timothy open to be called “gimp” and “Chester” after the limping Gunsmoke character.

Much of the book takes place prior to Christmas. Timothy works at a Christmas tree stand where he struggles to do the heavy lifting. He does his part, but little slack is cut for him. Some attempt is made to make Timothy an “everyveteran” struggling with “alienation, hyper-vigilance, substance abuse, relationship problems, guilt, flashbacks, nightmares, and depression.”

Timothy is not a whiner, but is reluctant to share his troubles with his girlfriend Cheryl, who wants him to do so. Manliness issues prevent Timothy from coming clean with her about his money problems and other related issues.

People at the VA seem often to drag their feet about helping veterans, and people in general seem to not want to hire anyone who served in the Vietnam War. Timothy gets put on notice at the hospital where he works part time for seeming to be interested in talking with union organizers, which adds to the stress he has to deal with on a daily basis.

Little is made of Timothy’s military experience as a helicopter pilot, but much is made of his return to civilian life being marred by indifference or hostility on the part of former friends. Timothy supports his mother with a hodgepodge of part-time jobs, and fights to pursue his dream of getting a college degree.

Timothy does have a lot of support from friends and from his incredibly loyal girlfriend, and some luck which comes his way. I was glad that all his luck was not bad, because I was rooting for him as most readers will find themselves doing.

I recommend this novel highly.

The author’s website is tomreillyblog.com

—David Willson

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The Phantom Vietnam War by David R. “Buff” Honodel

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To his surprise, F-4 Phantom jock Captain David R. “Buff” Honodel fought his share of the Vietnam War entirely in Laos during his 1969-70 tour of duty. He flew with the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron from Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, which provided air power against North Vietnamese along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and on the Plain of Jars.

Honodel—who died in February this year before the publication of this book—had prepared “to fight in Vietnam,” he wrote, “not some ancillary backwater skirmish in a primitive, jungle covered wilderness.” Mainly, the 555th crews killed trucks.

Furthermore, Honodel quickly realized that combat missions vastly differed from what he had expected, even though he ranked himself as “the world’s greatest fighter pilot.” Mostly, he had to relearn maneuvers he believed he had mastered because controlling a heavyweight, bomb-laden Phantom was like flying an entirely different aircraft.

Honodel related his experiences in these operations with a sometimes puzzled, but always eager, attitude in The Phantom Vietnam War: An F-4 Pilot’s Combat Over Laos (University of North Texas Press, 330 pp. $29.95, hardcover and Kindle). As a young man, he sought and found excitement, drama, and satisfaction amid the chaos of enemy gunfire and Air Force leadership.

The book thoroughly walks the reader through preparing for and flying fighter-bomber missions against targets seriously defended by antiaircraft weapons. Of Honodel’s 137 combat missions, 53 were as a Night Owl, which taught him a lot about himself. “When I crossed the Fence that first night,” he wrote, “I had no idea that I entered a new war, an environment that brought new terror.”

Night Owls flew in absolute blackness, or as Honodel put it: “About the only thing darker would be the inside of a coffin.” Lessons he learned on both night and day missions fill the book, and their details should delight flying enthusiasts as well as readers unfamiliar with military matters.

Self-criticism overrode much of his airmanship because no matter how well he performed, he still wanted to do better. At times, he viewed perfection as unattainable. Yet he recalled a foolhardy shootout and destruction of an antiaircraft gun and its crew that cleared the way for a successful helicopter rescue of a downed flyer and called the feat “the proudest day of my life.”

Often, Buff Honodel and his squadron mates were dissatisfied with the conduct of the war for reasons such as deaths and disappearances of fellow crewmen; too many tactical restrictions; inappropriate targeting; and illogical expectations from higher headquarters. Their criticism did not diminish their level of dedication to the task, however.

To deepen readers’ understanding of flying the F-4, Honodel provided fourteen pages of images with explanations of the interior of the aircraft’s cockpit, along with a crash course on ejection procedures. He also included twenty-four pages of photographs of the men and weapons discussed throughout the book.

Honodel returned to the United States in mid-1970 to fly the F-4 at Holloman Air Force Base. In 1972, he got to fight in South Vietnam when his squadron unexpectedly deployed to Southeast Asia to counter the North Vietnamese Army’s Easter Offensive. He targeted infantry during forty-some missions, which he mentioned only briefly in this book.

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Buff Honodel

The Phantom Vietnam War closes with Honodel’s grim but reasonable conclusions regarding the war’s significance. The men with whom he flew are his heroes, especially those killed or missing in action. He appreciated what they all accomplished more than why they did it.

Honodel admitted to writing The Phantom Vietnam War exclusively from memory. At times, the book has a novelistic tone because he created dialogue and recreated radio transmissions. A few of his generalizations could have been better supported. None of this, however, detracts from the overall impact of his feelings.

Following more than four decades of consideration, they still were fresh and sincere and comprise the foundation for his memoir.

—Henry Zeybel

On Blood Road by Steve Watkins

Steve Watkins is a former professor of journalism, creative writing, and Vietnam War literature, and the author the Ghosts of War series, which includes Lost at Khe Sanh and AWOL in North Africa.

His new YA novel, On Blood Road (Scholastic, 288 pp., $17.99, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle) is one of the best books of any sort that I’ve read dealing with the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the “Blood Road” of the title of this book.

Watkins has created a believable sixteen-year-old character named Taylor Sorenson who manages to get himself captured in South Vietnam during the war, made a prisoner of the VC, and marched toward the Hanoi Hilton. He does not make it there, but has many adventures in transit. Just about every bad thing that can happen to a person in that situation happens to the young man, including losing a leg.

Taylor is the son of one of the architects of the American War in Vietnam. He flies to Saigon with his mother to spend time with his father who is busy running the war. When the NVA find out, they see him as a potential bargaining chip in negotiations.

The author presents the reader with most of the usual things that a Vietnam War infantry novel would deal with. That includes John Wayne, Agent Orange, napalm, and Puff the Magic Dragon gunships. Taylor’s main captor is a young VC who speaks French, which Taylor is fluent in, so there is no need for them to speak Vietnamese.

The book is very poetically written, perhaps a bit more poetical that a typical sixteen year old would write, but Taylor is not a typical teenager in any way. He is against the war when he arrives in Vietnam, but that is no advantage to him. The publisher tells us that death “waits around every bend,” and that is certainly true in this book.

Watkins & daughters

On Blood Road is aimed at the teen-aged reader, but I found it very readable and informative and doubt that any teenager would struggle to read it. Adult readers would also find the book well worth reading.

I am glad that I got a chance to read this superb book and highly recommend it to young and old.

—David Willson