In Rick DeStefanis’ novel, The Birdhouse Man: A Vietnam War Veteran’s Story (360 pp. $23.95, hardcover; $12.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), an older veteran tell his Vietnam War story to a student working on a college project. DeStefanis served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1970-72. The book is the latest novel in his Vietnam War Series.
In it, widower Sam Walker is selling his handmade birdhouses at a campus arts and crafts festival when he meets a student, Claire Cunningham, who tells him the military insignia on his cap is the same one her grandfather had worn. Her grandfather had recently died before he could help her with her senior thesis, which was going to be based mainly on his Vietnam War experiences. Sam seldom talked about the war, except when he had taught it at the college, and he never told anyone about his personal experiences. Still, he decides to help Clair finish the thesis, even though she wants the unfiltered truth of what he did, saw, and thought.
Sam tells her he had enlisted ahead of the draft, volunteered for OCS, then went to Airborne and Ranger School. He landed in Vietnam in late 1967 and noted that everything “outside the barbed wire appeared to be a land of poverty and filth.” He goes on to say that the Vietnamese countryside was “litter, naked children, rivers, and palm trees—sort of like paradise gone to hell.” He was amazed to see a “house made of beer cans.”
Sam eventually tells the young woman of combat so intense and close-up that his rifle was once pressed against the chest of an enemy soldier when he fired it. After a few sessions with her, his nightmares return. We then learn that Claire is trying to connect with her father who served in the Army in Iraq and is on the streets somewhere suffering from PTSD. As Sam continues his story and answers her questions, he decides to help Claire find her father.
In a way the main plot is a fantasy in which a grumpy old veteran finally decides to talk about the war, but only to a young female college student who is very attractive and, as Sam says, my “kind of woman.” While on the road searching for her father the two frequently share a hotel room. One morning they eat breakfast in the room with her wrapped only in a blanket. And, to round out the fantasy, Claire hangs on every word of Sam’s story.
On the other hand, everything turns out to be on the up and up, which seems plausible. Claire loved her grandfather and sees much of him in Sam.
I was impressed with how Rick DeStefanis spun out the various threads of this story in such a way that I never once thought things might come unraveled. He has created a great story of war and the human relationships that come together because of it.
Disappointingly, R. Dean Jerde appears or is quoted only sparingly in his own book, Flashbacks: A Vietnam Soldier’s Story 50 Years Later (Luminaire Press, 260 pp. $14.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle). His war story—as a member of a searchlight battalion during his December ’67-to-January ‘69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War—could have been a much more interesting one if he had put more of himself into his own book. Jerde and his co-author Tom Pisapia, instead, have providing a lot of well-known information about Agent Orange, PTSD, the VA’s mistreatment of Vietnam War veterans, and the negative reception we received upon returning to the U.S. from the war.
As indicated by the book’s title, Pisapia put Flashbacks together after a series of conversations, meetings, and interviews he had with his old friend Jerde and his brother over the span of about a year. During those sessions Jerde’s recollections, by his own admission, amounted to a series of mostly unrelated flashbacks to his time in Vietnam.
Upon returning to the states after his tour of duty, Dean Jerde married, began a family, and immersed himself deeply into his chosen occupation as a carpenter. He buried his wartime experiences, not speaking about them, even to his wife, for fifty years. Not until his retirement with time on his hands and the advent of the conversations and meetings with his brother and with Tom Pisapi, did some of the stories and experiences come out, along with symptoms of his long-carried PTSD.
As can be the case with self-published books, Flashbacks could have used a fact checker and more editing as it contains more than a few spelling, syntax, and punctuation errors.
Flashbacks, in short, is a book that needs more story and a bit of polish.
War Paint (LuLu Publishing, 288 pp. $31.52, hardcover; $18.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Brian Lehman is the rare book that lives up to the hype on its back cover. Yes, this book really is “a quirky thriller and a naval warfare story like no other from the Vietnam War.”
Lehman served aboard a destroyer during the Vietnam War. His quirky story takes place during the waning days of American combat in the war, in early 1972, when a U.S. destroyer is used as bait by an unhinged fleet commander while a secret group of North Vietnamese commandos are making plans to board and take control of the ship.
The story begins in the present day when Jeffs Ryder gets asked that dreaded question by his grandson: “Grandpa, you ever kill anyone in the war?” This causes Ryder to begin to recall the most dangerous period in his military experience.
In the first months of 1972 the war is winding down—at least from the American perspective although thousands of NVA troops were crossing the DMZ into South Vietnam. Having been given the choice by a judge of going to jail or joining the military, Ryder enlists in the Navy and soon finds himself aboard the Navy destroyer Rattano sailing to Vietnam.
The fictional Rattano is affectionately known by crewmembers as “The Rat.” The ship moves with “the swagger of an aging but still dangerous gunslinger and, like that aging gunslinger, they wore their guns out where everyone could see them,” as Lehman puts it. The Rat’s captain thought he already had made his final deployment, and welcomes his return to action as a “bonus.” He thinks of the assignment as taking an obsolete destroyer into an obsolete war.
The North Vietnamese are aware of the Rat and, in fact, it may be one of the American ships that they’ve placed a bounty on. But most of the NVA troops are hungry, existing on meager rations, and are using military equipment that in some cases once belonged to the French. Many of the young Vietnamese, like many men on the Rat, do not understand the politics of the war and just want the fighting to end so they can go home.
The chapters begin with entries that could be drawn from a chronology of the war or from letters back and forth between men serving and women waiting back home.
I greatly enjoyed this glimpse into one aspect of Navy life as the war was winding down, especially because my two younger brothers were sailors at the time. I like reading about destroyers and the different jobs men held while on-board. And I liked comparing Lehman’s enlisted men’s official conversations with what they said when no officers were around.
Brian Lehman has produced a fine novel with memorable characters and realistic dialogue. It will remain in my memory, especially sentences like this one: “As he drifted off to sleep he could hear the aft guns come to life, sounding very distant as they began to hurl round after round across the peaceful sea into the southern outskirts of what was left of the city.”
A glance at the cover of Raymond S. Greenberg’s Medal Winners: How the Vietnam War Launched Nobel Careers (University of Texas Press, 440 pp., $29.95) might suggest that winners of the Nobel Prize in any one of six fields, including literature and peace, began their careers fighting in the Vietnam War. Silver and Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts come to mind.
But the medal in question is a Nobel Prize itself—in this case, in the field of medicine. The Vietnam War and the draft are only the foundation in Part One of three parts in the book, which takes a much broader account of the careers of four research scientists who long before winning the prize worked as Clinical Training Associates at the National Institute of Health in Washington, D.C., during the Vietnam War.
Nobel laureates Joseph Goldstein and Michael Brown (in photo, above) and Robert Leftkowitz and Harold Varmus are the subjects of Goldberg’s book. Today, for most Americans, their names are not be as familiar as another alumnus of the program from that era: Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergies & Infectious Diseases and a leading member for the presidential task force battling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Only two chapters out of five in Part One are particularly relevant to the war. They are important ones, however, because they provide a unique measurement of the war’s impact on American society.
One chapter, “The Yellow Berets,” explains the origin and structure of the “Doctor Draft,” which began with the Selective Service Act of 1948 at the beginning of the Cold War. In 1960 it was expanded to include “male physicians, dentists, veterinarians, pharmacists, and optometrists under the age of fifty-one.”
In the 1960s to avoid the possibility of the draft interrupting their early careers years, medical doctors could apply to become officers in one of seven the Uniformed Services, which included the Public Health Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The PHS were had several branches, including the Communicable Disease Center and NIH. “Only a small percentage” of those who applied to Public Health Services programs, Greenberg writes, were accepted.
The “Ballad of the Green Berets” was the number-one song of the year of 1966. A parody of the song, from which the title of the chapter is derived, proclaimed: “Fearless cowards of the USA/ Bravely here at home they stay/ They watched their friends get shipped away/ The draft dodgers of the Yellow Berets.”
NIH associates did not see the song as applying to them. It was partly a joke, but Dr. Fauci recalls it was still “very much derogatory.”
Dr. Greenberg—a renowned cancer researcher—claims that “as emotions faded and many former Associates went on to distinguished careers, the term became a badge of honor.” One can’t help but suspect that that statement is contrived to help give the book an attention-getting chapter title.
There is a breeziness throughout the narrative that almost is offensive in which Greenberg largely gushes uncritically about the four Nobel laureates. The acclaim is deserved, but at times Greenberg seems to want to elevate them to sainthood.
Some young men who came of age during the war had choices. Although Goldstein, Brown, Leftkowitz and Varmus were among an elite group of men who avoided military service, they still served their country.
When President Franklin Roosevelt spoke at the dedication of NIH’s initial buildings in 1940 he noted that the institute’s mission would be to “save life and not destroy it. We cannot be a strong nation unless we are a healthy nation. We must recruit not only men and materials, but also knowledge and science.”
Doctors in military service sometimes resented those who had “cushy” NIH jobs, but there were ways to gain respect. Across the street from NIH was the National Naval Medical Center (now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center). Some NIH research physicians, including Fauci, volunteered to treat troops there—men who were “flown in with serious complications of wounds” because the military hospital didn’t have an infectious disease department.”
The second notable chapter on the Vietnam War deals with NIH’s “Campus Life.” As in much of America at the time, there were currents of protest and paranoia at NIH. In 1969, a group of activists organized a Vietnam Moratorium Committee and invited the pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, a fierce opponent of the war, to speak on October 15 in conjunction with the National Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. The NIH director, accountable to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, denied a request to hold the event on campus, but was thwarted by an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit. Spock told a crowd of several thousand that the U.S. was the aggressor in the war, rather than “the good guys,” and the war was illegal and immoral.
Most employees at the prestigious NIH were not politically active. Many believed that speaking out against the war would put their careers at risk. NIH security officers sometimes would take pictures of people who attended antiwar meetings and ask for lists of members.
In his epilogue, Greenberg describes many factors, beginning in the 1990s, that have contributed to a decline in physicians choosing to become research scientists and subsequently winning Noble Prizes. His overarching thesis, however, is that the Vietnam War and the influence of the draft were the forge in which a unique alchemy produced a Golden Era out of “Yellow Berets.”
Historians should not overlook that structural force in assessing the war’s legacy.