Bob Kuhn writes in a voice filled with self-confident cockiness that masks a quest to learn what life is all about. At the beginning of his memoir, Rucksack Grunt: A Naive Teenage Boy’s Journey to Becoming a Vietnam War Veteran (156 pp. $14.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), he describes the past as he remembers it “and still struggles today to understand it all.”
Kuhn introduces himself as an “average student with a bad attitude.” He turned 18 in 1970 Focused on marrying his high school sweetheart, he saw the Army as the solution to his future: serve two years, get married, go to college at government expense, and find a good job. So he volunteered for the draft. At that point, his naiveté becomes the book’s major theme.
He completed Basic at Fort Dix, thinking he’d go on train as an MP, but then found out that he was too young for the job: MPs must be at least 19. Disappointed and forgotten by the system, Kuhn performed menial tasks for nearly two months, and then, bored beyond reason, he went home for a week.
When he returned to Dix, a first sergeant understood the situation (no Article 15), and Kuhn ended up as an infantryman with the 1st Battalion, 22nd Regiment, serving a 1971-72 tour of duty in Vietnam. He knew he did wrong by going AWOL, and regrets it to this day.
The guidance of older troops carried the young infantryman through his initial months in the combat zone. For example, when readying himself for field operations, Kuhn had no idea where to begin until a fellow squad member assembled his gear for him. Kuhn later returned the favor for new guys. The book’s unspoken message is that training alone does not adequately prepare a person for war, a state of affairs involving incalculable variables.
Operating in and around Tuy Hoa, Kuhn pulled lots of guard duty, went on night ambush patrols, and took part in three month-long search-and-destroy missions into the Central Highlands. In telling the stories of his tour he details the difficulties common in most Vietnam War memoirs: standing watch alone, challenging the unknown, lugging a rucksack, hacking through the jungle, enduring continuous rain, existing on C rations, and contending with snakes, leeches, and insects.
He also briefly discusses military friendship; the Vietnamese people, whom he generally disliked; drug use; and race relations.
As far as feelings are concerned, Kuhn basically tells what happened and does not deeply analyze his emotional state. He recollects times on night guard duty, for example, when he found a need to pray and God spoke to him “personally one on one, or He spoke to me. It wasn’t anything verbal or audible, but I felt a direct-link communication and understanding. That is where God communicated to me that everything was going to be okay and that I was going to survive this tour.”
That experience still comforts him today, Kuhn says.
Although Rucksack Grunt offers a limited amount of new information, it is an excellent starting point for anyone unfamiliar with the latter stages of the war in Vietnam. Bob Kuhn served during Vietnamization and the drawdown of American forces. His unit did not engage in intense or extended contact with the enemy. The 1st of the 22nd’s major accomplishment was discovering and destroying caches of enemy military supplies.
The book contains a group of interesting photographs that Kuhn took in Vietnam.
His website is rucksackgrunt.com