Mekong Medicine by Richard W. Carlson

In Mekong Medicine: A U.S. Doctor’s Year Treating Vietnam’s Forgotten Victims (McFarland, 222 pp. $35, paper; $16.49, Kindle), Richard Carlson offers an extremely sobering account of his efforts to provide the best possible medical care under Spartan conditions at a civilian hospital in South Vietnam during the war.

In 1966, two years after completing medical school at the University of Southern California, Carlson was drafted into the Army. After basic training at Fort Sam Houston, he received orders for Vietnam. Posted in Bac Lieu Province, sixty miles southwest of Saigon in the Mekong Delta, he spent a year at the provincial hospital where he led the American team of military and civilian personnel in the Military Provincial Health Assistance Program.

The contrast between American hospitals and a rural Vietnamese facility was shocking. Set in one of the world’s poorest countries, and one at war for years in a relentlessly hot and humid climate, the hospital resembled a farm in many ways, with animals wandering across the grounds–and often into the buildings.

Supplies of medications, equipment, clean water, and electricity—the hallmark of any modern hospital—were inconsistent at best. This was especially problematic as the staff dealt with endless numbers of patients that increased as the war dragged on. Despite the shortages, and because he had to view medical problems as objectively as possible, Carlson’s voice remains that of a doctor throughout his book, no matter how dire the condition of his patients.

He and his team brought heartfelt compassion to their work in caring for patients struggling with illnesses or grievously wounded. Their compassion, though, was too often tempered by the grim knowledge that there was only so much they could do. Some patients succumbed to their injuries or illnesses, while others deemed themselves well enough to leave on their own. Many children died, and their grieving parents simply took their bodies away and disappeared into their private darkness in ways completely unheard of in an American hospital.

Dr. Carlson

Throughout the book Carlson repeatedly praises the dedication of his co-workers, Vietnamese and American, as they tried to accomplish the most while working with so little. He gives the highest praise of all to the hospital’s director, Dr. Vinh.

Initially appearing reserved, even solemn, Vinh displayed extraordinary depth of feeling and candor when he mused about his country’s future, as well as dismay when he witnessed the results of the Viet Cong’s treatment of the people they claimed to love.

Dr. Vinh also provided insights that were slow to come to many American newcomers, particularly why change occurred so slowly in Vietnam. After centuries of foreign occupation and countless years of war, the country’s capacity to improve itself, especially in the rural interior, was strained to breaking point.

Despite the bleak conditions in which he was compelled to work, Richard Carlson finished his tour—and he ends his memoir—with a note of hard-earned optimism.

“Despite the horror,” he writes, “confusion, and the war’s conclusion, my odyssey reaffirms individuals will aid those in need despite overwhelming odds. And that is a reason for hope.”

–Mike McLaughlin

Entwined with Vietnam by Theodore M. Hammett

For a guy who joined the U.S. Marine Corps because his father (a World War II Marine) threatened to disown him if he didn’t, Theodore M. Hammett has an interesting, if offbeat, tale to tell of of his 13 months as the 3rd Medical Battalion supply officer in 1968-69 in South Vietnam. That story makes up half of his memoir, Entwined with Vietnam: A Reluctant Marine’s Tour and Return (McFarland, 287 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). The second half is an account of Hammett’s second Vietnam “tour” as director of an HIV/AIDS project from 2008-12.

A 1967 Harvard-graduate ROTC Marine lieutenant, Hammett did not see combat; drank heavily (often blacking out); frequently ignored military discipline; and seriously disliked the Vietnamese people, the Corps, and the war itself.

But he loved the girl he left behind and saved their letters and tapes, which he uses as the foundation for his recollections in this memoir. He also relies on quotes from like-minded Vietnam War veterans—including Ron Kovic, Tim O’Brien, and Lew Puller—who were closer to the action.

Above all, as Hammett recreates his Vietnam War experience, he relies on the words and music from songs of the era, which he constantly listened to back in the day. In the Forward, fellow Marine W.D. Ehrhart perfectly sums up one aspect of the book: “The whole first half of this memoir is like strolling through the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.”

Hammett dissects himself without apology. He admits to ambivalent feelings centered on a “persistent difficulty” he had that ended in what he calls the “dual cowardice” of fearing to fight in the war and fearing to speak out against it.

Hammett is not immune, however, to understanding what surrounded him. He sees his share of wounded and dead men at Phu Bai and Quang Tri hospitals. Late in his tour, he transcends his “tedious and boring endless paperwork” by voluntarily driving into the field with truck convoys, flying in a damaged C-130, and taking a seat on a helicopter night close support mission. A chapter titled “Seeking Danger” suggests his willingness to confront the issues faced by Vietnam war grunts.

Hammett shaking hands with Gen. Leonard F. Chapman, Jr., the Commandant of the Marine Corps in Quang Tri in 1968. Photo by Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times

Hammett says that during his first tour he saw the Vietnamese “variously as the reason for [his] misery.” He also discusses other Vietnam War aspects, including separation from home, the politics of war, needless casualties, and weak leadership.

As a post-war civilian, Hammett mainly worked for Abt Associates, an organization designed to improve people’s lives worldwide. He specialized in AIDS/HIV prevention among drug users, which led to training sessions for the Chinese government and then training of Chinese and Vietnamese. With Dr. Doan Ngu as his first true Vietnamese colleague and unofficial mentor, Hammett grew captivated by the country of Vietnam.

The second half of Entwined with Vietnam resembles an upbeat tour guide’s look at the culture, landscape, and climate of Vietnam. Hammett’s diverse experiences enlightened me. They are well worth reading. At the same time, Hammett recognizes the weaknesses of the Vietnamese government.

He and his wife (the girl who waited for him during his first tour) lived in Hanoi for four years as he continued working to better humanity. Hammett emphasizes that the Vietnamese people today welcome Americans, noting that “more than three-quarters of the people in Vietnam were born since the America War ended in 1975.”

In essence, his second “tour” was in a very different nation than the one in which he took part in a war five decades ago.

—Henry Zeybel

Going Downtown by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

Thomas McKelvey Cleaver is an author and screenwriter. He also is a U.S. Navy Vietnam War veteran and a licensed pilot with a lifelong interest in all things aeronautic. All of the above give him a unique insight into the American air war in Vietnam.

Cleaver’s Going Downtown: The U.S. Air Force over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, 1967-1975 (Osprey, 352 pp. $30, hardcover; $12.60, Kindle) is a compilation of pilot biographies and memoirs interspersed with analyses of political and military decisions about how the USAF and the North Vietnamese ran air operations during the war.

Using extensive research and interviews, Cleaver has combined seemingly mundane, behind-the-scenes events with bone-chilling battle scenes. For me, Going Downtown was one of those “can’t put it down” reads, although I did put it down periodically just to digest the mountains of information I was learning.

Many aircraft and pilots are showcased throughout Going Downtown. It was an unexpected delight to read many accounts of our former enemy pilots as well.

The American pilots faced several deadly factors: North Vietnamese air defenses, including MIGs, SAMs, and antiaircraft buns of all types; Rules of Engagement devised by men in the White House and Defense Department, many of whom had little or no military backgrounds; faulty aircraft armament which led to many air-to-air missiles malfunctioning or being too cumbersome to use in combat; and poor tactics, one of which forced all aircraft in a flight to jettison their bombs, abort an attack, and head for home as soon as an approaching MIG was sighted.

Cleaver says some strategists felt that the outcome of the USAF air campaign in Vietnam War demonstrated the limitations of air power, while many who actually fought felt that what happened demonstrated the results of imposing limitations on air power. Cleaver shows that at times the NVA maintained unquestionable air superiority, but when the Rules of Engagement were relaxed, the U.S. immediately took over the skies of North Vietnam.

I highly recommend Going Downtown to historians, action readers, and aviation buffs. It is a good companion to Cleaver’s The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club: Naval Aviation in Vietnam, which was published in 2021.

–Bob Wartman

There It Is by Jim Talone

The title of Jim Talone’s memoir, There It Is: A Helicopter Ride and a Purple Heart  (337 pp. $25, hardcover; $20, paper; $10, Kindle)  a flat-voiced phrase that rings scary-true to virtually every Vietnam War veteran, refilling the memory with images, places, people, and things from long ago.

This is an excellent book by a talented wordsmith, a former high school English teacher. In the book Talone covers his 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a young Marine lieutenant leading B Company of the 1st of the 9th Marines in the 3rd  Marine Division in I Corps.

The story moves along rapidly with short, frugal, and crisp sentences telling a compelling narrative of “his men, his Marines,” and their lives in combat. Talone’s unit, known as the “Walking Dead,” earned that nickname after taking heavy battlefield losses early on in the Vietnam War.

Each of the months Talone served in Vietnam is a chapter in the book and each is filled with vignettes—some mere paragraphs long, others several pages in length. This is a pleasantly different format than most Vietnam War memoirs. The rather short Glossary could have been broader, but the main items of interest are covered.

The book contains a four-page “Reflections” sections in which Talone sets out his thoughts about his part in the war. There’s also a very powerful three-age soliloquy, “Khe Sanh Remembered.” And the poetic Preface alone is worth the price of admission.

This books is a great read by a talented author I’d love to see more from. There it is.

–Tom Werzyn

The Immaculate Inception by Mike Sutton

The Immaculate Infection (War Zone Press, 354 pp. $53.95, hardcover; $25.99, paper; $10.99, Kindle) is VVA member Mike Sutton’s fourth novel. At age 18, Sutton was given the choice by a judge of prison or the Army. He chose the Army and served three tours in Vietnam between 1964 and 1970. 

After his discharge, Sutton graduated from college and went to work for IBM. He was a success, but was miserable. His life changed when he made contact with a Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center where he was encouraged to write. His first novel, No Survivors, based on his war experiences, featured a Vietnam veteran named Hunter Morgan. 

The Immaculate Infection was inspired by three cold cases in New York called the Alphabet Murders to which Sutton adds a terrorism plot. The novel weaves several plot threads and many characters.

Now retired from the Baltimore PD, Hunter Morgan co-owns Last Resort Investigations, which specializes in cold cases. One involves a girl killed more than thirty years earlier. It turns out there are similar unsolved cases.

Meanwhile, Iran is chafing over economic sanctions, and the son of the Iranian leader hatches an intricate plot to bring pain to America. It starts with sky divers flying into taxiing airliners. Hundreds are killed. LRI is brought in to find proof that Iran is behind the terrorist acts. 

The next stage involves drones. Then sabotage by terrorist squads. The last stage will make use of jet packs for kamikaze-like attacks. These and other elements sound like science fiction, but they are either here now or will in the near future. The Swedish jet-pack inventor is kidnapped and forced to build them in Iran. This escalates into a rescue and retaliation that is the book’s big payoff.

Sutton did a lot of research for his novel. There is an excellent description of Air Force 1, for example, focusing on its defenses against attack. This comes up because the President is a major character in the book. We go inside the White House during a crisis. With lots of agencies and weapons, get ready for a lot of alphabet government names and acronyms. Sutton helps out with a glossary of 140 abbreviations.

Mike Sutton

The novel jumps around between locales and characters. The different threads are divided up within the chapters so you know the novel has jumped. Sometimes a thread is just given a paragraph to move it along. This gives the novel a fast pace. It reads like the screenplay for an action movie and is often edge-of-your-seat. The story will leave you concerned about whether these kinds of attacks could actually happen.

Sutton writes in a terse style appropriate for a thriller. A multitasker, for example, is “wearing more hats than Dr. Seuss’ Bartholomew Cubbins.”  One character stands out “like a hobo at a royal wedding.”

The Immaculate Infection hooked me from the beginning and held my attention throughout. The multiple threads are juggled efficiently. If you wonder what the next wave of terrorism might be like and how America might respond, this book is an eye-opener.

Sutton’s website is

–Kevin Hardy

Airmail: A Story of War in Poems by Kathleen Patrick

Airmail: A Story of War in Poems (144 pp. $9.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) by Kathleen Patrick is a great example of how letters and conversations can be turned into stunning poetry. Patrick shares the words and thoughts of seven uncles who served in the military, five of them in Southeast Asia during the American war in Vietnam.

This is “a book about going off to war, a book about coming back home,” she says, “and a book about those who are left behind.”

The forty poems are divided into three sections: Leaving, Airmail, and Surviving.

In “Letter to Seven Uncles,” she writes:

I remember the map of Vietnam

on our kitchen wall in Iowa.

Each morning Mom listened to the news,

read blue airmail letters,

and moved stick pins from one place

to another. I was nine and wanted

to stop that color-by-number war.

In “Photo Interpreter,” one uncle explains his job this way:

Photo mapping, target analysis,

bomb damage assessment.

I reported to Westmoreland each morning,

read those photographs, hell,

like a Gypsy reads an old man’s palm.

One war-experienced uncle gives advice to a younger brother as he prepares to leave for Vietnam in “Chain Link.”

Just keep your head down little brother

and you’ll be all right, you hear me?

Keep your head god damn on the ground.

In “Bad Time” she writes about men being attacked by tigers who “were being napalmed/and driven into madness.” She says that a death by tiger would be reported as a death in battle, just as a death by fragging was.  

In “Aftermath,” young boys simulate combat with fireworks. “Terry and Tim/took the string of Black Cats out behind the straw stacks/and divvied up ammo for the war.”

We witness a mind trying to sort things out in this stanza from “Robert M. in the Doorway”:

You got to understand the smell of a campfire—

it never leaves no matter where you go

or what jungle you remember he is always with

you that friend on the nicest day of spring when

you take a deep breath and then hear him joking

before it is all over it is never over you are never

alone again.

My favorite poem, “Decisions,” is written with an intentional repetition:

Anyway, I have twenty-one months to decide

what I’m going to do twenty-one months

before I need to sign need to sign

on another line

so I figure no sweat for now

It’s always cool to see letters sent home from war turned into poems. They become letters from America sent back to America. Kathleen Patrick shows us what it can look like when it’s done poetically and done right.

Patrick’s website is

–Bill McCloud

Operation Embankment by Michael Trainor

Michael Trainor’s Operation Embankment: The Story of America’s First Casualty in Vietnam – 1945 (Alta Vista Group, 556 pp. $18, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is an first-rate work of historical fiction. Trainor is a teacher who has traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia. This is his first book, the result of ten years of research and five years of writing. He has created a detailed, fly-on-the wall look at just one month, September 1945, when the United States, along with much of Europe and Asia, stood at an important crossroads.

Maj. Peter Dewey is considered to be the first American service members killed during war in Vietnam. His murder, more likely an assassination, occurred on September 26, 1945, and his name is not on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. His body has never been recovered and the identity of his killer has never been conclusively established.

Peter Dewey entered military service in August 1942 and worked as an intelligence officer in French and British colonies in Africa. The next year he was transferred to the OSS, where his short stature and glasses set him apart. Assigned to OSS headquarters in Algiers, he won his parachute wings and led his first team into combat. He later commanded a team of about fifty OSS men.

On September 4, 1945, Dewey’s OSS team arrived in Saigon, where they were given the task of gathering intelligence for the State Department on the three main players in the post-World-War-II power struggle for Indochina: the French, the British, and the Vietnamese. This assignment became known as Operation Embankment. The OSS team was also was given the task of finding American POWS and arranging for their release; checking on the condition of American property and installations; and investigating war crimes.

The Japanese had recently surrendered in Indochina, and France was planning to regain its former colonies. Meanwhile, an organized Vietnamese force was dead set on winning independence. The British also expected to have a say in the future of the former French colonies of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Dewey began collecting what information he could from many sources. Other topics of concern were the Chinese government and the opium trade.

Peter Dewey quickly came to realize that no European nation would ever be able maintain control over Indochina and he clashed with the British commander who wanted to crush the Vietnamese independence movement.

Following complaints from the British, Dewey was relieved of duty and ordered to leave Vietnam. On the day he was getting ready to depart, September 26, 1945, he was killed in an ambush, most likely by Viet Minh troops.

The novel tells Dewey’s Vietnam War story, as well as the investigation into his death and the shockwaves it sent around the world.

Unresolved questions include the matter of whether Dewey was the intended victim or a random one; who was behind it the killing and why; and his body’s ultimate resting place.

Trainor’s Operation Embankment is the story of one man during one month, but it’s a story that resonates in international and political circles to this day. The effort Trainor put into this massive novel should be celebrated.

–Bill McCloud

Follow the Gold by Timothy I. Gukich

If you read enough novels about the Vietnam War, you eventually will find one in which a REMF is the hero. One of those rarities is Timothy I. Gukich’s Follow the Gold (303 pp. $15.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle). Gukich was working for the IRS when he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. The same is true for his protagonist, Timothy Gardner. It’s safe to assume the book is at least partly autobiographical. 

The novel begins with Gardner’s last day in country. It then flashes back to his arrival in Vietnam where “[e]very place looked like something bad had happened.” It’s October 1969, so that is only a mild exaggeration. 

Gardner is assigned to CMAC (Capital Military Assistance Command) as a lowly clerk.  However, since he was an IRS agent, his commanding officer quickly takes advantage of Gardner’s skills as a forensic accountant to investigate black marketeering involving MPCs. It seems like a boring assignment, but with the help of his roommate Sharpe, Gardner turns sleuth.

Sharpe is a Special Forces operator and seemingly the opposite of Gardner, yet they quickly become friends. When Sharpe is not working with the Phoenix program, he is happy to help Gardner navigate the shadier side of Saigon. 

Gardner’s ferreting uncovers a connection to some C.I.A. “snoops” who are using Air America for shady business dealings. Much of the digging takes place during Gardner’s off hours, so a good bit of the book has him doing typical REMF tasks, such as guard duty. Along the way, he befriends an ARVN sergeant and a general.

I know I had you at IRS agent turned REMF, but here’s why you might want to read the book even if that doesn’t lure you. Gukich is a good writer. He is sincere in his desire to teach a little about the war to the point where he includes a bibliography, which is very rare in a novel. He did his research and adds information to this memoir disguised as a novel. He gives good descriptions of the M-14, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and Agent Orange, among other things. And, of course, you’ll learn probably more than you want to about military payment certificates, aka “funny money” or “monopoly money.”

I enjoyed the book, but in some ways it was unfulfilling. Although Gukich warns that some embellishment occurred, the problem for me is that he does not embellish enough. Without giving away the ending, it’s another clue that Gukich was writing about his own experiences and I wondered if Sharpe’s story might not have been more exciting. 

That said, Timothy Gardner is an appealing nerd who does not avoid danger and his relationship with Sharpe is intriguing. Plus, you’ll learn who the names of the seven generals who died in Vietnam.

–Kevin Hardy

The Deacon and the Shield by John E. Howard

The Deacon and the Shield (Austin Macauley Publishers, 174 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $11.95, paper; $4.50, e book) by John E. Howard, is a fictional story infused with religious testimony. Howard served a 1967-68 tour of duty in Vietnam with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade’s 1st Battalion/14th Artillery in the Americal Division in Chu Lai.

In an author’s note Howard writes of learning about the “horrific event” known as the My Lai Massacre in mid-March 1968. He suggests that what happened there led to a general sense of PTSD among U.S. troops in country. He also, intriguingly, suggests that PTSD may also be caused by the fact that after finishing their tours of active duty, Vietnam War veterans were still in the inactive reserves and could be called back to military service at any time.

The novel centers on twenty-two-year-old Eddy Riffle, who is married when he is drafted into the Army. When the guys in his unit learn he was a church deacon back home, that becomes his nickname. In his last combat action in Vietnam he feels that he was saved from death by an angel. After coming home from the war, he frequently has nightmares about which his wife says, “It seems that he just goes back to the jungles.”

Riffle’s family grows as he becomes a successful attorney. After being caught in a compromising situation with a co-worker, he loses his job, and becomes estranged from his family. His life spirals out of control as a new sense of failure and unworthiness combines with his PTSD. He regrets and fears all the things that might be said about him on the judgement day. To boost his income, he becomes a licensed, wise-cracking private detective.

The story goes on to include a physical fight with an angel who appears on horseback in which Riffle pits his “military training against his angel training,” as well as money laundering, undercover assignments, classic double-crosses, the antichrist, alluring women, and near-death experiences.

The Deacon and the Shield is difficult to classify. It’s not a fantasy because it’s based on a sense of spiritual reality. Basically, it’s a religious tract with a fictional story supported by many biblical verses.

The book might work for a men’s church group. Although it deals with the Vietnam War, its veterans, and PTSD, the main subject is the Deacon and his Christian faith.

–Bill McCloud

Combat to Conservation by F.J. Fitzgerald

F.J. Fitzgerald’s Combat To Conservation: A Marine’s Journey through Darkness into Nature’s Light (Koehler Books, 166 pp. $23.95, hardcover; $15.92, paper; $7.49, Kindle), is both haunting and inspiring. Fitzgerald presents an account of the horror of combat tempered with the beauty of nature with his life story beginning with a happy childhood and including details of his tour of duty as a Marine with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam.

Growing up in Southeast Minnesota farm country, Francis Fitzgerald loved the tranquility of the fields and woods. Walking and often sitting for hours, he came to love every animal, plant, and tree, especially white pines. His accounts are so compelling that readers can readily see themselves traveling the back country with the author.

Exceptionally bright and talented, Fitzgerald wanted a college degree and a career as a game warden. Yet doubts about his youth and his lack of experience, combined with a yearning for action and adventure, inspired him to join the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school in the summer of 1969. He arrived at LZ Baldy, a fire support base in the hills south of Danang, in the spring of 1970.

Fitzgerald writes with exceptional style; his descriptions are at once spare and poetic. With tight sentences and concise accounts of what he saw and endured, he presents a stark picture of the environment in which the Marines operated. He includes one eerie anecdote after another from patrols in dense jungle, as he strained to find his way through a claustrophobic world too often dark—and always wet.

Particularly striking are his graphic depictions of the misery of trench foot and the difficulty of treating it in a place where dry feet were every Marine’s futile wish; of sitting next to a tree limb and finding himself face to face with a poisonous snake and realizing he was an intruder in the animal’s world. And of sighting and killing an elusive enemy, then feeling little afterward, except that it was a consequence of war, as certain as night following day.

Then there is Fitzgerald’s account of coming to grips with post-traumatic stress disorder. As a way to try to fight it, Fitzgerald returned to nature when he returned to civilian life. He found that every waking moment he spent in the great outdoors was a balm for his troubled spirit. To move and breathe in the air and the light—to be continually reminded of the beauty of the world—empowered him. It continues to sustain and heal him.

Combat to Conservation is an excellent read; it’s a book as subtle as it is inspiring.

Fitzgerald’s website is

–Mike McLaughlin