If I had to choose one word to best describe Phillip Elkins’ My Year in Vietnam: How I Managed to Survive: June 1966 to June 1967 (Senior Felipe Press, 374 pp. $20, paper; $9.99, Kindle), it would be “ambivalent.” The book qualifies as a war memoir, as well as a tell-all tale about military life, a love story, a study in psychology, a tour guide, soft-core pornography, and an indictment of whomever or whatever the reader prefers.
Elkins, AKA “Senor Felipe,” pours out attitude, insight, and humor in abundance. He can describe taking a piss in a style that simultaneously educates, repulses, and amuses. He has perfected the mood and voice of a 19-year-old, unhappy draftee who lacks goals beyond the moment.
This is Elkins’ second book about his Army years. His first, Running from the Fire, tells of his growing up in East L.A. and training as an Army medic. A third, Coming Home from Vietnam, is in the works. Presently, he hosts the “L.A. Sounds with Sr. Felipe” show on KZFR-FM in Chico, California.
During the first half of his year in Vietnam Elkins served under the pseudonymous Sgt. Ulysses Sidell, who the men considered as more dangerous that the Viet Cong. They operated from Bien Hoa’s 3rd Surgical Hospital in the 1st Preventive Medicine Unit attached to 56th Med.
Their mission centered on reducing infectious diseases, water problems, food spoilage, mosquitoes, rats, and fleas. Sidell sent his men on unproductive cross-country trips to remote sites in the Viet Cong-controlled countryside. When the unit went to Dak To, the VC overran their compound.
Elkins’ descriptions of combat and post-battle scenes contain an uninhibited nakedness of emotions that are gut-wrenching. He does not dwell on gore; he makes concrete observations about death and moves on.
Naturally, the men despised Sgt. Sidell. Elkins played a major role as spokesman for his fellow draftees. They sent protest letters to their commander and—surprise—Sgt. Sidell was reassigned.
At this point the story makes a U-turn. Under a new commander, Elkins found a broadminded friend. Because Elkins knew his job and did it well, the new lieutenant gave him almost unlimited freedom and Elkins took advantage of it.
He continued to meet his obligations as a traveling preventative medicine lecturer and trained new troops to emulate his humorous, sex-centered, and highly effective manner of educating the masses on how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases.
Parallel with that throughout the second half of the book, Elkins does little more than frantically pursue women, day after day in Saigon and during R&R in Bangkok. The story becomes a sexual romp with a lineup of beautiful women with whom he falls in love. He promises the moon to each of them—after all, he was 19 years old.
Elkins repeatedly shatters today’s standards about sex and race. He warns the reader that he uses “some harsh words, some derogatory terms, and some graphic scenes.” He used them, he says, because he wanted his book to be “as realistic as possible.” He delivers in every department.
Phil Elkins loathed the Army. It stole a year of his life for no productive purpose, he believes. The book’s outrageousness shows, however, that despite the system, he followed his self-centered lifestyle, which makes his Vietnam War story one of a kind.