Memoirs of a Rotor Head by Patrick Michael Ramsey

A justifiable bitterness pervades Patrick Michael Ramsey’s Memoirs of a Rotor Head (Mennonite Press, 152 pp. $31.01, paper; $3.99, Kindle). In 1970-72, Ramsey flew back-to-back Vietnam War tours as a UH-1 pilot. He survived everything the enemy threw at him, but also saw close friends get killed. Now he is dying from cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange and other highly toxic defoliants. And he feels betrayed.

With the draft breathing down his neck, Ramsey enlisted in the Army late in 1967, and was inducted on January 8, 1968. “First and foremost,” he says, “I am an America serviceman” who has “flown in harm’s way to protect the freedom of Americans.”

The first half of his memoir shows how Ramsey prepared for, and then participated in, the Vietnam War.  Amid a climate of hyperactivity bordering on chaos, Pat Ramsey joined the 7th Air Cavalry at the beginning of the 1970 incursion into Cambodia.

With only thirty hours of combat flying, Ramsey was upgraded from copilot to pilot. Simultaneously, he took charge of crew assignments. Furthermore, because he went through infantry AIT, Ramsey was assigned command of a twenty-man platoon and helicoptered into the field as a grunt. To my disappointment, he provides few facts in his book about that responsibility beyond expressing his joy in hearing “that wop-wop-wop of the rotor blades” of helicopters en route to extract his unit.

His view of the war reflects nervous dedication to tasks that were questionable from their beginning. He admits to living for the excitement of facing danger, but an excitement tempered by near disasters. His stories gave me the impression that his unit operated with minimal leadership. The men seemed to do whatever they thought necessary at any moment. Losses were the consequence.

Ramsey complements stories about his experiences by giving history lessons about the war. In them, he summarizes Vietnamese history and America’s role in it.

Displeased with the paperwork mentality of a peacetime Army, Pat Ramsey ended his military career as a captain in 1973. From there, he sold insurance, married, divorced, raised a daughter as a single parent, and for five days a month flew CH-54 Sky Crane helicopters for the National Guard.

After twenty years, with pension money in his pocket and a daughter off to college, he resumed his search for adventure and became a medevac pilot for Life Star. Six years of “from fully asleep to fully alert in thirty seconds,” as he puts it, was enough, so Ramsey enrolled at Kansas State and earned a second bachelor’s degree in three semesters. He then joined the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. He later worked as a National Park Service Ranger in six parks in twelve years—all of which he describes in travelogue-like language in the book’s second half.

In 2007 doctors told Ramsey he had Parkinson’s Disease, “for which there is no cure, only death,” as he puts it. Three years later, the VA conceded that his problem was the result of exposure to Agent Orange. In his memoir, Ramsey calls for accountability by the manufacturers of defoliants that were used in Vietnam.

Five pages titled “Everything I Ever Needed to Know in Life, I Learned as a Helicopter Crewman in Vietnam” summarize his war experiences and close Memoirs of a Rotor Head on a note of gallows humor.

Ramsey is donating all profits from the book’s sale to a veterans service organization.

—Henry Zeybel

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335th Assault Helicopter Company by Vance Gammons and Dominic Fino

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Vance Gammons and Dominic Fino’s 335th Assault Helicopter Company: What We Did after the Vietnam War. (Deeds Publishing, 296 pp., $19.95, paper) is an interesting look at the post-Vietnam War lives of the members of the Cowboy Company, a stand-alone Air Assault Helicopter company created in September 1966 to work with a variety of infantry units.

The unit, a company of lift ships and their personnel, fitted the needs of the Army in Vietnam to provide the flexibility for ground troops who did not possess their own transportation onto the battlefield.  As such, the 335th provided service to the leg units of the 173rd Airborne Brigade from 1965 until its stand down in November 1971.

The book is a compilation of the post-war biographies of the men who served with the unit. Knowing the pilots and crew members’ propensity for quick, accurate verbal communications, the book surprises with some lengthy personal biographies, along with some extremely brief ones that let the reader fill in the spaces between comments.

Some of the men went on to lead rich and colorful lives. Some of the biographical sketches show the pain and heartaches that others bore during their time in the war.

What comes through clearly in all of them is the brotherly bonds created by the camaraderie of their time as Assault Helicopter men. The pride of their service is evident in all the stories.

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A particularly heartbreaking biography submitted by the widow of Ed Eget tells of a lifetime of hard work punctuated by lingering health problems related to his service in Vietnam. It is easy to see the effects of combat on each person in every story—including Agent Orange and PTSD.

Dominic Fino, one of the co-authors, tells of his struggles with bits of sarcastic humor and honesty.

The book shows Vietnam War veterans as we returned home, put on civilian clothes, and went about making productive lives. It also shows the resiliency of the American citizen soldier who faced extreme danger in war, yet overcame that to grow into substantial contributing members of society.

–Bud Alley

A former First Cavalry Division LT, Bud Alley is the author of The Ghosts of the Green Grass, which looks at the fighting at LZ Albany during the 1965 Vietnam War Battle of the Ia Drang Valley

 

Silent Spring – Deadly Autumn of the Vietnam War by Patrick Hogan

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Silent Spring – Deadly Autumn of the Vietnam War (Whatnot Enterprises, 216 pp. $12.83, paper; $3.99, Kindle) by Patrick Hogan indicts and convicts the United States government and Department of Veteran Affairs for miscalculations and denials about the indiscriminate spraying of Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals as weapons during the Vietnam War.

The spraying was intended to prevent the enemy from using forests as refuge and crop growing areas. The prolonged and intense spraying operation, though, shortened lives and threatened the health of future offspring of everyone in the country.

Hogan’s concern primarily focuses on the plight of Americans who served in Vietnam, as well as their children and grandchildren, all of whom should read this book. Hogan also mentions international liability, which suggests reparations for the Vietnamese.

In a manner similar to that with which American officials denied the existence of post-traumatic stress disorder, Hogan makes a case that government tactics have centered on the idea of “Delay, deny, wait till they die” with veterans who developed cellular and genetic diseases from exposure to toxic chemicals in Vietnam.

The portion of his research devoted to an analysis of the herbicides and insecticides resembles a textbook. He introduces the reader to  2,4-D and  2,4,5-T as part of a “short list of the most prevalent toxic organic chemicals.” Hogan’s classroom-like approach should not intimidate readers because he also provides detailed examples of the criminally improper uses of the chemicals, such as the Seveso Incident and the Times Beach Relocation Project.

Similarly, he speaks of ailments caused by chemicals as casually as introducing an old friend. They range from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to “cholecystitis—with subsequent cholecystectomy.

The last half of the book provides a courtroom of sorts for Hogan to plead his case against American leaders’ misuse of chemicals. In it, he argues the pros and cons of their decisions regarding programs such as Operation Ranch Hand and other spraying ops for defoliation or insecticide purposes.

He portrays the dangerous, far-ranging effects of using a mist-drift tactic for delivering chemicals. He cites lessons learned based on official reports. He explains improperly performed, intentionally skewed, and knowingly bogus research that “proved” that the chemicals were safe. He reveals government cover-ups that still exist. He describes how the chemicals of choice would have been less toxic to humans if Dow Corporation and other chemical manufacturers had been less greedy.

In summary, Hogan says that the failure of our government and the VA to take appropriate action is politically expedient and much less costly. He labels the inaction as betrayal.

Hogan knows whereof he speaks. His personal trouble began with “an angry rash” on his face a few months after his discharge from the Army, he says. An enlistee at eighteen, he had served with the 423rd Supply Company at Cam Rahn Bay from September 1966 to June 1969.

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Hogan, right, about to leave Vietnam in 1969

Soon after, indigestion and respiratory problems bedeviled him. He treated their symptoms with over-the-counter medicines, all the while suspecting that exposure to Agent Orange caused his health problems. Hogan was on his own, however, because the VA denied any toxic effects from Agent Orange.

From 1970-99, abdominal and digestive tract problems caused him to endure many surgeries. In 1999, Patrick Hogan took early retirement following a long law enforcement career, but his medical problems persisted.

In 2012, “a barrier broke in his mind,” he says. Memories of years of VA refusals to provide medical care and an Army friend’s early death from leukemia triggered him to write Silent Spring – Deadly Autumn of the Vietnam War. The depth of his research is highly commendable.

History needs more writers like Patrick Hogan—a guy off the streets who won’t take it anymore and acts on his feelings.

His website is silent-spring-deadly-autumn.com

—Henry Zeybel

Detour: Agent Orange by Dale M. Herder and Sam Smith

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For seven weeks, Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran Sam Smith could move only his left eyeball. His paralysis, a peripheral neuropathy disease called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, developed in twenty-four hours and likely was caused by his exposure to Agent Orange several years earlier while serving as an infantryman in Vietnam.

Smith describes his recovery from the disease in Detour: Agent Orange (Arena, 203 pp. $8.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), which he co-wrote with Dale M. Herter.

The two men have made extensive use of four hundred pages of notes recorded by Smith’s sisters—Linda, a lawyer, and Diane, who owned and ran a concrete plant with her husband. The women began recording events the moment they arrived at Smith’s bedside in an intensive care unit on Day One. Herder, a former naval officer (and Diane’s husband), monitored the notes in a ship’s log format for the first four months of his brother-in-law’s paralysis.

The phenomenal part of Smith’s ordeal was his ability to use his left eye—his only functioning body part. He communicated with his sisters by moving that eyeball left or right and up or down.

With his mind fully functioning, Sam Smith heard and saw everything that took place near him. Hospital staff members viewed him as a lost cause, however, and did not provide adequate treatment. Staying at his bedside 24/7 in shifts of 12-on/12-off, his sisters eventually obtained a writ of guardianship that gave them control of his medical care. For four months a ventilator, pacemaker, feeding tube, and tracheotomy tube provided the functions that his body was incapable of supplying.

After nearly two years in intensive care, acute care, and rehabilitation hospitals, Sam Smith still had a weakened body and lacked muscle control. He forced himself to become stronger and self-sufficient. His explanation of how he mastered the discipline required to use a wheelchair could stand by itself as a training manual.

He learned to walk and tend to his everyday needs. He got a driver’s license, earned a bachelor’s and part of a master’s degree, married, worked as an engineer for twenty-six years, became a grandfather, and retired.

Sam Smith describes his ordeal more like a reporter than as a victim. He seeks no pity. “Heartrending” is the perfect adjective to describe his life, yet he displays a sense of humor even after describing his direst moments.

From 1961-71, the U.S. military’s Operation Ranch Hand sprayed more than 20 million gallons of herbicides over Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos. Agent Orange, which contained dioxin—one of the most toxic chemical compounds ever synthesized—was the most commonly used herbicide.

Detour: Agent Orange gave me a deeper understanding of the dynamics of quadriplegics and other people with acute physical handicaps. They live heroic lives. Smith’s stoicism has influenced me to ignore most of the aches and pains of aging that I often feel.

Agent Orange crippled Sam Smith as surely as any kind of damage inflicted by arms. He survived his war injury because he and his sisters live in a world apart.

—Henry Zeybel

The Mad Fragger and Me by Tom Dolan

Tom Dolan begins his 2013 memoir,The Mad Fragger and Me: Leading an Infantry Rifle Platoon in Vietnam (Booklocker.com, 378 pp., $18.95, paper; $4.99. Kindle), with a twelve-page forward chronicling the U.S. military history of the Dolan clan going back to the Revolutionary War. This sets the table for Dolan’s decision to enter the military after college graduation in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War.

Was it a need to prove? To carry on the tradition? His enlistment, Dolan he tells us, was more a matter of “getting it over with,” not having to deal with the inevitable questions regarding his 1-A draft-board status from potential employers. He also felt the tug of the generations who served before him.

In this very readable book, Dolan steeps us into the Army’s process of bringing a raw civilian into its world of recruitment, testing, schooling, and branch selection. That includes the trip to the reception center to begin Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training for this bright, young Officer Candidate School wannabe.

He relates, again with good detail–and here and there some rancor and relish—what it was like to go through eight weeks of Basic Training and eight more of infantry AIT in the New Jersey woods at Fort Dix.

The people he meets and deals with—as well as the locations and training situations—are fleshed out with enough detail to keep the reader interested in continuing the story without getting bogged down in the minutia that seems to weigh heavily in many Vietnam War memoirs.

Dolan takes us through an almost rollicking chapter detailing his OCS training. The Tactical Officers seemed to take great pleasure in inflicting discomfort on the candidates. However, on some occasions, some quite humorous, the same measure was returned to the faculty.

Dolan devotes eight chapters to his in-country experiences as leader of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment in the 11th Light Infantry Brigade of the Americal Division. The unit operated with distinction during his leadership. He tells of friends made and lost, of soldiers he commanded, of other commanders he shared the battlefield with, and of the all-pervasive enemy.

In his final chapters and epilogue Dolan describes returning to “The World.” He refrains from deeply political rhetoric, but does state his feelings and convictions.

He dedicates his book to the five men lost during his command and to Gary Smith, “The Mad Fragger,” who died of Agent Orange-related illnesses in 2011.

—Tom Werzyn

The Last Red-Line Brig  by Peter Carini

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Peter Carini’s The Last Red-Line Brig (Austin Macauley, 320 pp., $25.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $4.41, Kindle) is a work of fiction that is based on a true story. Carini is a short story writer and English teacher in the San Francisco Bay area.

His novel’s hero, Joe Carini, is a youthful renegade, independent thinker, compassionate husband, and a corpsman in the U.S. Navy near the beginning of the Vietnam War. Never an ambitious man, but tended to do an honest day’s work while daydreaming. He had no interest in war or in learning military discipline.

He ends up in the Navy, assigned to a place known as the “red-line brig” among “hardened, unaccommodating Marines and even less friendly inmates.” The brig’s toughest area is called “dimrats,” and it is nothing short of a nauseating torture chamber.

Joe Carini struggles to conform to the standards of his assignment, but pisses off the Marines and his superior officers at every opportunity. This puts him in frequent danger of becoming an inmate in dimrats himself.

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Peter Carini

The characters in this book have the sort of nicknames those of us who have read a lot of Vietnam War novels have become accustomed to:  Pvt. Unibrow, Sgt. Serious, and No Neck.

If you read this book attentively, you will learn the duties of an assignment to a Red-Line Brig, and books that treat military jobs seriously and thoroughly are rare. That makes this one a valuable resource for military scholars and students of incarceration during the Vietnam War.

I found the novel engrossing and hard to put down. It is well edited and well written and tells a good story. Agent Orange is mentioned in one paragraph and the long-term consequences of exposure to that dangerous toxin are emphasized.

Novels of wartime military incarceration are rare. This is one of the very best.

I highly recommend it.

—David Willson

And the Redbird Sings by Phillip Dowsett

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Phillip Dowsett tells the reader in the Preface to his memoir, And the Redbird Sings: You are not Alone. You Are Loved. There is Hope. (338 pp., $14.95, paper’ $4.99, Kindle), that he does not want his words to hurt anyone and that he does not want to contribute to the pain that most of us are already in.  Dowsett describes himself an old, blown-up war veteran, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, and that this book was not easy for him to write.

While reading this book I had no notion that it had been easy to write or that Dowsett’s life had been easy to live. Far from it. He says he “was stuck in the darkness of my living nightmare for twelve years before a Veterans Outreach Center opened near my home.”  And that he’d survived “twenty-five years of frightening nightmares and suicidal depression.”

The painful memories of his childhood, of the Vietnam War, and of homelessness and an alcohol and drug-addicted life have been his to face and try to deal with. Dowsett, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, had served aboard a heavily armed Navy gunboat as a radioman in Vietnam and had been seriously wounded several times, ending up in Naval hospitals for weeks at a time.

Dowsett’s memoir takes place in 1967-68 when his unit, River Assault Squadron Nine, conducted search and destroy missions in the Mekong Delta south of Saigon. He was prepared for this service by an all-American boyhood that involved playing in creeks, fields, and woods where he lived the fantasies of being Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Jim Bowie.

Dowsett also grew up with seventeen years of a violent father and an insane, violent mother. When he returned home after serving in Vietnam, he learned there would be no parades, that he would not be celebrated as a hero, and that even though he’d fought valiantly, he returned to be treated as a criminal. He learned quickly not to trust the VA, and to be wary of antiwar protesters who chanted at him about killing babies.

He’d spent almost two years living aboard a small ship, LST 1148, but nobody was interested in hearing about this aspect of his service. He saw antiwar protesters as rich college kids who scorned him for having served in the Navy. He’d spent his time in Vietnam bathing in Agent Orange-laced river water, and he would soon reap the effects of the poison he and millions of other Vietnam War veterans were been exposed to.

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Dowsett eventually learned that nothing good comes from alcohol and drugs. He managed—with the help of those who loved him—to turn over a great number of leaves and makes something good of himself.

This is a powerful story and one well worth reading. I enjoyed it and it held my attention.

—David Willson