Agent Orange Roundup by Sandy Scull & Brent MacKinnon

Agent Orange Roundup: Living with a Foot in Two Worlds (Bookstand Publishing, 210 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), by Sandy Scull and Brent MacKinnon, is a unique, poetic condemnation of the massive use of defoliants and herbicides by the United States during the war in Vietnam. It is also an educational resource to help people learn more about the development, use, and devastating effects of Agent Orange. Along with poetry, the book contains artwork, stories, and essays.

Scull and MacKinnon served with the Marines during the war; they first met in 1988. They both have received Stage 4 cancer diagnoses that they believe are associated with being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

The first part of the book consists of poems by Scull, including this couplet:

“We return to you with a souvenir

 Of present and future Death”

He goes on to describes AO as “the round we didn’t hear, and it is killing us.”

He says that today, “I like my steak tartar/shrapnel-cut and raw –” and refers to war as a “big bang without the theory.”

Here’s more:

“When memory of war joins a poem, it’s more

than a blood trail, it has a voice and is free

to move with and punctuate its own rhythm.

Those imprinted lines of sacrifice now curve.”

Scull writes that he arrived in Vietnam with a “dread of what would come.” Here’s what he says about the American military’s policy of war by body count:

“This number game had faces.

My face. And mothers. My mother.”

At one point, he’s running to catch a plane leaving Khe Sanh, “wondering how many/rotting Marines want into my jungle boots leaving.” He also questions “How much blood can this soil absorb?”

We learn from Scull that when you smash your M-16 against a tree out of grief for five men lost to rifle jams, it comes apart this way: “The plastic butt stock shattered first, then the hand guard, the trigger and rear sight.”

MacKinnon begins his part of the book by declaring: “These poems and prose are by two combat Marines sentenced to slow death by the country who sent us in harm’s way.”

One of his poems mentions those who are “soon to die,” “already dead,” and “almost dead.”

He cries out to the U.S. government: “I don’t want money. Just say you did It/Say you killed me with Agent Orange/say you did it.”

Scull and MacKinnon (Lt. Scull and Cpl. Mac) bring the reader right into the poem-writing process with a line like, “You say, cut this last stanza –” and a title such as, “These Are Not Your Poems!”

There are poems here that deal with receiving cancer treatments and living with cancer. Scull sums things up beautifully when he says: “Though the subject matter of these poems may seem like a downer, my hope is that the human spirit of love and connection bleeds through.”

Overall, this is a strong collection of material written by two war veterans who have made a pact with their readers that they are going to go out fighting.

–Bill McCloud

Agent Orange: An Insidious Legacy by Raymond H. Gustafson

Raymond Gustofson’s Agent Orange: An Insidious Legacy (148 pp. $14.99, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a short book with just 138 pages of text, but it contains a big message. Virtually every Vietnam War veteran is aware of the enormous amount of of toxic herbicides the U.S. military rained down upon South Vietnam—and, by default, upon U.S. and allied troops on the ground. “Deny the enemy sanctuary” was the mantra of Operation Ranch Hand, the spraying mission that went on from 1962-71. Agent Orange was the main—but not the only—chemical agent involved.

Gustafson writes about growing up and his decision to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17 right after high school. Coming from a family that traced its military service back through to the Civil War, it seemed like the right and logical thing to do. Service was in his bloodline.

He goes on to describe his time in-country beginning early in 1966 with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines in the 3rd Marine Division, including getting wounded, medevaced, being put back together, returning to the war, and then extending his tour for seven months. Throughout, Gustafson includes details about AO, including how it was manufactured and dispersed, its long and short-term effects on humans, and how the Department of Veterans Affairs has handled research and benefits.

After his discharge, Roy Gustafson, like many other Vietnam veterans, buried his war deeply inside himself. He did not talk about his experiences in Vietnam until he confronted serious medical issues related to AO exposure, along with post-traumatic stress issues.

The book is not confrontational, but informational. There is no excoriation of the VA that other books about AO contain. Gustafson does describe VA administrative missteps, but does not dwell on them. He backs up what he writes with excellent references throughout the book and in his bibliography.

Over all, Agent Orange: An Insidious Legacy is a heartfelt effort and a good beginning point for readers to learn the basics of this important issue, especially the serious health issues for Vietnam War veterans and their children and grandchildren.

–Tom Werzyn

Heavy Metal by Edward Roby

Edward Roby’s Heavy Metal: Memoir of a Distant War (112 pp., $20.99, hardcover; $11.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a compelling look at the challenges faced by U. S. mechanized infantry units in the Vietnam War. In this anecdotal and highly detailed memoir Roby recounts his experiences commanding a First Infantry Division armored infantry company in the Central Highlands in Vietnam in 1967-68.

After graduating from West Point in 1964, Roby became a mechanized infantry officer in Germany. A captain three years later, he assumed command of a company in the Big Red One’s 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment. Operating on the Cambodian border, Roby and his men routinely intercepted NVA supply columns coming south from the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Roby notes that units like his spent more time in the field than leg infantry units. What’s more, because of the weaponry mechanized companies had, the enemy was less eager to engage them. Not that Roby and his men had an easy time of it, though, as too often the Viet Cong’s weapon of choice was landmines.

M113 armored personnel carriers were particularly vulnerable to mines. While Roby and his men made every effort to sweep for them, they never got them all. It wasn’t uncommon to see an APC stalled with wrecked tracks and road wheels blown free—or worse. As a result, most men rode on the tops of their vehicles rather than inside.

In one gripping passage Roby describes ordering an advance to help an infantry unit under fire. His men refused, certain that the road ahead was mined. True to his creed that no commander should give an order he wouldn’t follow himself, Roby led the column, telling his men to follow his vehicle’s track marks.

Roby also details health hazards his men faced, including a previously unknown strain of malaria that swept through the region in November 1967. With the standard anti-malarial pill ineffective against it, hundreds of men were incapacitated until the Army developed new medication.

An M113 APC of the 1st Infantry Division’s 2/2nd near Quan Loi,1969 

Agent Orange was used heavily in the zone, too. Many men exposed to the highly toxic herbicide suffered skin irritations so debilitating they had to be evacuated. At the time AO’s long-term effects were unknown. Many of Roby’s men later developed cancers and other serious illnesses caused by their exposure to Agent Orange after coming home from the war.

Perhaps most sobering is Roby’s recounting of a discussion he had with his first sergeant about how, by the spring of 1968, the character of the war had changed. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had suffered catastrophic losses after the Tet Offensive, but many people at home now believed that the war was unwinnable.

In Heavy Metal, Edward Roby weaves together a vivid account of one young infantry captain’s aspirations, burdens, and commitment to his men and his mission. It is well worth the read.

–Mike McLaughlin

Flashbacks by R. Dean Jerde and Tom Pisapia

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.

Pisapia’s website is tompisapia.net

–Tom Werzyn

An American Soldier in Vietnam by Joseph J. Snyder

Joseph J. Snyder’s  An American Soldier in Vietnam (Sheridan Books, 95 pp. $19.95) may just be the most concise memoir ever written about a draftee’s two years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. In 95 pages of large text that includes 32 pages of sharply focused colored photographs that he took, Snyder tells his Vietnam War story, leaving out mundane facts and highlighting the foibles of military life.

He weaves short bursts of political criticism into his accounts of being pulled out of graduate school, receiving Vietnamese language and intelligence training, serving with the 25th Military Intelligence Company around Cu Chi and into Cambodia, and returning home to complete his master’s degree.

Snyder’s year in-country began in March 1970, a time of turmoil during the drawdown of American forces. After describing unusual events that he observed, he often allows the reader to reach his or her own conclusion about what was right or wrong. In that respect, his stories provide a lot of subtle humor.

Recognized by his commander for his ability to complete tasks, Snyder frequently operated on his own interrogating and judging the fate of prisoners, procuring counter-intelligence, and handling refugees. His off-duty freedom led to interesting experiences, particularly a strange R&R in Japan.

He returned home as an Spec. 5 with a Bronze Star and an Army Commendation Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster. Snyder later suffered two amputations resulting from exposure to Agent Orange–something he barely touches on in the book.

Joseph J. Snyder

In civilian life, Snyder built a family and careers as a U.S. Civil Service Commission investigator and as a writer, journalist, author, editor, and occasional publisher for four decades.

Joseph J. Snyder’s insightful Vietnam War memoir might make an excellent eye-opening gift for anyone considering a military career. Times have changed, but personalities and the system remain fixed.

Snyder knows that and shows it in this book. 

—Henry Zeybel

Fire Mission! Fire Mission! by Larry Kenneth Hunter with Mark Randall

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America’s war in Vietnam caused Larry Kenneth Hunter to fight the two most desperate battles of his life. The first occurred in 1966 at Chu Phong Mountain when more than 1,000 North Vietnamese Army troops ambushed his company. The second came in 2012 when the after-effects of exposure to Agent Orange paralyzed him multiple myeloma—commonly known as bone cancer—a disease with symptoms that often do not appear until the disease reaches a highly advanced stage.

With encouragement from his therapist, Dr. Mark Randall, Hunter tells the stories of these battles in Fire Mission! Fire Mission! A Forward Observer’s Experiences in Vietnam (Koehler Books, 172 pp. $2.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle). Almost all of the book’s Vietnam War recollections are based on letters Hunter exchanged with his wife Judy.

Larry Hunter served seven and a half months as a forward observer with the First Air Cavalry Division operating from An Khe. He flew in more than 25 engagements during search-and-destroy missions that usually lasted from two to four weeks. His company killed a great number of enemy soldiers—the majority attributed to artillery fire—but suffered many casualties. Hunter explains how the Cav initially learned by doing.

Sent to rescue crews of three downed helicopter at Chu Phong, Hunter and his men instantly were ambushed. During fighting that began in late afternoon and extended through the night, his unit lost half of its 130 men, primarily its officers. After the North Vietnamese shot down a Chinook sent to rescue the rescuers, Hunter assumed control of the operation. Although convinced that it was his last day on earth, he masterfully directed Army helicopter gunships and Air Force fighter-bombers and managed to resupply the men with ammunition—actions that helped his company survive until morning. He received a Bronze Star with V device for his courage and leadership.

When he went to Vietnam, Hunter left behind his wife and a newborn son. In exchanging letters, Judy Hunter provided strong support for the war and for her husband’s role in it. Avidly following First Cavalry news reports, she enthusiastically commented on the unit’s success. “Heard yesterday where 1st Cav destroyed an entire Battalion of NVA,” she wrote in one letter. “Good work.” Both repeatedly thanked God for sparing Larry Hunter from injury.

With his wife’s strong support, Hunter was nearly equally successful in his fight against cancer. After a successful thirty-year business management career, the couple had nearly finished building their dream retirement home when Hunter became partially paralyzed from cancer.

They counterattacked the disease with every available weapon: radiation, chemo, new drugs, physical therapy, a stem cell transplant, months of isolation, and faith in God. Although multiple myeloma is considered incurable, one doctor enthusiastically told Hunter: “Your blood results are fantastic. You are in complete remission.”

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Capt. Hunter

Twenty-one months later, in 2016, the cancer returned, and Hunter has been fighting a life-and-death battle ever since. He and Judy still pray and enjoy days of temporary victory.

Fire Mission! Fire Mission! held my attention for several reasons. Hunter, for one thing, provides map overlays of significant missions. And he teaches lessons about employing artillery: “We’ve put Batteries into some of the wildest country you’ve ever seen,” he writes. “You couldn’t have pulled in there in a truck in less than a month and in minutes we started shooting for the Infantry.” He pays tributes to officers and enlisted men killed in action.

Most important, however, Larry and Judy Hunter accepted whatever challenges confronted them. For me, reading about their indomitable spirits significantly narrowed the morbidity of the current perilous world situation. They set examples for how to survive when facing disaster.

—Henry Zeybel

The Travelers by Regina Porter

Regina Porter, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, did her Vietnam War homework for her new novel, The Travelers (Hogarth, 320 pp. $27, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle). Among other things, she interviewed a university historian who teaches a Vietnam War in Film class; read John Darrell Sherwood’s Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet During the Vietnam Era; and researched the Vietnam Women’s Memorial to learn about the contributions of American female troops during the Vietnam War.

The novel begins with a two-page list of characters, which is kind of a key to the meaning of the book. Porter also offers a brief statement of time, which helps the reader some. “This novel,” she notes, “travels from the mid-fifties to the first year of President Obama’s first term.” The list of settings includes Long Island, New York, and the former South Vietnam. Even with this attempt to help the reader, though, the book sometimes comes across as a hodgepodge of events, characters, and places.

Mostly I enjoyed the book, but only by turning it into a game by keeping track of  all the references to the Vietnam War. They mounted up rapidly and made it possible for me to view The Travelers as a Vietnam War novel. The story deals with Agent Orange, the Tet Offensive, the Gulf of Tonkin, Nixon’s war, the South China Sea, and Vietnam veterans more thoroughly than many literary Vietnam War novels do.

Porter places many of her characters in Vietnam where they do the things that young men were said to do during the war. Sex and drugs are given a lot of space, and the troops suffer psychologically by their involvement with those things. My painstaking mining of the text for Vietnam War references was rewarding, but likely would not be the way most readers will deal with the book.

The Travelers contains a fair number of photographic images, many related to the Vietnam War, including one of two sailors pressing pants on the USS Intrepid. The chapter entitled “I Know Where the Poison Lives” has a nice photo of the USS Oklahoma City and a powerful introduction to Agent Orange, including the line: “That shit ate up our daddy’s intestines.”  Porter goes on to discuss how Agent Orange affected Blue Water Navy veterans who served on aircraft carriers off the coast of South Vietnam during the war.

The role of African Americans in the Vietnam War is presented in the lives of the black characters, especially Eddie Christie, who serves on an aircraft carrier. During the war he is introduced to the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and it becomes an anchor to his life in a sea of racial unrest.

One reviewer calls the book unlike anything she’s ever read. That’s true for me as well.

–David Willson

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

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In Silent Spring: Deadly Autumn of the Vietnam War (Whatnot Enterprises, 216 pp., $12.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) Patrick Hogan is the best, most fact-filled current book about Agent Orange that this reviewer has encountered. Departing from some previous AO offerings that little more than chronicle the woes and health challenges of the authors—along with a litany of beefs with health-care providers, primarily the VA—Hogan goes many steps further in this second edition of his book. We reviewed the first edition on these pages in December of 2018.

Hogan does lay out the health experiences that brought him to the writing desk, but not seeking pity or sympathy. He then moves quickly into explaining the military operations that sprayed million of gallons of herbicides, insecticides, defoliants, and other generally bad stuff on the Vietnamese countryside, as well as on U.S. bases and other installations, and troops in the field.

Hogan, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, was motivated to dig into his subject after watching a presidential speech, and having a good buddy die of complications of Agent Orange exposure—as well as his desire to learn the details of how the spraying began and continued. He describes tactical, economic, ethical, and political decisions made on the battlefield, in the halls of Congress, and in industrial boardrooms.

And he takes us on a chemical excursion in which he spells out the main ingredients—both active and inert—that comprised Agent Orange, Agent White, and the other toxic chemicals used in the Vietnam War. Hogan also describes delivery systems and methods and compares wartime military concentrations of these toxic chemicals with peacetime commercial, agricultural, and homeowners formulations.  He also covers the laxity of handling and storage protocols.

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Hogan in country during his Sept. ’66-June ’69 tour of duty

As the result of his prodigious research into recently declassified documents—many apparently strategically and widely misfiled—Hogan finds (and wrestles with) decisions that seemingly were made with little with no regard for their health consequences. Seemingly without rancor—but certainly with exasperation and incredulity—Hogan includes evidence that the government and chemical manufactures had a cover-up mentality that pervaded our wartime leadership.

He also chronicles the VA’s past actions—and inactions—in dealing with the medical claims submitted by service personnel exposed to AO and other chemicals. And he details the progress being made, including what to expect from the VA in the future with respect to Agent Orange compensation,

All in all, this is a well-researched and executed book. It is well worth reading by anyone who was exposed to Agent Orange.

The book’s website is silent-spring-deadly-autumn.com

–Tom Werzyn

A Marine’s Daughter by Al Hague

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Jon Milo has a recurring dream whose meaning he cannot fathom. In Al Hague’s novel, A Marine’s Daughter: Semper Fi (Gatekeeper Press, 314 pp., $24.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle), Milo is tormented with the fragmented memory of a bloody Vietnam War fight outside the wire at a remote camp.

Milo recalls only portions of what happened that night. He remembers leading a couple of squads of Marines toward a village rumored to be threatened by Charlie. He splits up his team, only to see the first squad pinned down in the middle of a rice paddy by a savage ambush. Milo sends out the rest of the men in a flanking maneuver, then decides to take the pressure off by charging into the enemy fire with his M-60 on his hip.

When he wakes up later, injured and on board a hospital ship, Milo has no idea what happened. Did his men survive? Was the mission a disaster? And, ultimately, did he let his men down?

Flash forward to a gray-haired Milo whose health has begun to fail. He has yet to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, for fear he’ll recognize the names of the men he led out on that mission.

Hague’s most effective story-telling device is toggling between scenes of war with a young Milo and present day, when Milo’s now-adult daughter is working secretly to arrange a reunion of her father’s old team. Some of the men have been searching for him for decades. And they have a surprise in store.

Hague weaves in a personal story as well. Milo is afraid he’s dying. Daughter Sara is afraid she is failing to live. Both are struggling to find meaning in their lives. In Milo’s case, it is a bit of aging, and perhaps Agent Orange shares part of the blame.

He was offended by the antiwar protests that erupted stateside. He wonders if he will ever be able to forgive his country for the way he and his men have been treated. But Milo will take a chance on a new life, as will Sara.

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Al Hague and Brady

When his old comrades show up, Milo learns that he broke the back of the VC assault with that M-60 charge. The men have put together statements and documentation to petition for recognition for Milo, who will be awarded a Silver Star for saving the squad.

Hague served in Vietnam in 1965-66 as a Marine NCO. His prose can be clunky, but he’s created characters we care about.

The author’s website is amarinesdaughter.com

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales from the Morgue

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