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

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