Glen D. Edwards, who served as an Australian Army medic in the Vietnam War, called on thirty-eight Vietnam veterans and family members to produce historical capsules of what he calls their pre-service, service, post-service, and next chapter experiences in Beyond Dark Clouds (Digital Print Australia, 404 pp., $79.95).
What follows is a look at a few of these interesting and varied case studies.
Bruce Shanks began his Australian Army apprenticeship in January 1966 soon after learning that, as he puts it, “you are paid to do as you are told, not to think for yourself.” Shanks did not heed this, and his antiwar sentiments soon landed him in the brig.
“I had to do everything on the double,” he says. “While sitting on the toilet I had to mark time. This was the Army’s last desperate attempt to make me conform to the system.”
While Shanks was facing the Viet Cong in villages near Vung Tau, his wife Veronica was in Australia “marching for peace,” she says. “Wives of warriors see stories in each others’ eyes silent reflections of compassion and courage.” Spousal testimony in this volume offers a unique expression of the impact of the Vietnam War.
Another woman’s viewpoint is provided by Australian Army Nursing Corps Officer Patricia Ferguson. Freguson’s basic training recollections will ring true with most veterans. “The Sergeant Major, who tried to teach us military drill,” she says, “would throw his hat on the ground and say ‘This is a march, not a waltz.'”
Ferguson was assigned to the First Australian Field Hospital at Vung Tau. Her brother Peter was fighting with Australian units in Nui Dat and he visited his sister occasionally, but, as she says, “I couldn’t take him to the Officers Mess, even though he was my brother.”
Patricia Ferguson had many intense moments dealing with the trauma of war in her Operating Room. One example: “I sat on one side of the bed. Michael died at 8:10 pm. Much of me died that night. I kept it all inside. My feelings were always suppressed. With time the tears were replaced with feelings of anger.” She shared many of her wartime memories with high school students after her discharge.
George Baker had an uncommon in-country arrival as a U.S. Marine .His unit made a beach landing at DaNang. “The night before we made our amphibious landing we were issued ammunition and were told to expect heavy resistance once we hit the beach,” he says. “When the landing craft reached the beach and the doors opened, we raced ashore and fought our way through women selling their bodies and kids selling ice pops.”
The segment on Baker’s post-service—as with many of the book’s essays—includes dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. “The problem I had was that no one knew how to treat PTSD,” Baker says. “Once [his therapist] had mastered the skills, I asked him to debrief me.” That may be a first in PTSD therapy.
Paul Thomas of New Zealand, with a Maori tribal ancestry, had twelve siblings. “Saying goodbye to my family was difficult,” he says. “The excitement of joining the New Zealand Regular Force Cadets tormented me, as I bit hard hard on my bottom lip and tried to look sad as I waved goodbye.”
William Healey from Wakefield, Massachusetts, recalls that in high school “Vietnam War propaganda was really kicking in. We would have a history quiz every day and would have to know the numbers of troops in Vietnam that day.” The history lessons and a trip to Europe led to Healy’s rejection of the Domino Theory. Despite his antiwar feelings, though, Healey volunteered for the draft.
He became a clerk in Phu Bai until a dispute led to his reassignment to a hot firebase near the DMZ. “The longer my tour went on,” he says, “the less I cared about others because I had to concentrate on my own survival. Many around me were being killed, so I tuned out. I am not going to die here.”
PTSD, combined with Healey coming out as gay, complicated his life, but today he and his partner have celebrated sixteen years together. I urge readers to take a look at Healey’s next chapter segment for the rest of his story.
Ulysee ” Skip” Williams was raised in an all-black neighborhood in Florida where, he say,s he “always felt I was being watched by mom and neighbors.” Graduating from high school in 1968, Williams wanted to join the Marines but his mother objected so he enlisted in the Air Force.
She was fully aware that many Americans had been killed in the 1968 Tet Offensive and didn’t want to lose her son that way. After two years in the Air Force, he says, “I felt I wouldn’t be sent to Vietnam.”
But he was, and was stationed nine miles from the Laotian border near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Williams worked on a flight line but had many interactions with the Vietnamese people. “The physical characteristics of Vietnam were rich in color and beautiful like the people who always seemed to be smiling,” he says. “It was nothing like America. At home people were stone-faced because of racial tension.”
Williams says he didn’t want to leave Vietnam because he felt he “had an obligation to the people still in Vietnam. As the freedom bird soared away, I felt guilty leaving them behind., and for the first time in a year, a tear or two rolled down my cheek.”
This extensive case-study-like compilation of the Vietnam War experiences covers a multitude of emotions generated by war. I recommend this as a reference book with something of interest to all.
For ordering info, go to the author’s website, www.beyonddarkclouds.com