My War & Welcome to It by Tom Copeland

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Like most teenagers of the time, Tom Copeland had no burning desire to fight in the Vietnam War. But he was drafted into the Army and served for a year in Vietnam with the 1st First Infantry Division. His tour of duty in the war is the centerpiece of  My War and Welcome To It (Sunbury Press, 191 pp. $$19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), which is written in a voice ranging from youthful humor and wonderment to one of great fear of being killed. He prefaces this autobiography by saying: “I was aged beyond my years. I became an old man before my time.”

Copeland describes his life growing up in Southeastern New Mexico, mostly outdoors; getting drafted in August 1966; going through infantry AIT; operating from Lai Khe with a ground surveillance team with the Big Red One’s 2nd Battalion/2nd Regiment in 1967-68; and returning home and working his way up a corporate ladder. The last part was the most difficult.

He  describes military life largely by concentrating on the good and bad behavior of men of all ranks. Copeland highlights individualists such as a trainee who got away with impersonating the boot camp commander and drill sergeants, even in their presence.

He saw plenty of action, including fighting Viet Cong forces at Prek Loc II and Phu Loi, in the Ong Dong Jungle during Operation Paul Bunyan, and at Ong Thanh. Copeland writes in detail about the wounded and dead-and-maimed bodies in only one of those operations, Ong Thanh. That battle, he says, “marked a change in the way I saw the war and the value of human life.”

After the war, Copeland suffered decades of emotional stress involving his family, work, and schools without recognizing that he had post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2003, his nephew displayed PTSD symptoms following three deployments to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Copeland forced the young man to seek medical help. That’s when he realized he had the same emotional problems and went to the VA for treatment.

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Tom Copeland in country

In 2013, Tom Copeland went back to Vietnam to try to ameliorate the negative effects of combat that lingered within him. He and other Vietnam War veterans placed commemorative plaques and flowers at battle sites where friends had been killed.

The book’s concluding chapter is a deeply insightful distillation of the trauma serving in the Vietnam War inflicted on him. He closes that section—and the book—by letting us know that the war is still with him.

“Don’t think for a minute I have forgotten those things that took place years ago,” he writes, “They have just become easier to live with.”

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

Letters in a Helmet by Ron Sorter and Bob Tierno

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Ron Sorter and Bob Tierno became friends in the late 1960s as members of the Delta Kappa Epsilon (Deke) fraternity at the University of Oklahoma. They explain how friendship evolved into a “bond that remains intact for ever, despite the lapses in communication or the frequency of visits,” as Tierno puts it in Letters in a Helmet: A Story of Fraternity and Brotherhood (455 pp. $19.95, paper: $2.99, Kindle).

In the book Sorter and Tierno alternate chapters that chronologically tell their individual life stories. The most dynamic parts of the book recreate Sorter’s Vietnam War duties as a platoon leader and company commander with the Americal Division in 1970.

A tense realism permeates Sorter’s combat narrative. Amid the uncertainties of Vietnamization, he took undiminished responsibility for his men and their fourteen-day search-and-destroy missions. He anguished over every injury they sustained.

After five months in the bush, Sorter suffered his first wound and spent ten days in a hospital. “Thirty-two stitches was all it took,” he says. Four months later, he stepped on booby-trapped 81-mm mortar round. Shrapnel riddled his entire body. Eventually, doctors amputated his right leg.

Sorter’s account of his physical and psychological recovery is spellbinding. He never spells out the exact list of his injuries, but he does mention a continual shedding of shrapnel from many parts of his body throughout his life. Stoicism and a sense of humor carried him through the roughest times. Bob Tierno and other Dekes provided moral support.

In 2018, Tierno temporarily defeated death by having his cancerous prostate removed, statistically giving him ten more years of life. A year later he published The Prostate Chronicles—A Medical Memoir: Detours and Decisions following my Prostate Cancer Diagnosis, an irreverent examination of the condition.

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Beyond the two major episodes, the autobiographies of Sorter and Tierno largely describe their business lives and marriages. Sorter enjoyed a long career helping other wounded veterans with prosthetics in VA facilities across the United States. Tierno served many years with the Bureau of Prisons in Colorado, North Carolina, and California, and later bought and ran a Bed and Breakfast in California.

The two men have kept in contact for fifty years, sharing ups and downs.

Sorter and Tierno close the book with seventeen interviews of University of Oklahoma Dekes whose memories validate the benefits of finding brotherhood in fraternity. Their story clearly illustrates how friendship can significantly alleviate life’s harshest situations.

—Henry Zeybel

Invisible Scars of War by Dick Hattan

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At the age of twenty-five in 1971, Dick Hattan served in the Vietnam War with the 101st Airborne Division at Phu Bai. His intelligence and his college degree qualified him for a clerical position at division headquarters, a job he readily accepted.

“I didn’t live through any firefights,” Hattan says in his memoir, Invisible Scars of War: A Veteran’s Struggle with Moral Injury (Woodstock Square Press, 188 pp. $15.30, paper; $7.95, Kindle). “I never really thought that I was out of danger, though.” The danger came from occasional mortar rounds that struck the base and guard duty he performed along the base’s perimeter.

“This was my war, my life,” he says, “eleven months gouged out of my young life.”

Hattan discusses his Vietnam War tour in Invisible Scars of War, which also recounts life-long emotional problems he has had that were caused by betrayals from the Army, the United States government, and the Catholic Church. He describes himself as “a man of peace” who “suffered wounds that were not visible to the naked eye,” and cites God for going AWOL during the traumatic periods of his life.

The institutions in his life, Hattan writes, forced him to “do something against my better judgment, antithetical to my own moral code.”  Conflicted emotionally, he hated himself for participating in an unjust war, although he was proud to fulfill his duty.

When he was drafted into the Army, Hattan believed he would be a citizen-soldier who owed allegiance to his nation. His father and other neighborhood World War II veterans, as well as his Army instructors, overwhelmed him by emphasizing “My country, right or wrong.” He never considered fleeing to Canada or claiming conscientious objector status.

He debates the morality of war and the taking of human life at length in his book. Much of his argument relies on the teaching of Jesus. Regarding the Vietnam War, he writes that the United States failed to meet even one of seven principles that decide whether or not a war is morally valid.

A former altar boy and wannabe priest, Hattan felt betrayed by the Catholic Church after realizing that its bishops’ neutrality in not speaking out against it, condoned the Vietnam War. The acceptance of war by Army chaplains particularly offended him. Eventually, he left the church.

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Dick Hattan 

To my disappointment, he offers no solutions to stop our government from arbitrarily starting new wars. Still, Hattan characterizes America’s long-time involvement in Iraq as “an unnecessary war.” Sometimes his arguments lapse into a low-key style that sounds as if he is trying to convince himself of the validity of his feelings and conclusions.

Hattan’s post-war life confirms his sincerity, however. During forty-four years as a health care executive, Dick Hattan discovered that his calling was healing. He worked with war veterans to mend what he cites as “fragmentation of the soul.” Performing pastoral care in his church led him to expand his education and become a priest in the Independent Catholic Church in 2015.

Hattan summarizes the Vietnam War as a “seminal event in the lives of many young men who did what they were asked, often unwillingly, but were afraid to refuse.”

His website is dickhattan.com

—Henry Zeybel

Call Sign Dracula by Joe Fair

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In Call Sign Dracula: My Tour with the Black Scarves, April 1969 to March 1970 (Sunbury Press, 220 pp. $16.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle), Joe Fair has given us an honest little gem of a memoir about his tour of duty with the First Infantry Division in the I Corps war zone of South Vietnam. His text runs a short 125 pages, with 67 pages of photos, and an extensive fourteen-page glossary of terms and acronyms.

Fair’s style is conversational rather than narrative. There are lots of paragraphs that begin with “I,” and just tons of very short sentences. You just want to have a beer with him as he reminisces and tells his war stories.

It’s a cathartic book for Fair, but not an overly melodramatic one. He has a story to share, and its telling will resonate with those of us who have smelled the cordite, the blood, and the stink of war and have told our own stories, in our own way, to our own listeners. The stories about his battalion’s Black Scarves and the call sign Dracula alone are worth the read.

Fair takes the reader through his entire time in the Army, filling in his backstory with color commentary . While there are some syntax and structural issues, his message is more than adequately delivered from his self-proclaimed, uninitiated “good ol’ boy” point of view and experience. Fair, in his last chapters, speaks to the “maturing process” most Vietnam War veterans went through as we compared our in-country experiences and perspectives on lessons learned.

Upon his return to the World, he tells of being denied a beer at an airport bar for being under twenty-one—after spending a year on the ground with enemy contact as a machine gunner. He was old enough to fight and risk death in Vietnam, but not old enough to legally have a beer back home.

–Tom Werzyn

A Dangerous Journey from Vietnam to America for Freedom by Tham Huy Vu            

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The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 marked the beginning of the worst years of the life of Tham Huy Vu, who served as a captain in the South Vietnamese Army. Within nine days, the victorious communists marched him into the first of six re-education camps where he would spend five years. Seven years later—on his sixth try—he escaped and found freedom for his family in the United States. Those trials highlight A Dangerous Journey from Vietnam to America for Freedom, 1935-1987 (Xay Dung, 270 pp.; $20, paper).

Born in northern Vietnam in 1935, Vu also provides a history of his country because political  changes strongly affected his family. In his childhood, although his family was “one of the most prosperous in the village,” he says, they suffered under “the harsh rule of the French colonialists.” During World War II, Japanese soldiers destroyed his family’s crops after defeating the French. After the war, France regained control of the nation until the Vietminh of Ho Chi Minh’s communist party prevailed in the French Indochina War in 1954.

Vu’s childhood experiences foreshadowed events for the remainder of his life in Vietnam: He labored in rice fields, was exposed to gunfire when the French made his Vietminh-controlled home area a free-fire zone, witnessed the execution of a landowner by the Vietminh, and attended communist education classes. Facing the threat of the father’s death because he was a landowner, Vu’s family left everything behind in 1955 and fled to Saigon.

Drafted into the ARVN, Vu worked on rural pacification and development. He admits to being “an ordinary military officer” who was “unable to do much to improve things.” He also married and had three children.

As a prisoner of war, he defines “re-education” as revenge for having opposed communism. He shows that the re-education camps consisted of slave labor; starvation; living amid filth; inadequate medical treatment; and repetitive brainwashing classes, essay-writing, and group discussions.

Released from the camps and treated as an outcast, he determined that escape from Vietnam was his only course for a viable life. This led to intrigue and drama that Vu shared with many others desperate to escape from communism.

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Tây Ninh re-education camp, 1976 – Photo by Marc Riboud

Vu expresses eternal love for America for providing a refuge for his family. He wraps up his memoir with a cogent explanation of why the South Vietnamese people lost their freedom. His strongest argument is that American leaders “knew themselves, but knew not enough about their enemies,” combined with his belief that “most South Vietnamese did not know the truth about Ho Chi Minh and his communist comrades.”

He also points out that America “did not have an appropriate strategy”; acted in its own interests; and experienced “a spasm of congressional irresponsibility” following President Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Vu’s “I-was-there” background and rational approach to an age-old problem refreshed my interest in the unsolvable.

—Henry Zeybel

The Life and Times of a Survivor by Marie Sweeney Heath

The Life and Times of a Survivor: Before, During, and after Vietnam (Christian Faith Publishing, 40 pp., $12.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is Marie Sweeney Heath’s self-described “brief autobiography” of her life before, during, and after she served in the Vietnam War. Short chapters describe how she survived nursing school, Army Basic Training, the war, and life after coming home.

The author’s father served in the Army in the South Pacific during World War II. After a few years as a firefighter in Boston, he rejoined the army at the start of the Korean War. This time he would stay in for twenty-eight 28 years.

After graduating from high school Marie Sweeney entered nursing school, then went into the Army Student Nurse Program. Following Basic Training, she worked for a short while at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., before receiving orders for Vietnam. She told her family she wanted “to go where I can do the most good for my country and where I can provide medical care for those who need it.”

She landed in Saigon in early 1966. Being assigned to a base camp in Qui Nhon she volunteered to serve for six weeks in a small tent hospital in An Khe. Getting back to Qui Nhon she ended up marrying Bob Sweeney, an Army officer stationed there. For their honeymoon the couple went to Okinawa for a week.

During the war Marie Sweeney found it helpful to use “inappropriate humor” as a way of dealing with the daily stress. She says you couldn’t survive if you couldn’t laugh. It’s a technique she continues to use today.

Part of her time was spent helping treat Vietnamese patients in a leprosarium. Returning to the United States, she worked in obstetrics while stationed with her husband at Fort Ord. The couple resigned their commissions in September 1967, moving to Wisconsin then to Missouri and Virginia.

Her on-going story of survival has her dealing with the loss of a son and the death of her husband. She would be widowed for more than twenty-five years before remarrying in 2017.

Marie Sweeney Heath’s personality comes through in reading her book. Clearly she would be fun to talk to and you feel she has a lot more stories she could tell.

Having served as a nurse in Vietnam puts her in a group that every Vietnam veteran I’ve known places at the top of the list of people they love, honor, and respect the most.

Two dozen photos are crammed into this brief book.

–Bill McCloud

Vietnam to Thieves’ Island by Jim Collins

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Reading Jim Collins’ Vietnam to Thieves’ Island (Partridge Singapore, 188 pp. $28.35, hardcover; $16.08, paper; $3.03, Kindle) is lots of fun. As a memoir, the book overflows with free association, but never completely loses control. Collins’ throwaway asides are inventive gems.

An Australian, Jim Collins recollects his travels and jobs starting in the mid-sixties when he became head engineer of the construction of the Saigon Metropolitan Water Plant in South Vietnam. His rendering of his life as a civilian in a war zone differs significantly from the usual Vietnam War memoirs. In particular, few if any Vietnam War memoirs include accounts of the nationwide ransacking of American-built projects.

Amid disasters, he discovers humor and lessons.

After Vietnam, Collins tell us of his adventures sail-boating the seas of Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Middle East. He meets an array of spellbinding people and describes their seafaring vagabond lives that are as fascinating as his own.

Well into this century, these encounters occur at such places as the Sungei Unjung Club, an hour’s drive south of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, to Sharm Rabigh on the Red Sea some twenty miles north of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The world is open to those who seek it, he seems to say.

Collins’endeavors range from Herculean engineering tasks to merely beating customs officials out of a few dollars—or significantly more.

Reading this book resembles listening to a raconteur who says whatever next comes to mind from a bottomless well of experiences. The stories have good and bad endings; several involve visits to “gaols.”

Vietnam to Thieves’ Island has no true beginning, chronology, or ending. Like the story of Jim Collins’ life, it just is.

—Henry Zeybel