Hope in the Shadows of War by Thomas Paul Reilly

Thomas Paul Reilly is an award-winning columnist and the author of many books. He often advocates for causes important to military veterans.

His latest novel, Hope in the Shadows of War (Koehler Books, 278 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle), has a few short scenes that take place in Vietnam during the war, but primarily the book deals with the life of Vietnam War veteran Timothy Patrick O’Rourke who is struggling in 1973 America to find his way after a tough tour of combat duty.

He has a seriously damaged leg that has left him with a pronounced limp. This leaves Timothy open to be called “gimp” and “Chester” after the limping Gunsmoke character.

Much of the book takes place prior to Christmas. Timothy works at a Christmas tree stand where he struggles to do the heavy lifting. He does his part, but little slack is cut for him. Some attempt is made to make Timothy an “everyveteran” struggling with “alienation, hyper-vigilance, substance abuse, relationship problems, guilt, flashbacks, nightmares, and depression.”

Timothy is not a whiner, but is reluctant to share his troubles with his girlfriend Cheryl, who wants him to do so. Manliness issues prevent Timothy from coming clean with her about his money problems and other related issues.

People at the VA seem often to drag their feet about helping veterans, and people in general seem to not want to hire anyone who served in the Vietnam War. Timothy gets put on notice at the hospital where he works part time for seeming to be interested in talking with union organizers, which adds to the stress he has to deal with on a daily basis.

Little is made of Timothy’s military experience as a helicopter pilot, but much is made of his return to civilian life being marred by indifference or hostility on the part of former friends. Timothy supports his mother with a hodgepodge of part-time jobs, and fights to pursue his dream of getting a college degree.

Timothy does have a lot of support from friends and from his incredibly loyal girlfriend, and some luck which comes his way. I was glad that all his luck was not bad, because I was rooting for him as most readers will find themselves doing.

I recommend this novel highly.

The author’s website is tomreillyblog.com

—David Willson

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On Blood Road by Steve Watkins

Steve Watkins is a former professor of journalism, creative writing, and Vietnam War literature, and the author the Ghosts of War series, which includes Lost at Khe Sanh and AWOL in North Africa.

His new YA novel, On Blood Road (Scholastic, 288 pp., $17.99, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle) is one of the best books of any sort that I’ve read dealing with the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the “Blood Road” of the title of this book.

Watkins has created a believable sixteen-year-old character named Taylor Sorenson who manages to get himself captured in South Vietnam during the war, made a prisoner of the VC, and marched toward the Hanoi Hilton. He does not make it there, but has many adventures in transit. Just about every bad thing that can happen to a person in that situation happens to the young man, including losing a leg.

Taylor is the son of one of the architects of the American War in Vietnam. He flies to Saigon with his mother to spend time with his father who is busy running the war. When the NVA find out, they see him as a potential bargaining chip in negotiations.

The author presents the reader with most of the usual things that a Vietnam War infantry novel would deal with. That includes John Wayne, Agent Orange, napalm, and Puff the Magic Dragon gunships. Taylor’s main captor is a young VC who speaks French, which Taylor is fluent in, so there is no need for them to speak Vietnamese.

The book is very poetically written, perhaps a bit more poetical that a typical sixteen year old would write, but Taylor is not a typical teenager in any way. He is against the war when he arrives in Vietnam, but that is no advantage to him. The publisher tells us that death “waits around every bend,” and that is certainly true in this book.

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On Blood Road is aimed at the teen-aged reader, but I found it very readable and informative and doubt that any teenager would struggle to read it. Adult readers would also find the book well worth reading.

I am glad that I got a chance to read this superb book and highly recommend it to young and old.

—David Willson

Ride a Twisted Mind Home by J. Dixon Neuman

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The pseudonymous J. Dixon Neuman is a  U.S. Navy veteran who was born and raised in the Allegany Mountains and served in the Vietnam War with Swift Boats and a Navy Support Activity.  The events his novel, Ride a Twisted Mind Home (Xlibris, 414 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $23.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), he tells us, are ripped from the pages of his life.

The main character, Jake Brewer, is modeled on the author. He is of Christian faith, which helped him to survive two brutal tours of duty in the Vietnam War. Early in the story, his marriage is rocky, but gradually gathers strength. Jake battles with PTSD and recovers enough to complete his military career.

The other primary protagonist is a member of the Slater Family, a group of primarily career criminals who learn stern lessons about life in prison. The Slaters are  “a family of vengeful troublemakers. These longtime residents of Sterling County are headed to war.” And that is where they end up. Prison, we find out, is not be the best preparation for military service.

The writing tends to be a bit overemotional. Early in the novel—actually, in the second sentence—Newman writes: “Gravity sucks them into a black hole of disastrous consequences.” That is hard to imagine. But we don’t have to imagine it, as the next few pages describe said black hole in great detail.

There are no Vietnam War battle scenes in the book. The war is mentioned, but only occasionally.  For example: there is “a warped half-crazed Vietnam vet with a chip on his shoulder,” and Dustoff pilots are referred to in passing.  This novel does include many mentions of “assault, rapes, arson, stalking and ongoing destruction,” but only in a peacetime environment. PTSD and trips to the VA are also mentioned in passing.

Many disgusting references are in this novel, enough for it to be characterized as more than occasionally disgusting in tone. I warn readers that this novel is not for the faint of heart—or the easily revolted.

I found myself resenting having to read this book for review. Rarely do I feel that strongly negative about a review novel—almost never, in fact.

The excessively vernacular writing in this book also made it a struggle to read. I would not describe myself as faint of heart, but perhaps in my old age I am becoming more easily offended when confronted with descriptions of individuals whose bodies and clothes stink or are rotting off their bodies.

When I worked decades ago as a welfare worker, I encountered such people from time to time and was able to deal with them with compassion, but this novel’s characters tested my patience—and my compassion.

—David Willson

Rat Six by Jack Flowers

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Clifford Price, the hero of Jack Flowers’ novel Rat Six (Page Publishing, 452 pp. $36.95, hardcover; $22.95, paper; $9.99 Kindle), like hundreds of thousands of other young Baby Boomers, was drafted into the U. S. Army and served in the Vietnam War. His grandfathers had served in the First World War and his father in World War II.

After being selected for OCS, Price served in the Army Corps of Engineers. He arrived in Vietnam in 1968. For a few months he commanded a platoon of bridge builders, but then volunteered to lead the 1st Infantry Division Tunnel Rats, one of the most dangerous jobs in the war.

In his new job Price was eligible for the Combat Infantryman Badge, a goal of sorts for him.  His mindset was antiwar, but as a tunnel rat that attitude was not one that would enable him to survive. Price and his fellow tunnel rates descended into tunnels armed only with a flashlight and a pistol and their training in how to ferret out the enemy below.

The tunnel rats navigated the tunnels, seeking intelligence, and then would destroy the tunnels and any food and other materiel stored there. The novel well communicates the terror that the tunnel rats felt when they went under ground and pursued the enemy in his own very alien habitat.

In the novel, our hero must deal with a soldier who has made this pursuit of the enemy in the tunnels his domain—a man called Batman. His actual name is Bateman and he had been in Vietnam for several tours, making a career of being a tunnel rat.

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Jack Flowers

Sgt. Bateman is a scary guy who nobody dared mess with, but Price has to mess with him when put in charge of the tunnel rat team. Most of the drama and conflict in this novel has its source in the battle between Price and Batman, who had seized control of the tunnel rat team through the force of his personality and his success in killing the enemy.

This novel held my attention, and I recommend it to anyone who has interest in the underground war in Vietnam between our tunnel rats and the entrenched VC who were totally at home in the dank, dark recesses of Vietnam’s vast tunnel complexes.

The author’s website is ratsix.com

—David Willson

Augie’s War by John H. Brown

augies-war-cover-frontThe blurb on the back of John H. Brown’s novel Augie’s War (Black Rose Writing, 233 pp., $16.95, paper; $.99, Kindle) says it is “an outrageously funny, but deadly serious novel of war, family and coming of age.” Brown was drafted into the Army and served in Vietnam in 1969-70 as an enlisted man in a rear-echelon job with the Americal Division. After getting out of the Army, he worked in public relations, and today writes a wine-and-food column in the Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette-Mail.

I can tell from reading the novel that it was a challenge for John Brown to turn his Vietnam War experiences into an action-packed, spell-binding novel. But he has come up with an amusing and very-well-written book.

In it, the reader learns a lot about how the Office of Awards and Decorations works, as that is where the hero, Augie Cumpton, spends his Vietnam War tour of duty. Much of this comic novel is padded with Augie’s flashbacks to life back home in the family bakery.  In Vietnam, his job entails doing paperwork for medals and awards. He is blackmailed by the threat of friendly fire if he does not do as he is told.

During the course of the novel the reader encounters many of the usual things that Vietnam War novels seem to be required to include. That includes more than one mention of John Wayne—one being “a black John Wayne,” along with Red Cross Donut Dollies, rocket attacks, R&R, “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” the Domino Theory, the Tet Offensive, the Black Clap, shit burning, Sgt. Rock, Ham and Motherfuckers, Bob Hope, and REMFs.

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John H. Brown

Not to mention the admonition that you should keep your head down during rocket attacks—and a few dozen other familiar tropes. Despite my cavils, I highly recommend this novel, including the Italian bakery sequences.

That’s mainly because of my surprise—and gratification—at finding one more worthy Vietnam War REMF novel. At this late date, I’d given up that another one might appear. And I suspect this book won’t provoke a flood of more fictional REMF material.

I’d like to be wrong about that.

The author’s website is augieswar.com

–David Willson

Knight’s Blessing by R.T. Budd

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Telling a story through flashbacks is not an uncommon device. But in R.T. Budd’s hands, we see a story that unfolds through the memories of a man who is trapped between sanity and derangement caused by what he has seen in the Vietnam War.

In Knight’s Blessing (Strategic Book Publishing, 496 pp., $32.50), the lead character, Steven Blessing, is a newly arrived grunt whose naiveté will shrink as his disillusionment grows.

We will come to like Blessing, the Knight, and we’ll care about what happens to him. The journey from wide-eyed new guy to seasoned veteran is told in a series of short chapters, each of which is a vignette—some coarse, some funny, some tragic.

There’s Blessing, leaping out the door of his helicopter to land on his belly, low-crawling in firing position as his comrades laugh and applaud. How was Blessing to know it was a secure LZ?

There’s Blessing, torn between the savvy instinct to remain in a rear-echelon job and his relentless desire to prove himself on patrol, ridiculed by for volunteering for hazardous duty.

Over time, he will turn cynical.

“We had to cover some 50 kilometers before nightfall to complete the mission, and that’s what the war in Vietnam was all about—completing the mission. A little one here, and a little one there; no matter how small or insignificant they seemed, complete them all, one at a time, and then move on to another one. They all meant something to someone, didn’t they? All the little missions were like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle, being put together by someone important, somewhere, who supposedly knew what the completed picture looked like. Or did they?”

Through it all, Blessing appears, somehow, to be blessed. Whenever disaster strikes, there’s a warning voice inside his head. He struggles to understand why. Are they premonitions? Is it just a horrific dream? Or is he merely psychotic?

As a member of his team puts it, “Some of these guys over here are going to have some really bad problems when they get back to the World that nobody’s ever going to understand.”

The book begins with its lead character speaking directly to the reader, telling us that some of what we’ll read is simply fiction, although, he says, it’s actually true.

The themes are not new. There’s politics and chaos, slaughter and survival, brawls and beer. And an overwhelming sense of devastation.

The pseudonymous Rudd, a retired Army Major who served with the First Cav in Vietnam, doesn’t dig too deeply into what it all means. Ultimately, we may come to believe that he has chosen simply to spread clues through the jungle, leaving us unsure of his intent. He tells us that he will invent some of the language in the book and that if we understood it all, we might chuckle over his choice of words.

Were the warnings a manifestation of Blessing’s guilt? Are they reformed memories? Are they the voice of his guardian angel?

Who knows? But Knight’s Blessing is an easy read and an entertaining one.

—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

Wizard and Me by Gary Gill

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Gary Gill’s Wizard and Me: Or How We Survived Vietnam and Evolved into Real Human Beings (AuthorHouse, 230 pp., $13.99, paper; $3.99, e book) is fictional, but the events are not. Gill is a veteran of the Vietnam War who served in a tank battalion—as do his two main characters. Gill’s real-life unit took part in the 1970 incursion into Cambodia.

His small, readable, and engaging novel covers some familiar territory. It features the 2/34th Armor and a battalion of M-48 tanks. The familiar Vietnam War novel (and memoir) territory includes mentions of John Wayne, Rambo, shit-burning , newbies, dapping,33 beer, the fog of war, and “Indian country.”

There is a character called Sgt. Rock who thinks that Vietnam should be bombed back into the Stone Age. The characters listen to Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and Roger Miller’s “Dang Me.” They chew Red Man and when fear strikes, they experience puckered assholes.

We are informed that 19 million gallons of Agent Orange were dumped on the war zone and that Rome plows took care of the rest of the jungle. The Bob Hope Show makes an appearance and the troops are labeled baby killers, rapists, and murderers. The wizard of the title is Spec 4 Merlin James Hogan, who receives a Silver Star for courageous actions under fire.

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The novel is written in the language of the time and the place. Here’s a sample:

“Demetry had come in country not long after I was assigned to 2/34th and, as it turned out, he ended up replacing me on the back deck when Red made me the loader for Double Deuce.”

Gradually the reader gets used to the special language and can easily figure out what is happening.

This is a novel easily read in one sitting, and most people probably will rip right through it.  I recommend it to those curious about American tanks in the Vietnam War.

–David Willson