Blaze of Light by Marcus Brotherton

Every American should know the life story of former Green Beret—and Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient—Gary Beikirch. It’s an admirable life filled with honor, valor, service, and humility. And with severe physical and mental pain and anguish.

Gary Beikirch was born and raised in Rochester, New York. He struggled through a rocky childhood after his father deserted the family when he was in first grade. When he was twenty, Beikirch dropped out of college and joined the Army in August 1967. He volunteered for Special Forces, made it through the physically, emotionally, and intellectually vigorous SF training, and opted to become a medic.

Gary Beikirch arrived in Vietnam in July 1969. He wound up serving with a 5th Special Forces Group A Team in a remote Montagnard village called Dak Seang about a mile from the Laotian border in the jungles of the Central Highlands.

Beikirch found his calling tending to the medical needs of Montagnard men, women, and children. Like other Special Forces medics, he treated a myriad of health conditions, from pulling teeth to delivering babies, treating tropical diseases, and removing shrapnel wounds. He bonded with—and came to love—the Montagnard people, especially a 15-year-old boy named Deo, who more or less became his bodyguard.

On April 1, 1970, an NVA force numbering in the thousands launched a surprise human-wave attack on the camp. Caught off guard, the Green Berets and Montagnard fighters (and their families), suffered huge casualties. Beikirch and the other Green Berets sprang into action, defending the camp. Not long after the battle began, as he ran into the teeth of the assault to rescue a wounded Green Beret, a shrapnel burst knocked him unconscious. When he came to, Beikirch couldn’t walk—the metal had lodged near his spinal cord.

He shook off the injury and ordered Deo to carry him back to the perimeter to continue fighting the enemy and treat the wounded. Somehow—without the use of his legs—he helped rescue wounded Americans and Montagnards and treat them in the medic shed. During that time he was shot a second time, in the side. Again, the young Green Beret was treated and Deo took him back to the fighting. Beikirch took another bullet, this time in the stomach, but he refused entreaties to get back under cover. He continued to fight, even with Deo and two other men carrying him on a litter.

Then NVA rockets started falling. Deo jumped on top of Beikirch during a barrage and paid for that selfless act with his life. Somehow, Beikirch continued to fight until he collapsed and was medevaced out. The fighting would go on for nearly a month.

Next came months operations in hospitals in Vietnam and back in the U.S.A. He had to learn to walk again. When he recovered, Beikirch asked to be sent back to Vietnam. Instead, he spent his remaining time in the Army at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. When he took his honorable discharge, Gary Beikirch enrolled in college again. That’s when life got really rough.

“The war injured me physically,” he said in a TV interview in 2019, “but it was my homecoming that destroyed me.”

Being all but shunned and scorned by antiwar college students, he dropped out and for the next few years fought what seemed a losing battle with severe PTSD. He tried self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. He tried turning to the Bible. To little avail. Beikirch wound up living in a cave in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for nearly two years trying to come to terms with the carnage he’d experienced in Vietnam and survivor guilt—even after receiving the Medal of Honor in 1973 in a ceremony at the White House.

When Beikirch met his future wife Lolly in 1975, his life began to turn around. Her love and attention (and their embrace of Christianity) eased much of the psychic burdens he wrestled with. He graduated from White Mountain Seminary in New Hampshire, and two years later earned a BA in Psychology and Sociology from the University of New Hampshire. In 1981, he received an MS in Education Counseling specializing in adolescent psychology, trauma, and PTSD, from the State University of New York at Brockport.

Gary and Lolly Beikirch in 2019

But during those years there were setbacks and backsliding. Soon after Vietnam Veterans of America was founded in 1978, Gary Beikirch joined the fledgling organization and became one of VVA’s early leaders. He helped form Chapter 20 in his hometown of Rochester, and served as its first president from 1981-84. He was elected the first president of VVA’s New York State Council in 1982, and served in that position till 1984, and also did a 1983-85 term on the VVA National Board of Directors.

In 1981, Gary Beikirch—who was running Rochester’s pioneering Veterans Outreach Center and serving as a team counselor there—joined a small group of VVA leaders including then-president Bobby Muller that made a controversial trip to Vietnam to work on POW/MIA and other issues with the former enemy.

In the summer of 1988 Beikirch began working full time as a school counselor at Greece Arcadia Middle School in his hometown. That’s when he overcame the worst of his PTSD and became a loving husband and father—and a caring mentor to countless young teenagers. He spent nearly 25 years at that job. Since his retirement in 2013 Biekirch has traveled the country speaking to students, church groups, veterans, and others about overcoming adversity through faith and what he has called “finding love and being able to experience it” and “loving others more than myself.”

Marcus Brotherton, who specializes in writing inspirational books about military men, worked closely with Gary Beikirch to put together Blaze of Light: The Inspiring True Story of Green Beret Medic Gary Biekirch, Medal of Honor Recipient (Waterbrook, 261 pp. $26). Brotherton uses much reconstructed dialogue to tell Beikirch’s story in a style that calls to mind books aimed at young-adult readers. He stresses positives, but Brotherton does not shy away from describing the many low points in Beikirch’s life.

There is a strong emphasis on religion, which is fitting giving how important becoming a Christian had in bringing Beikirch out from the depths of emotional despair.

Brotherton mentions Vietnam Veterans of America only once in Blaze of Light, in the final chapter. He provides no information about the nation’s only congressionally chartered veterans service organization that concentrates on working for Vietnam War veterans and their families—other than writing that we are “a group.”

There’s not a word in the book about Gary Beikirch’s important role in VVA’s early years on the local, state, and national levels.

–Marc Leepson

Receiving the Medal of Honor at the White House in 1973

Military Medals of America by Frank Foster

 

Frank Foster’s Military Medals of America (Medals of America Press, 232 pp., $34.95, hardcover; $29.95, paper) is a reference book jam packed with information on all U.S. (and some foreign) military medals, decorations, and awards. The book is beautifully printed and bound, and worthy of a coffee-table location—both as a conversation starter and the final word on military medals and awards.

The book takes the reader through a well-researched and richly illustrated history and explanation of military awards. Author Frank Foster—a retired Army colonel who served in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and with the USARV General Staff—begins his history with pre-Roman references, but primarily focuses on the period from World War II to the present.

The book as well includes a series of steps about how to obtain missing medals, how to display medals, and how to correctly wear medals, decorations, and awards for both veterans and active-duty personnel.

Foster, the editor of Military Medals of America Press, explains the differences between decorations, service medals, ribbon-only awards, unit citations, and attachments. He also presents us with The Pyramid of Honor—an illustration of the range of medals and awards from the least to most important, along with a bit of commentary for each one. He also looks deeply into the history and awarding process for the Medal of Honor.

Of particular interest to most of us is the section devoted to the Vietnam War, which for medal purposes spans the years 1961-73. Foster has sections on the U.S. Vietnam Service Medal, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (for early involvement), and the three South Vietnamese medals awarded to U.S. service personnel: the Armed Forces Honor Medal, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, and the Civic Actions Medal.

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The author has developed, and presented, a wonderful reference piece for anyone with an interest in the awards created for, and presented to, U.S. armed forces as an acknowledgment for their service. This reviewer rarely recommends a purchase; but, in this case, you will not at all be disappointed.

–Tom Werzyn

 

Zero to Hero by Allen J. Lynch

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Allen J. Lynch’s Zero to Hero: From Bullied Kid to Warrior (Pritzker Military Museum & Library, 370 pp. $25) is a well-crafted, well-edited, and well-presented book.

In it, Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient Allen Lynch takes us from his childhood in industrial South Side Chicago, through multiple high schools he attended in Illinois and Indiana, and to a memorable Army experience. While life at home growing up was good, Lynch also went through many school-bullying episodes, causing low self-esteem and loneliness issues that haunted him for decades.

After high school graduation in 1964, college was not in his future, so after a few no-growth jobs, Lynch decided that the military offered the best way out of the neighborhood. He joined the Army and in the book tells of his military schooling and deployments. In Germany he decided that an assignment to Vietnam would realize his objective of becoming a warrior.

Lynch takes us through his moves in-country and then to his permanent assignment with the 1st Cav in the Tam Quan area of Binh Dinh Province in the Central Highlands. There he recounts his combat activities, including what happened during a December 15, 1967, firefight when his courageous efforts under fire rescuing fellow troopers resulted in Allen Lynch being awarded the Medal of Honor in 1970.

Upon returning to the States, Lynch’s planned Army career was truncated by family circumstances. With his father’s health declining, he stepped away from the military. He met, courted, and married the love of his life, Suzie. They had three children and remain together to this day.

Lynch later rejoined the Army through the Reserves, rising to the rank of 1st Sergeant. In a series of civilian jobs he worked as a Veterans Benefits Counselor for the VA, and later counseled veterans on employment opportunities.

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Allen J. Lynch

In his book Lynch does not shy away from describing what he calls “the dragon,” post-traumatic stress disorder, which he has had since returning from Vietnam.

He mostly dismissed the symptoms when they first appeared, but later realized he had PTSD, sought therapy, and received “the tools first to keep PTSD in check and then to defeat it when it reared its ugly head.”

In short, this is a very readable offering from a very humble—and ultimately successful—Vietnam War hero.

–Tom Werzyn

Company of Heroes by Eric Poole

Eric Poole’s Company of Heroes: A Forgotten Medal of Honor and Bravo Company’s War in Vietnam, which Henry Zeybel reviewed on these pages when it was published in hardcover last year, is now out in paperback (Osprey, 320 pp., $15).

The book tells the story of Spec 4 Leslie H. Sabo, Jr. of Bravo Company in the 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, Sabo received the Medal of Honor posthumously after nearly single-handedly fighting off a large enemy attack during the 1970 Cambodian incursion.

“I believe that too many Vietnam War grunts never received the honors they earned. That is why books such as Company of Heroes are important,” Zeybel wrote in his review.

“They chronicle people and events on the verge of disappearing.”

—Marc Leepson

For No Good Reason by Steve Banko

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Steve Banko dedicates his firs novel, For No Good Reason (No Frills Buffalo/Amelia Press, 318 pp., $14.95, paper), to the 1st Cavalry Division Garryowen troopers of Company D, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry who fought and died on December 3, 1968. Banko served sixteen months in Vietnam where he was wounded six times and received the Silver Star in addition to his four Purple Hearts.

For No Good Reason is a blood and guts Army infantry novel. My impression is that Banko drew heavily on his own wartime experiences for the narrative. In the acknowledgements he informs the reader that John Holcomb, his good friend, died saving Banko’s life on December 3, 1968, and that Holcomb was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. Banko made it home to grow old and bald.

For No Good Reason namechecks both the usual and the unusual, including John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Sgt. York, Racquel Welch, Goldie Hawn, and Superman. Shit is burned in the rear and we are admonished to get the hell out of Dodge, and that we “gotta get out of this place.” The place is Indian Country where Pancho Villa is also making a stand. The “hurting kangaroo” I encountered was new to me. I predict I’ll not see him again.

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Steve Banko

The writing is made up of short sentences and punchy expressions. Here is a typical example:

“I was thinking of our next move when some screaming and shooting came from our right. Our two buddies got a bead on the machine gun when he opened fire on us and assaulted from behind it. It was like John Wayne and Audie Murphy came flying to our rescue. They were shooting and screaming and acting all kinds of crazy. When one gook fell from the tree, we got the message and started shooting too. When we stopped to reload, everything was quiet.”

Banko’s prose hooks the reader and never lets go.

I recommend this war thriller to those who have not overdosed on infantry action books.  It moves right along, never stopping for idle moments.

—David Willson

You Don’t Lose ‘Til You Quit Trying by Sammy Lee Davis and Caroline Lambert

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The fight begins with a North Vietnamese Army mortar attack that detonates a makeshift ammo dump at Fire Support Base Cudgel. One round momentarily stuns PFC Sammy Lee Davis, one of forty-two U.S. Army artillerymen at the site. Then a bugle call signals a charge by hundreds of NVA soldiers.

Sammy Lee Davis, with Caroline Lambert, describes that scene to begin You Don’t Lose ‘Til You Quit Trying: Lessons on Adversity and Victory from a Vietnam Veteran and Medal of Honor Recipient  (Berkley, 275 pp.; $27 hardcover; $13.99, Kindle). Davis received the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. But the book recounts far more than that event.

Sammy Davis most definitely is his own man, fully cognizant of his capabilities. His greatest attributes are self-sufficiency and unselfish concern for others. His upbringing had role-model quality. His parents and two older brothers taught him how to take care of himself, traits he passed to two younger sisters and another brother. His mother repeatedly told him, “You don’t lose ’til you quit trying,” which she learned from her father.

Davis was precocious in dealing with everyday matters. He learned to drive at the age of five, and got his license at thirteen. At eight, he learned to handle firearms and hunt. He always had a job—as newsboy, a cook, a lumberjack., a powder monkey. When he enlisted in the Army at twenty in 1966, he followed a family tradition of military service that stretched back to the Spanish-American War.

At Cudgel, wounded by both enemy and friendly fire, Davis singlehandedly fought back with his rifle, a machinegun, and a howitzer. His actions stalled the NVA charge, then he crossed a canal under fire and rescued three wounded and stranded infantrymen.

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Sammy Lee Davis 

His post-battle story follows a pattern that challenges reason. His injuries included kidney perforations and vertebra inflicted by flechettes that also shredded his lower back; a bullet in his leg; ribs separated from his sternum; shrapnel wounds and burns across his face, hands, and neck; and traumatic brain damage. Doctors treated Davis in Saigon and then shipped him to  Japan. He appeared destined for return to the United States. Instead, Davis persuaded Gen. William Westmoreland to allow him to return to his unit as soon as he could walk.

“I still don’t know how I managed to convince anyone to call the highest-ranking U.S. general in Vietnam,” Davis says.

Davis returned to Saigon for rehabilitation and eventually to his unit at Tan Tru, where he completed his recovery. He fought in Cholon during the 1968 Tet Offensive. In March of that year he finished his tour of day.

His return to the United States included a band of hippies accosting him and two traveling companions at the airport in San Francisco with acts of disrespect beyond anything I knew. The confrontation introduced Davis to the fringes of the antiwar movement.

During his last eighteen months on active duty, Davis often was assigned to speak publicly on behalf of the Army. He experienced more disrespectful treatment. After his discharge and up to today, Davis has continued to make public appearances and speak to “whoever will listen,” including veterans, soldiers, business people, and schoolchildren. His goal in life is to be “a good man.” His speeches emphasize duty, honor, and country. He tolerates protesting war but not the warrior.

Medical problems have plagued Davis since his discharge. Agent Orange damaged his body in ways that required many operations. He also suffered from post-traumatic stress with nightmares and flashbacks. For years, he slept only in two-hour increments.

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Sammy Davis receiving the Medal of Honor from President Johnson in November 1968

Beyond describing the events in his life, Sammy Lee Davis also provides an insightful picture of what it is like to receive a Medal of Honor. The award brings a high degree of recognition and privilege. But, of course, the act that qualifies a person for the medal also elevates that person far above average. I was unaware of several of the well-deserved benefits MOH recipients receive.

“The Medal of Honor changed my life in ways I never expected. Wearing it comes with duties and obligations,” Davis says, “honoring what it represents and refraining from anything that would tarnish what it stands for.”

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

 

By Honor Bound by Tom Norris and Mike Thornton with Dick Couch

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If you get your hands on a copy of By Honor Bound (St. Martin’s Press, 288 pp., $26.99; $12.99, Kindle), skip the blurbs on the book’s jacket as well as the Forward, Preface, Introduction, and Epigraph. The book’s subtitle—Two Navy SEALs, The Medal of Honor, and a Story of Extraordinary Courage—provides all the background you need.

Start reading on the first page—”Part 1: Bat 21″–in which prolific author (and former SEAL) Dick Couch tells the story of Tom Norris and Mike Thornton so completely and seamlessly that if you are the least bit militarily inclined, he will instantly capture your full attention. His narration unreels with mounting suspense.

I was continually dazzled by the selfless dedication of Norris and Thornton, both of whom received the Medal of Honor for carrying out rescue and reconnaissance missions behind North Vietnamese Army lines near the Cam Lo bridge and inside the Demilitarized Zone in 1972.

Couch took me into the SEAL world and I simply could not stop reading. In one sitting, I finished the book’s first 170 pages, which describe Norris and Thornton’s heroic efforts. The magnitude of their dilemmas and feats left me teary-eyed and speechless, incapable of reading the best passages aloud to my wife.

Their operational principle was “Hope for the best but plan for the worst.” They encountered the worst of the worst. I won’t say more about what happened because I might lessen the impact for readers of the surprise, awe, and admiration produced by their actions. It is better to hear the facts from Couch.

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Dick Couch

Yes, other people have written about these men, but never with so much depth and detail. Norris and Thornton told their stories to Couch, and he expanded them with interviews from eyewitnesses and his own expertise as a SEAL veteran of the Vietnam War. Couch also flawlessly interweaves history lessons relevant to their heroic actions.

By Honor Bound is his twenty-second book related to military activities, eleven nonfiction and eleven fiction.

The last part of the book describes the post-war lives of Thornton and Norris, which include Navy and FBI adventures almost as fascinating as their earlier experiences. These accounts also include eyewitness testimony.

In a final tribute to Norris and Thornton, Couch says, “Not only were they incredibly heroic during these events, but they were almost superhuman—even by Navy SEAL metrics.”

If you read this book, I predict that you will agree.

—Henry Zeybel