Reach for More by David M. Szumowski

Reach for More: A Journey from Loss to Love and Fulfillment (Dementi Milestone Publishing, 152 pp. $20, paper; $7.50, Kindle) by David M. Szumowski is an inspirational look at how one man refused to let the fact that he had been blinded in the Vietnam War determine what the rest of his life would be like. The story describes everything David Szumowski accomplished despite what many would have considered a handicap, leading up to being appointed a Superior Court judge in California.

Szumowski grew up in upstate New York. Both of his parents had been in the Army and served in France during World War II. The oldest of four boys, he took ROTC in college and after graduating in 1967 he was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. After training at Ft. Knox and Jungle School in Panama, he arrived in Vietnam in February 1969.

On March 20, Szumowski, an 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment tank platoon leader, was wounded during a day of heavy fighting near Dau Tieng. He had been in Vietnam for only forty days and had experienced only one firefight. The five 48-ton tanks under his command were patrolling near the Michelin rubber plantation when they came under attack. The last thing, literally, that David Szumowski saw was a flash of light.

He was immediately taken to a field hospital in Bien Hoa where he learned, after two weeks, that his war was over—and that he would never regain his sight. The young lieutenant was flown to Camp Zama, Japan, where he stayed for about three weeks. His next stop was stateside at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C.

Szumowski was medically retired from the Army, and then went through a 16-week rehabilitation program designed to teach him how to live without sight. He learned Braille, but realized he would never read a book in that manner because of how long it would take. He began listening to recorded books, instead, and believes he has “read”to more than 5,000 since then.

The bulk of Reach for More deals with Szumowski’s decision to attend law school, his short-lived private legal practice, a decade of service as a Deputy District Attorney, and an even longer period as a judge in California.

Judge Szumowski

Szumowski has kind words to say about the VA. Even though the agency “is currently under scrutiny for its lack of care to veterans,” he writes, “I am one veteran who benefitted greatly from VA programs and have only high praise for their programs and care.”

According to Szumowski success in life is the result of “playing the hand you are dealt, seizing opportunities that present themselves, having faith in God, and never giving up.”

There are several photos in the book, including an especially moving one of the author at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Szumowski represents very well the many veterans of the Vietnam War who have risen above physical problems they brought home and continue to serve as inspiring examples of the indomitable human spirit.

–Bill McCloud

Body Count Soldiers by Charles H. Smith & Just a Kid from Swampoodle to Vietnam by Edmond J. Cubbage

Vietnam War veterans have entered the twilight of their lives and many of us have yet to tell our stories, which have much to say about a controversial war and about ourselves during that time. The distance between that war and most of us is now a half century and the time remaining to capture the experience of being in the Vietnam War is growing shorter.     

Two U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division veterans have reached back many years, collected their memories, produced books about their very personal experiences. The books are Charles Smith’s Body Count Soldiers: Vietnam through the Eyes of a Draftee (117 pp., $15.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) and Edmond Cubbage’s Just a Kid from Swampoodle to Vietnam, (173 pp., $19.99, paper and Kindle). They are welcome additions to the Vietnam Ware memoir genre.

Charles Smith, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, presents his one-year odyssey as a young infantryman as a collection of day-to-day vignettes and observations. Because Smith was a draftee, he naturally addresses the unfairness of the Selective Service System and how privileged young men benefitted with exemptions, allowing them to avoid being drafted and serving in the war.

I was able, as one of many young enlistees who came from the underclass, to appreciate his thoughts. His comments about the distance he experienced between draftees and soldiers who enlisted brought back memories. I remember sitting around a campfire as the two groups jokingly commented on how each guy found himself in Vietnam by referring to each other by their serial number prefixes, “US” for draftees and “RA” for those who enlisted. The gist was that the RA’s were fools because they had joined the Army, while the US’s were there only because they were forced to be—as if it made any difference.

Many of Smith’s memories of being in the field are unembellished and low key. He describes what thousands of us faced: mosquito bites, dirt clinging to sweat-covered bodies, enemy fire, friendships, and sometimes tension between soldiers. And exposure to Agent Orange.  

He also recalls a question put to him and heard by too many of us when came home: “How many people did you kill?  When hearing that mindless question there is no way that I know to bridge the gap between those who fought in a war and those at home asking the question. After returning home, as Smith did, I became totally opposed to our involvement in the war and also angry about how the My Lai incident made all of us who served in Vietnam suspect in the eyes of many.

Body Count Soldiers was easy to read, enjoyable, and filled with shared experiences.

Edmond Cubbage’s Just a Kid from Swampoodle to Vietnam is similar to Body Count Soldiers, yet has significant differences. Once again, it was interesting to read about another Vietnam War veteran’s experiences and realize how much they were like my own. Like Cubbage, I had gone through airborne training before serving in Vietnam. 

However, I was taken aback when, as an aside, Cuggage inexplicably offers an unfounded explanation about why so many paratroopers were killed during World War II’s D-Day’s assault. Perhaps he did it to make sure the reader was paying attention.     

What’s more, when discussing the destructive consequences of Agent Orange, Cubbage cites a statistic that is inconsistent with the available data. Perhaps, when someone is trying to grasp the magnitude of that toxic chemical’s impact he can be forgiven for exaggerating to make a point.

The book is more rewarding when Cubbage focuses on his personal, down-to-earth experiences. He took me right back to ‘Nam the moment he brought up C-rations and mentioned ham and limas. “We all hated ham and lima beans; they were the worst,” Cabbage writes. As someone else once said, a can of ham and limas is “deadlier than a landmine.”  

It is Cubbage’s remembrances of the small things like the rations and the long nights in the jungle waiting and waiting for something to happen that capture so well the experiences many of us had in Vietnam. His descriptions of up-close combat will be familiar to war veterans. 

Cubbage’s memoir reads as if it is a series of passages excerpted from a young man’s journal, written as he is passing through an unfamiliar world shaped by the Army and combat in Vietnam.    

Both memoirs are honest reflections of what the war was really like for those who carried the burden of the conflict on their shoulders.

–John Cirafici

An American Soldier in Vietnam by Joseph J. Snyder

Joseph J. Snyder’s  An American Soldier in Vietnam (Sheridan Books, 95 pp. $19.95) may just be the most concise memoir ever written about a draftee’s two years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. In 95 pages of large text that includes 32 pages of sharply focused colored photographs that he took, Snyder tells his Vietnam War story, leaving out mundane facts and highlighting the foibles of military life.

He weaves short bursts of political criticism into his accounts of being pulled out of graduate school, receiving Vietnamese language and intelligence training, serving with the 25th Military Intelligence Company around Cu Chi and into Cambodia, and returning home to complete his master’s degree.

Snyder’s year in-country began in March 1970, a time of turmoil during the drawdown of American forces. After describing unusual events that he observed, he often allows the reader to reach his or her own conclusion about what was right or wrong. In that respect, his stories provide a lot of subtle humor.

Recognized by his commander for his ability to complete tasks, Snyder frequently operated on his own interrogating and judging the fate of prisoners, procuring counter-intelligence, and handling refugees. His off-duty freedom led to interesting experiences, particularly a strange R&R in Japan.

He returned home as an Spec. 5 with a Bronze Star and an Army Commendation Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster. Snyder later suffered two amputations resulting from exposure to Agent Orange–something he barely touches on in the book.

Joseph J. Snyder

In civilian life, Snyder built a family and careers as a U.S. Civil Service Commission investigator and as a writer, journalist, author, editor, and occasional publisher for four decades.

Joseph J. Snyder’s insightful Vietnam War memoir might make an excellent eye-opening gift for anyone considering a military career. Times have changed, but personalities and the system remain fixed.

Snyder knows that and shows it in this book. 

—Henry Zeybel

The Last Helicopter by Jim Laurie

Jim Laurie’s The Last Helicopter: Two Lives in Indochina (FocusAsia, 366 pp. $18.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a book that almost demands that a reader, upon completing it, sits back and digests what has just happened.

The book begins with Laurie, a budding, 22-year-old foreign correspondent, stumbling into Cambodia in early 1970 on one of his first assignments. While attending a military briefing he meets and befriends Soc Sinan, a young Khmer woman who was working for a French tractor company. The relationship that developed endures, often at a distance, off and on, for more than 50 years. 

Laurie covered the last years of the Vietnam War for NBC News, and later for ABC News. In 1975, he witnessed the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge, and left Soc Sinan behind as he fled on the last helicopter out of Phnom Penh. This was the first—but not the last—time that Laurie’s career, hubris, and self-interest combined to separate the couple.

After leaving Indochina, Laurie went on to report on wars and political upheaval throughout the world in a career what would span more than five decades.

In his book Laurie offers the reader his views of the hostilities that took place in Southeast East Asia, China, and elsewhere. In that regard, we get a foreign correspondent’s look at things that most people only get to see from a distance.

After the fall of Phnom Penh, Soc Sinan was forced into Khmer Rouge labor camps for more than four years. Laurie’s interviews with her provide a stunning look into the inhumanity that took place. Her commentary alone is worth the price of the book.

During the intervening time, Laurie continued to search for Sinan, and finally found her. The story of her rescue and departure from Indochina makes for page-turning reading.

Jim Laurie honored Sinan’s request for her ashes to be spread upon the Mekong River off the banks of her native Cambodian village birthplace. Her Buddhist spirit, he writes, reached back to those in attendance.

This is an interesting book. It’s well written and edited, and is a rare and refreshing departure from the usual battle-heavy books about the Indochina wars. 

The book’s website is jimlaurie.com/the-last-helicopter

–Tom Werzyn

Saigon to Pleiku by David Grant Noble

The U.S. Army sent twenty-two-year-old David Noble, a recent Yale University graduate, to Intelligence school and then to Vietnam as a member of the 704th Intelligence Corps Detachment in May 1962. At the time, according to Noble, American forces in Vietnam numbered barely 4,000, mainly advisers working with the South Vietnamese to save that nation from communist control. Starting as a believer in the cause, draftee Noble describes his transformation into a dissenter in Saigon to Pleiku: A Counterintelligence Agent in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, 1962-63 (McFarland, 204 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle).

An ability to speak French fluently offered Noble—a photographer and writer—the chance to pass as a civilian translator in Vietnam. More importantly, knowing the language allowed him to converse with many Vietnamese who had learned the language during French colonial times. None of the Americans Noble met, including his detachment head, spoke Vietnamese. And few Americans knew anything about the country.

Noble spent the first half of his tour in Saigon. His description of the city captures its mood and pace, which caused me to recollect and want to relive events I experienced there. He also tells fascinating stories about his achievements as a greenhorn spy. In particular, he developed friendships with a Vietnamese police chief and an Indian Army major who worked for the International Control Commission helping supervise the 1954 Geneva Accords. Information gathered from these sources elevated Noble’s stature with a hard-nosed commander who had initially belittled him.

Accordingly, the commander chose Noble and a master sergeant nearing retirement to start a branch of the detachment at Pleiku, the first of its kind in II Corps. The sergeant turned out to be a homesick alcoholic and soon allowed Noble to run the operation, which he did with enthusiasm.

Noble befriended civilian officials, businessmen, and Central Highland Montagnard tribesmen. He traveled extensively outside of Pleiku. He describes in detail the creation and dedication ceremony of Plei Mrong, part of a new Montagnard Strategic Hamlet program; a Viet Cong attack there two weeks later that killed and kidnapped villagers and burned down their homes; and the interrogation of 21 VC soldiers captured during the attack—another learn-as-you-go task he had to deal with.

Montagnard female militia unit in Pleiku, 1962. Photo by the author.

Timely actions and informative written reports earned Noble a letter of commendation from his hard-nosed commander, who praised him for producing “consistently outstanding results.” He later received the Army Commendation Medal.   

The book’s stories are beyond the norm. Noble leans heavily on about 60 letters he sent home and his mother saved. He uses long quotes from the letters to buttress his storytelling. The quotes often repeat what he has already written. This redundancy is acceptable, though, because the letters are highly informative.

He emphasizes that Saigon to Pleiku is a memoir about “what happened to me” and “not the story, whatever that may be.” He mentions, however, that in the pre-Gulf-of-Tonkin-Resolution days, secrets were secrets, and some are still secret today. The powers that be stymied Noble’s recent searches for reports he wrote.

Noble ends the book with a look at “The War at Home.” The section contains his thoughts about the peace movement, which he presents using newspaper articles, additional personal letters, journal entries, and even a caustic letter he wrote to President Richard Nixon. By then, Noble had become a dedicated opponent of the war and had attended many antiwar rallies and marches.

In my mind, the final section may have been unnecessary. Earlier in the book Noble had declared that Vietnam was “a land of peasant farmers caught in a political drama beyond their control,” and for me that says it all.  

Many excellent photographs Noble took of people and places in Vietnam in 1962 appear throughout the book.

The author’s website is davidgrantnoble.com

—Henry Zeybel

Bullets, Blades & Badges by D. L. Curtis

D.L. Curtis’ Bullets, Blades and Badges: Adventures of an Adrenaline Junkie (Chevalier Publishing, 130 pp. $7.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a neat little book. Curtis brings us an upbeat series of stories and anecdotes tied together with an account of his multi-pronged careers: as an Army airborne paratrooper in the Dominican Republic and later in South Vietnam, then as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, an off-shore helicopter pilot serving oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and lastly as a Dallas Police Department officer.

In an obvious labor of love, Curtis takes the reader along for a ride through reminiscences that start with his birth, literally, and end with his retirement as a decorated beat cop. It’s a true and interesting story of one man’s life experiences that doesn’t contain lots of blood and gore or a phalanx of curse words. Plus, you can easily finish reading it in an afternoon.

After his first Vietnam War tour as an infantryman, Donald Curtis mustered out of the Army. But he soon rejoined to pursue a career as a helicopter pilot. His accounts of his tours of duty in the war are light on battlefield specifics, but this broad-brush presentation carries the spirit of his exploits.

Curtis’s first literary effort is a well-edited and executed stream-of-consciousness book. It’s also truly enjoyable.

I strongly recommend it.

–Tom Werzyn

The Soul of a Warrior by Tim Rezac

The Soul of a Warrior by Tim Rezac

Tim Rezac dedicates his spiritually based Vietnam War memoir, The Soul of a Warrior: Spiritual Reflections from the Battlefields of Vietnam (Christian Faith Publishing, 168 pp. $22.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), to his wife Patty. The book, written from a Christian biblical perspective, aims to fortify the beliefs of fellow Christians and to enlist non-believers into their ranks.

Rezac was drafted into the Army in 1966 and served as a rifleman with the 25th Infantry Division in 1967-68. He took part in actions against the Viet Cong during many daylight search-and-destroy missions and nightly ambushes. He witnessed the deaths of many comrades. Rezac’s wartime experiences provided a foundation for preaching the benefits of believing in Jesus and the teachings of the Bible.

“I am extremely grateful for my year of combat in Vietnam,” he writes. “Some of the most prayerful, peaceful, worshipful moments of my life happened while sitting on a rice paddy dike in Vietnam.”

Each chapter of The Soul of a Warrior begins with a photograph. Then comes a war story related to the picture, after which Rezac reflects on Bible passages that relate to his war experiences. He ends each by suggesting practical applications for living a meaningful life.

Within twenty chapters, Rezac examines comradeship, fear, dreadful times, abiding peace, self-sacrifice, joy, grief, vengeance, gratitude, and more.  

After the war, Rezac married Patty, his high school sweetheart who wrote to him daily when he was in Vietnam. They raised two children. Rezac worked as a layout designer for General Motors for twenty years. Answering God’s call, he attended Divinity School and served as a pastor for twenty-four years.

Tim Rezac’s experiences in war and peace provide lucid arguments for his aims and give credibility to his suggested paths through life—even if a reader does not accept Jesus. At the same time, Rezac makes every effort to enlist his readers in the Lord’s army.

—Henry Zeybel

The A Shau Valley of Death by James Horne

Former Army Sgt. James Horne’s The A Shau Valley of Death (213 pp., paper), a truly cathartic book, is a tribute to his fellow 101st Airborne Division’s Sky Soldiers. Horne writes briefly about his Army stateside training, including NCO Shake and Bake school at Fort Benning, then dives into the story of his deployment into the A Shau Valley as a squad leader with B Company of the 101’s 2nd/506th in Vietnam in 1968-69.

He introduces us to the members of his squad and company, and notes their comings and goings from the unit as the daily grind of patrols and ambushes takes its inevitable toll on men and equipment. In constructing this book Horne operated mainly from memory, although he researched his unit’s daily and after-action-reports, which are available on line.

Victor Hugo, deep within Les Miserables, has a chapter titled, “Cemeteries Take What is Given Them.” All too often, self-published books can be similarly referred to. James Horne’s book—and his story—would have benefited hugely from some editing and proofing. What’s more, the book’s changing font sizes and photo placements serve to confuse and jar the reader, distracting from the story line. And the references to information that can be found on web, which come within lines of text, further tend to fragment his book.

I say this only to point to the fact that Jim Horne’s tribute could have been much greater and grander if he’d had some literary help and guidance.

Still, this is a good memoir full of love, respect, and tenderness for long-ago former comrades.

For ordering info, email jrhorne1051@gmail.com

—Tom Werzyn

Too Strong to Be Broken by Edward J. Driving Hawk and Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve

Bison Books at the University Nebraska Press’ American Indian Lives series contains autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs of Native Americans selected for their anthropological and historical interest and literary merit. The latest addition to this treasure trove is Too Strong to Be Broken: The Life of Edward J. Driving Hawk by Edward J. Driving Hawk and Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve (Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, 200 pp. $27.95, hardcover and Kindle).

The authors—brother and sister—wrote the book five years ago when Edward Driving Hawk reached the age of 80. They tell the story of his life in three psychologically and physically demanding sections.

A Lakota Indiana born in South Dakota in 1935, two years after his sister’s birth, Edward Driving Hawk lived an outdoor boyhood with plenty of hunting, fishing, and trapping. Accepting Great Depression hardships and periodic segregation from white people, Edward fondly remembers close relationships with his parents and grandparents who taught him tribal traditions that guided his behavior. He primarily attended federal government schools until the age of seventeen, then enlisted in the Air Force.  

Twenty years of military service filled the middle of his life. Trained as a Forward Observer, he saw action in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He loved guiding B29s and fighter-bombers from a front-line position against masses of North Korean troops—until they shot him through the leg.

Edward returned to the United States in 1955 and married Carmen Boyd, his high school sweetheart. They raised four sons and a daughter.

During the Cold War, he worked Distant Early Warning (DEW) lines at NORAD operations from Alaska to Ontario, Canada. He attained flying status and engaged in low-level EC-121 missions over Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis, and special flights over Panama, Hawaii, and Alaska.

His account of the 156 missions he flew in EC-121 surveillance aircraft during three six-month tours in Vietnam provided new information for me and made exceptionally interesting reading.

In referencing those years, Edward repeatedly says, “I drank but was still able to do my job.” Yet he also writes of “uncountable blackouts.”

Edward and Virginia Driving Hawk

He was not a special case. According to my recollections of the USAF in the fifties and sixties, drinking was the favorite pastime among military personnel. Too many simply did not know what else to do during off-duty hours, and officer, NCO, and airman clubs became second homes. After 14 years of alcoholism—and under the threat of being discharged from the Air Force— Edward Driving Hawk joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He’s been sober for more than 40 years. 

Events of his post-military life back in South Dakota comprise the most dynamic section of his memoir. He attained the rank of Chief in the Roseland Sioux tribe and then chairman of the National Congress of American Indians—a united voice for all the tribes of the United States. He befriended senators; presidents befriended him.

He details his vigorous work on behalf of Indian causes, although too often with limited success. He ran afoul of the FBI, was undercut by his associates, and wound up serving eight months in federal prison. At the same time, Edward endured bouts of  Post-traumatic stress disorder and developed cancer as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. After many operations, today he must use a wheelchair.

The value of this book is that it offers a broad view of American society from a member of a small minority. Edward and Virginia recount the good and bad aspects of an unusual life and he takes responsibility for his actions, including those that he most regrets. A dozen photographs and a Driving Hawk family tree enhance his narrative.

—Henry Zeybel

The Distant Shores of Freedom by Subarno Chattarji

The Distant Shores of Freedom: Vietnamese American Memoirs and Fiction (320 pp. Bloomsbury India, $39.73), is Subarno Chattarji’s thought-provoking consideration of the significance of literary works by people affected by the Vietnam War. Chattarji, a University of Delhi history professor, is also the author of Memories of a Lost War: American Poetic Responses to the Vietnam War.

His new, well-researched book analyzes many Vietnamese refugee writers’ tales of war, escape at sea, rape, re-education, refugee camps, and arrival in an alien land. The book is divided into three parts. The first includes memoirs of re-education camp and aftermaths. This is followed by women’s memoirs, then a chapter on Vietnamese American fiction. The overriding themes are war, memory, trauma, and displacement.

When the American war in Vietnam ended in 1975, so-called re-education camps were set up to orient Southerners in the ways of communist doctrine. In analyzing memoirs of camp experiences Chattarji focuses on what he calls “buried texts,” those that are lesser-known.

Camp memoirs tend to justify the war, demonize the communists, and express nostalgia for the former South Vietnam. At first, southern government officials were asked to turn themselves in for an expected month-long re-education experience. Once they did, they learned that to Northerners they were considered American collaborators.

Many of the works in this section are individual accounts of imprisonment, survival, and witness. An older man puts his experience this way: “War. Death. Prison. All my life I’ve never had any time I could call spring.”

Many Vietnamese immigrants arrived in U.S. with a sense of euphoria, which would soon be replaced by overwhelming anxieties about everything involved in building a new life in a new land. For some a great sense of accomplishment for surviving years of captivity was replaced by a sense of becoming almost a non-person in this country. Many refugees simply wanted, above all, to earn how to feel at home in a new land.

The section on women’s memoirs looks at five books. From them, we learn that many women with husbands in re-education camps or missing bore the brunt of the trauma of that separation. Refugee women, especially, expressed concerns about being considered throwaway people, and many lacked of a feeling of belongingness. Chattarji says it’s appropriate to consider women’s memoirs separately because male writers tend to focus on the survival of the Vietnamese people in general and great national problems, while their female counterparts tend to write about the challenges in their daily lives. The final part on Vietnamese American fiction looks at two important works, Monkey Bridge, a pioneering 1997 novel by Lan Cao, and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer.

I recommend putting The Distant Shores of Freedom alongside books that look only at the American experience in the Vietnam War. Chattarji’s book, with a thirteen-page bibliography and fifty pages of endnotes, drops the refugee experience of many Vietnamese Americans into your lap. In doing so, he helps to further humanize a group of people who to some still remain just a sidebar of America’s experience in the Vietnam War.

–Bill McCloud