Thank You For Your Service: Battling PTSD by Richard Baker

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Richard Baker served with the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division Band in Vietnam from 1966-67. He and I were in Vietnam at exactly the same time, but we did very different things. He didn’t spend much time playing in the band, but learned how to fight a war he knew nothing about. He was wounded twice and has battled PTSD since he came home. Thank You for Your Service: Battling PTSD (387 pp. $15, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is about that battle and it is a very interesting one.

I didn’t expect the book to be about boxing, but that is what it largely turned out to be. It’s also about suicide, music, nightmares, and sex.

Baker is tempted to tell the Vietnamese, he writes, that he was “happy to be involved in killing over a million people from a 3rd world country who wanted the freedom to govern their own country and to help save our democracy and way of life by keeping those vicious, evil, forces from rowing across the Pacific to sling a few arrows at the West Coast. Had I not gone, I would have been sent to prison.  Such is the life in an American democracy.”

The above paragraph is a fair example of what Baker has to say in this book. He is careless with punctuation, but careful with ideas. This is a beautiful book, filled with poetry and philosophy and should be read by everyone who plans to enter the military. The book is a warning and a rant about America and how we have treated the rest of the world.

I enjoyed every page of this book, just as I enjoyed the more than a dozen other books of Baker’s that I have read that relate the American war in Vietnam. Richard Baker has written more than two dozen books, including Shellburst Pond, Janus Rising, Shattered Visage, Feast of Epiphany, Gecko, Smoke Tales, The Last Wire, The Flag, The Last Round, Siege at Dien Bien Phu and Cow Bang.

He starts off this latest book with a short essay on how boxing and war relate. Boxers and soldiers often share a common social status, he notes. They come from the middle to lower classes and occasionally constitute the bottom stratus. Food for thought.

Buy this book and Richard Baker’s other books. You will have invested your money well.

—David Willson

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Memoirs of a Rotor Head by Patrick Michael Ramsey

A justifiable bitterness pervades Patrick Michael Ramsey’s Memoirs of a Rotor Head (Mennonite Press, 152 pp. $31.01, paper; $3.99, Kindle). In 1970-72, Ramsey flew back-to-back Vietnam War tours as a UH-1 pilot. He survived everything the enemy threw at him, but also saw close friends get killed. Now he is dying from cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange and other highly toxic defoliants. And he feels betrayed.

With the draft breathing down his neck, Ramsey enlisted in the Army late in 1967, and was inducted on January 8, 1968. “First and foremost,” he says, “I am an America serviceman” who has “flown in harm’s way to protect the freedom of Americans.”

The first half of his memoir shows how Ramsey prepared for, and then participated in, the Vietnam War.  Amid a climate of hyperactivity bordering on chaos, Pat Ramsey joined the 7th Air Cavalry at the beginning of the 1970 incursion into Cambodia.

With only thirty hours of combat flying, Ramsey was upgraded from copilot to pilot. Simultaneously, he took charge of crew assignments. Furthermore, because he went through infantry AIT, Ramsey was assigned command of a twenty-man platoon and helicoptered into the field as a grunt. To my disappointment, he provides few facts in his book about that responsibility beyond expressing his joy in hearing “that wop-wop-wop of the rotor blades” of helicopters en route to extract his unit.

His view of the war reflects nervous dedication to tasks that were questionable from their beginning. He admits to living for the excitement of facing danger, but an excitement tempered by near disasters. His stories gave me the impression that his unit operated with minimal leadership. The men seemed to do whatever they thought necessary at any moment. Losses were the consequence.

Ramsey complements stories about his experiences by giving history lessons about the war. In them, he summarizes Vietnamese history and America’s role in it.

Displeased with the paperwork mentality of a peacetime Army, Pat Ramsey ended his military career as a captain in 1973. From there, he sold insurance, married, divorced, raised a daughter as a single parent, and for five days a month flew CH-54 Sky Crane helicopters for the National Guard.

After twenty years, with pension money in his pocket and a daughter off to college, he resumed his search for adventure and became a medevac pilot for Life Star. Six years of “from fully asleep to fully alert in thirty seconds,” as he puts it, was enough, so Ramsey enrolled at Kansas State and earned a second bachelor’s degree in three semesters. He then joined the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. He later worked as a National Park Service Ranger in six parks in twelve years—all of which he describes in travelogue-like language in the book’s second half.

In 2007 doctors told Ramsey he had Parkinson’s Disease, “for which there is no cure, only death,” as he puts it. Three years later, the VA conceded that his problem was the result of exposure to Agent Orange. In his memoir, Ramsey calls for accountability by the manufacturers of defoliants that were used in Vietnam.

Five pages titled “Everything I Ever Needed to Know in Life, I Learned as a Helicopter Crewman in Vietnam” summarize his war experiences and close Memoirs of a Rotor Head on a note of gallows humor.

Ramsey is donating all profits from the book’s sale to a veterans service organization.

—Henry Zeybel

The Grotto by Harold G. Walker

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Harold G. Walker learned to fly helicopters for the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam, but he did not know why until he arrived in country. As he puts it: “I didn’t become aware of any reason for the war until I was in it.”

Walker writes about his first three months of flying CH-46D Sea Knight missions in The Grotto Book One: Phu Bai, Vietnam 1969-1970 (Dragonfly, 463 pp. $19.99, paper, $3.99, Kindle). Book Two, which will cover his next nine months flying from the Marble Mountain Air Facility in Da Nang, will be published in September.

Walker calls his writing style “literary nonfiction” because “very few names have been changed.” He lists “current interviews, conversations recalled, reviews of declassified material, and reflections of document-able situations” as his sources. He adds credence to his stories by including photographs of most of his cohorts the first time he mentions them.

Walker’s view of war includes successes and failures. He tells nightmarish stories that made me rethink the entire theory of helicopter flight—let alone employing such machines in combat. He lauds the Marine Corps with brief combat history lessons and frequently pays tribute to the valor of Grunts (a word he always capitalizes).

He does not glorify his own accomplishments, but relishes telling of the heroics of men who flew alongside of him.

At Phu Bai, Walker joined HMM-262 as a first lieutenant copilot. “We did everything: combat troop assaults, medevac, resupply, reconnaissance inserts and extracts, routine administrative support, VIP, humanitarian assistance,” he says, “and any other type of flight imaginable.”

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1st Lt. Walker, Chu Lai, 1970

Amazingly, in his memoir Walker duplicates the temperament of the man he was fifty years ago at age twenty-four, as he reflects the awe he felt toward his duties and squadron mates. After his first Third Force insert, he writes, he felt “strangely at peace.”

During his first medevac, he “couldn’t help but think how exciting this was. It was surreal.” Afterward, he thought, “I had no further aspirations.”

Accounts of interpersonal relationships dominate parts of the book. Significant tension existed between men of different ranks, experience levels, and ages—primarily among the officers. Walker and his fellow young lieutenant FNGs occasionally misbehaved like college kids. Machismo dictated their behavior. After a couple of months, they christened their eight-man hooch “The El Mossy Grotto,” then, “The Grotto,” a gathering place for the young to distance themselves from higher-ups who frequented the Officers’ Club.

After serving in Vietnam, Walker became a Huey pilot in the Marine Corps Reserves. In 1991, his squadron was activated for the first Persian Gulf War. He retired in 1996 as a lieutenant colonel.

His website is haroldgwalker.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

Memories Unleashed by Carl Rudolph Small

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Carl Rudolph Small’s Memories Unleashed: Vietnam Legacy (Casemate, 192 pp. $29.95) is a strange hybrid. Though billed as a memoir, it’s told as a series of short stories written in third person with no names mentioned. Small refers to himself as “the marine” or “the sergeant,” while his girlfriend at the time, now his wife, is “Her” or “my Love.”

Divided into forty-three short chapters, running four or five pages each, this story starts in a small Vermont community in 1969 and drops the Marine into combat his first day in Vietnam. He receives a “flesh wound” and expresses no sense of fear throughout the incident. He’s nineteen years old. He also tells of two men he knew who were killed before they had been in-country for a full day.

Small chose not to talk about his wartime experiences for more than forty years before deciding to write them down to share with his family. The book is based, he says, on his “memories and nightmares” of thirteen months as a Marine in I Corps, during which he engaged in search-and-destroy operations, day patrols, and night actions. He received three battlefield promotions.

Individual chapters tell of him burying a Vietnamese man without letting anyone know; running into his girlfriend’s brother who was also serving; almost accidentally killing a buddy in a friendly-fire incident; secretly carrying a dog on operations; and watching a competition among several men who intentionally went into water to see who could get the greatest number of leeches to latch onto them.

In other chapters Small refuses an order to take his squad into action because he doesn’t trust the ARVN troops who would be going along. One time when his men were denied service because they hadn’t cleaned up after returning from action where they had made contact, he went into the beer hooch and threatened to use a grenade if they didn’t get served.

Other stories involve a Dear John letter, a tiger caught in concertina wire, and discontent among black Marines. In one chapter he mentions a morbid “death letter” that he carries, just in case, in which he tells his Love he’s sorry he didn’t make it home. He’s also involved in a bayonet fight to the death.

The combat action is well-described and all the stories are well told. That said, some of the stories seem clichéd. Others stretch any sense of credulity, and I didn’t know exactly what to make of them.

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The concept of writing a “memoir” in third person worked for me, as did the very short chapters. Complete stories can be told in a small number of pages if you do it right, and Small frequently does.

I like the idea of every Vietnam War veteran’s story being told and listened to. I just wouldn’t want readers to think the things in this book are typical of what most veterans experienced.

—Bill McCloud

Crash Course by H. Bruce Franklin

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In the coda of H. Bruce Franklin’s Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War (Rutgers University Press, 384 pp. $34.95, hardcover and Kindle) the author ponders what kind of country could “simultaneously produce both as shameful an abomination as the Vietnam War and the as admirable an achievement of the movement that helped defeat it.” Franklin suggests that only when the answer to this question is discerned, will the country cease its hawkishness, and end what he calls the “forever war.”

Libraries and bookstores may have trouble categorizing this book as it tackles history, political philosophy, social commentary, and cultural criticism, all recounted in the first person. Franklin has been a professor at Rutgers University for more than forty years, and has written nineteen books on a variety of topics, including Melville, Star Trek, and oceanography. His Vietnam War books include MIA, or Mythmaking in America and Vietnam and Other American Fantasies.

Though the title, “Crash Course” is suggestive of an analysis of American militarism since World War II, the book is essentially a memoir. In it, Franklin recounts his life from his birth in Brooklyn to his antiwar activities in the 1960s and 1970s.

Crash Course is a highly entertaining read, and Franklin’s talent as a writer is unmistakable. He writes about his humble upbringing as Jewish boy in Brooklyn, his time Amherst College, his work on the New York City docks, his stint as an Air Force navigator, and as a Ph. D. student and professor at Stanford—where he remains the only tenured professor ever fired.

As Franklin weaves his life story with American political history, readers may find themselves nodding or shaking their heads; those on the Gore Vidal side of the Buckley-Vidal Vietnam War debate, up and down, those who agree with William F. Buckley, side to side. If Franklin’s opinions about the military industrial complex are tired and familiar, his prose keeps even a disagreeing reader engaged.

As the book is more personal than analytical, Franklin does not necessarily defend his thesis. He uses the term “forever war” essentially as a polemic to provide a backdrop for his life’s work. His mix of culture, myth, conspiracy, and history can be comically Manichean. To Franklin, the U.S. government is not just consistently erroneous, but sinister. This worldview allows for little nuance. Saying, for example, that the Vietnam War was a misguided tragedy and America was wrong in its entry and execution, does not necessarily mean that the North Vietnamese communists were right, let alone noble and just.

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H. Bruce Franklin

It is conceivable that the answer to Franklin’s concluding thought lies in the dynamism of America, a country that proverbially bends toward justice.

Franklin’s story is his own unique version of the American Dream: He was born poor and through his own guile and talent achieved his own version of success. It was not easy and he was not always treated fairly, but Franklin was ultimately given the freedom to vehemently oppose his government—and later the opportunity to write and teach while being employed by that same government.

Perhaps a better thought experiment is to imagine if that same poor boy in current-day Hanoi or Pyongyang would be afforded the same opportunities.

The author’s website is https://www.hbrucefranklin.com

—Daniel R. Hart

Through the Valley by William Reeder

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Through the Valley: My Captivity in Vietnam (Naval Institute Press, 256 pp., $29.95, hardcover and Kindle) is a well-written chronicle of Army Col. Bill Reeder’s time as a POW and his struggles adapting back in the “real world.” The book came out in hardcover in 2016, and Naval Institute Press has just been published in paperback ($21.95).

In 1971, Reeder returned to Vietnam for his second tour, and was assigned to fly Cobra helicopters for the 361st Aviation Company, aka the “Pink Panthers.”  On May 9, 1972, Reeder’s Cobra was shot down. He survived the crash and for three days hid in the jungle, before being taken prisoner. The majority of the book recounts his treatment as a POW. He had a broken back, three types of malaria, three varieties of intestinal parasites, an intestinal disease called tropical sprue, and a broken tooth.

After his capture, Reeder was marched for three months to Hanoi. He was released with the other POWs who were held in North Vietnam on March 23, 1973. It is said that he was the last American POW captured who survived the ordeal.

In the book Reeder includes an image of the actual telegram from the military to his wife informing her he was missing in action. Many of the POWs, including Reeder, ended up divorcing. He is now happily married to his third wife and is on good terms with his children and ex-wives.

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Col. Reeder

The last chapter is an account of what happened to many of the POWS who were with Reeder after they were released. I found this chapter fascinating. Reeder did a huge amount of research to compile this chapter and track these heroes down.

This is an outstanding memoir and I highly recommend it.

—Mark S. Miller

The Healing by Richard Jellerson

Once upon a time, Pan American Airways sold a special ticket for something called Flight One. It was akin to a magic flying carpet ride. Good for a year, a Flight One ticket entitled its holder to circle the earth, stopping in major cities as often and for as long as desired.

Back in that long-ago time during the Vietnam War—contrary to good reasoning—Richard Jellerson flew back-to-back tours with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company at Cu Chi. After each tour he bought a Flight One ticket.

Jellerson’s first earth orbit lasted only a month, the duration of his leave time between tours. His second trip took time enough to stabilize his mind for re-entry into society—and the onset of adulthood.

Jellerson’s The Healing: Pan Am Flight 001 (Outskirts Press, 148 pp. $15.95, paper) is an account of those journeys. The book is exceptionally well written. For that, Jellerson thanks screenwriter Todd Mattox, a cousin who brainstormed with him about the book, and “then acted as muse, editor, [and] occasional re-writer.”

Jellerson writes about truths that are evident, but unrecognized, in military life. For example, combat demands obedience to the desire for self-preservation, but the need disappears once the shooting starts.

He explains these types of things with lucidity filled with innocence, as if he had heard such truths in the past but only much later began to understand them. Paradoxically, one’s heightened senses reduces concern for one’s self, he says. “Through the war I had become a different person and still didn’t know what I didn’t know,” he admits.

He had to overcome contradictory thoughts to return home and establish a workable relationship with America, a nation that had betrayed him, he believed. Traveling to sixteen countries, Jellerson encountered a variety of people with whom he discussed life—people who “pulled him back from the edge,” he says. That includes:

  • A young Thai woman selling soda and telling him her dreamy vision of America
  • A news correspondent eagerly seeking war
  • Men and women in Australia, Italy, England, and Greece accepting him at face value
  • Jellerson himself pondering atheism and the certainty of no afterlife, thereby placing the burden of living on here and now.

At times, I felt the people he met were simply Jellerson’s alter egos, and he was talking to himself, straining to evaluate horrors that the war had revealed to him. He frequently flashed back to combat experiences—particularly rescuing the wounded—to build a foundation for his rehabilitation needs.

He sums up a turning point in his life with an observation that occurred in 1969 on his “second or third day of flying a combat assault” as a nineteen-year-old copilot:

“The enemy below this day was a wonder to see. They ran at full speed through the jungle in those light brown uniforms and pith helmets carrying all their weapons. These North Vietnamese Army regulars were fully committed to get to our landing zone ahead of us. They ran through the humid, deep green, overheated jungle with only one thought: shoot down the helicopters.”

His conclusion: “Until then I had only intellectually embraced even the concept of enemy.”

In those moments, Jellerson discovered a foe and surrendered his individuality to American politicians. Flight One helped him find it again. People of the world taught him a major lesson—that “no one hated me, and I hated no one. I had friends everywhere I went. And only had enemies in one small beautiful country in Southeast Asia by political mandate.”

I rank The Healing alongside my favorite books written by the youngest of men at war: A G.I.’s Vietnam Diary: A Journey Through Myself by Dominick Yezzo and Calm Frenzy: One Man’s Vietnam War by Loring M. Bailey Jr.

The three books tell more about the Vietnam War than a roomful of generals or overflowing stacks of Pentagon documents.

—Henry Zeybel