The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, the founder and director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, began practicing psychiatry in 1978 at the Boston VA Clinic. On his very first day on the job he ran into an extremely troubled Vietnam veteran. That former Marine became “the first veteran I had ever encountered on a professional basis,” van der Kolk writes in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Viking, 464 pp., $27.95), his best-selling blend of memoir, clinical observations, and recommended treatments.

It won’t surprise any Vietnam veteran to learn that Dr. van der Kolk—who today is one of the most renowned experts on post-traumatic stress—ran into nothing but roadblocks at the VA in 1978 as he attempted to work with the former Marine and other Vietnam veterans with what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.

van der Kolk was not trained to deal with war-related post-traumatic stress. So after he began working with his first Vietnam veteran patient, he decided to read up on the subject at the VA’s medial library. van der Kolk  was looking for “books on war neurosis, shell shock, battle fatigue, or any other term or diagnosis I could think of that might shed light on my patients,” he writes.

Back in 1978, van der Kolk didn’t find one book “about any of those conditions” at the VA, he says. “Five years after the last American soldier left Vietnam, the issue of wartime trauma was not on anyone’s agenda.”

Bessel van der Kolk

After a breakthrough in 1980—when a group of Vietnam veterans working with pyschoanalysts Chaim Shatan and Robert J. Lifton convinced the American Psychiatric Association to recognize PTSD–van der Kolk wrote a proposal for a study that would look at traumatic memories and PTSD.

The VA rejected his proposal, saying: “It has never been shown that PTSD is relevant to the mission of the Veterans Administration.”

Nor surprisingly, van der Kolk soon left the VA, and went to work at Harvard University’s Massachusetts Mental Health Center. As frustrating as it was, van der Kolk’s experience at the VA proved to be good training. His experiences treating Vietnam veterans, he writes, “had so senstized me to the impact of trauma that I now listened with a very different ear when depressed or anxious patients told me stories of molestation and family violence.”

In many ways, he says, “these patients were not so different from the veterans I had just left behind at the VA. They also had nightmares and flashbacks. They also alternated between the occasional bouts of explosive rage and long periods of being emotionally shut down. Most of them had great difficulty getting along with other people and had trouble maintaining meaningful relationships.”

van der Kolk has spent more than three decades doing innovative work with veterans, their families, rape victims, and other survivors of trauma. In this well-written and readable book he explains how trauma rearranges the brain’s wiring and offers ways to treat PTSD. That includes neurofeedback, group role-playing, mindfulness techniques, and yoga.

You can make a case that one of the biggest influences on van der Kolk’s pioneering work has been the time he spent working with Vietnam veterans at the uncooperative VA back in the late seventies.

–Marc Leepson

Young Soldiers, Amazing Warriors by Robert H. Sholly

Robert H. Sholly’s Young Soldiers, Amazing Warriors: Inside One of the Most Highly Decorated Battalions of Vietnam (Stonywood Publications, 439 pp., $22.95, paper; $9.95, Kindle), his account of Company B, 1st Battalion, 8th Regiment, 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1966-67, is a stunning read. In the book Sholly supplements his activities as Company Commander with the recollections of the men he led, as well as with military records.

The book’s combat scenes are relentlessly gory. Most of the battle descriptions come from the men who were engaged in the furious action. I had not read a book that described combat at such high and prolonged intensity since We Were Soldiers Once…and Young. Not coincidentally, the action in both books took place in the Ia Drang Valley area.

Early in his book, Sholly—a member of Vietnam Veterans of America— writes: “In my mind, just about everything in Vietnam was against us, the enemy, the terrain and the weather as well as Brigade and Division. My judgment was still out on Battalion.” A captain (and former sergeant), he was serving the first of two Vietnam War tours.

For months, alongside the 1st Battalion’s other companies, Sholly and his men trolled up and down the western border of South Vietnam to attract North Vietnamese Army forces deployed in Cambodia and Laos. “Whether in fishing or other endeavors, bait never has a good time,” Sholly says.

Even half a century later, the stories of B Company’s debilitating and relatively unproductive search-and-destroy missions made me curse the incompetence of the American political and military leaders who condoned using our soldiers as sitting ducks. At the same time, I admired the perseverance of the men—most of whom were draftees—in fulfilling their duties. As Sholly says, “Many GIs resented being out in the bush in a war they didn’t invent.”

Making the best from the rigors of the assignment, Sholly used long marches into the mountains and valleys west of Pleiku for on-the-job training. He bettered the marksmanship of new guys, taught all ranks to read maps, and refined his lieutenants’ and sergeants’ ability to call in artillery and air support.

“In the Central Highlands, our enemy were well-trained, main force NVA divisions and regiments that attacked in waves with mortar support,” Sholly writes. “They preferred to find U.S. companies and attack in superior number with two battalions, ensuring large American casualty numbers without regard to their own losses.

Robert H. Sholly“Once the enemy committed himself to the attack with larger forces than ours, our companies drew themselves into a perimeter and inflicted as much damage as possible while the brigade or division put forces into the area to block his escape into Cambodia or Laos. While this may have been smart tactics on the larger scale, at the company level it was hardly a favorite.”

The rules of engagement restricted Americans from getting closer than one kilometer from the border to prevent an international incident by accidentally operating in the next country, Sholly writes.

Things began really heating up in March 1967. First, the NVA massed its forces and overwhelmed Company A. Company B went to the rescue, but only by fighting its own small war along the way. Two months later, Company B fell into a similar trap and depended on support from Companies A and C, a situation that developed into a series of battles stretching over three days.

In each engagement, American forces were outnumbered—by as much as twenty-to-one—and outgunned until artillery and air support arrived. Both sides took high numbers of casualties. At the end of one encounter, Company B’s Fourth Platoon had only seven survivors.

As a result of these actions, the Medal of Honor was awarded to 1st Sgt. David McNerney, Platoon Sgt. Bruce Grandstaff, Staff Sgt. Frankie Molnar, and PFC Leslie Bellrichard. Three of the four were posthumous.

At times Young Soldiers, Amazing Warriors has a textbook quality as Sholly explains the requisites for a platoon, company, and battalion leader. An infantryman from start to finish, Sholly readily discusses both his successes and failures. In combat, he set the example by stepping into the middle of whatever challenges his men faced.

Sholly makes only brief editorial comments and lets facts tell the story. When he does speak emotionally, his sentiments reflect deep devotion to his men. After his Fourth Platoon was practically wiped out, he says, “Finally, in the dark, between mortar attacks, I grieved thinking about all the good men we had lost for who knew what.”

Robert Sholly’s military career spanned thirty-five years. He retired as a colonel.

The author’s website is http://youngsoldiersamazingwarriors.com

—Henry Zeybel

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An Unbelievable Life by Rena Kopystenski

Rena Kopystenski’s An Unbelievable Life: The Woman Who Became Vietnam Veterans’ Voice Against Agent Orange (Strategic Media Books, 300 pp., $19.95, paper) is a tour de force of how one person can affect and benefit millions of others.

As Vietnam veterans know only too well, the U.S. military heavily sprayed the herbicide Agent Orange throughout South Vietnam during the war. The catastrophic effects on plant life were almost instantaneous; however, the effects on human life began to appear much later—and still wreak havoc in 2015.

Kopystenski encountered Agent Orange for the first time while watching a news broadcast in late 1977. She was pregnant with her first child when she heard the words “suspected of causing birth defects.” Knowing that her husband had been an Army door gunner on a medivac helicopter in Vietnam, she believed there might be a connection between his exposure to Agent Orange and her first child.

The author begins to describe the problems with her son Alex during his first few months of life. Skin conditions became prevalent almost immediately, followed by other painful and frightening ailments. At three and a half months, the child had severe stomach pains. He would have died had her husband not literally held a doctor against a locker until he agreed to take a second look at the boy.

These events with her child set the stage for Rena Kopystenski’s decades-long, national and international campaign to uncover the horrific price of Agent Orange.

Although the book needs some editing—the author consistently misuses the word “effect” for “affect,” for example—Kopystenski pulls no punches describing her quest for the elimination of AO and its extremely toxic byproduct, dioxin, and compensation for its victims.

She and her “band of brothers” formed Agent Orange Victims of New Jersey in 1978. Then, while listening to a news report, the author heard the words “dioxin, toxic waste, and children with cancer.” The battlefield expanded.

Throughout the book Kopystenski expresses her appreciation for the many people who worked with her in the struggle, including Annie Bailey, “a whole 100 pounds sopping wet,” who became known as a battler for the cause.

While the focus is primarily on U.S. citizens, the author takes the reader to present-day Vietnam to learn of the tragic rate of Agent-Orange-related birth defects among its people.

Rena Kopysenski

Kopystenski is not reluctant in pointing fingers at politicians, even in the Oval Office, who have taken little or no interest in the sufferings of AO victims. She is equally quick to thank politicians who have made an effort to right the wrongs.

Rena Kopystenski presented her findings to the International People’s Tribunal of Conscience in Support of the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange, which took place in Paris in May 2009. Both the chemical companies and the United States government were asked to appear; neither did.

The Tribunal noted: “Wars do not end when the bombs stop falling and the fighting ceases. The devastation continues long after, in the land and in the minds and bodies of the affected population.”

Today, in a world where the term “weapons of mass destruction” slides so casually from the tongue, An Unbelievable Life is a must-read.

—Joseph Reitz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vietnam Convoy Trucker by William Patterson

Xulan, a Christian-based press, guided Bill Patterson through the process of writing his memoir, Vietnam Convoy Trucker (202 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $19.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle). He could have benefited from a bit more guidance.

The book is slowed down by much repetition. Patterson tells the reader several times about his triple extra-large uniform and how he had a Long Binh tailor cut them down for him and what a good job she did and how he wore them for the entire time he was in Vietnam. He also mentions fifty-five gallon drums of Peneprime many times. It is a black, tarry substance that was applied to the roads to deal with the red dirt and dust, which Patterson, as a truck driver, did battle with every day in the Vietnam War.

Patterson enlisted in the U. S. Army Reserves during the summer of 1964. He was assured that by doing so he’d serve out his six years in the United States. In early 1968, he and his many friends in the 319th Transportation Company in Augusta, Georgia, were called to active duty status. Other reserve units who received this call fought the legality of it, but the 319th did not.

“We served honorably, won our medals, and commendations and came home,” he writes. “We did the right thing. I am proud to have been part of the effort.” Only one man from his unit died in Vietnam. “We acted in good faith,” he says. “We also made terrible mistakes.”

Unlike the overwhelming majority of those who served in the Vietnam War, Patterson went there with friends and neighbors, men he had known for many years back home. When their war was over, the men returned to Augusta, and remained in contact for the following decades. This experience is well-described and brings home how vastly different it was for most of us who were brought to that war individually. It is easy to see the advantages of being surrounded with old friends in a war zone.

The 319th arrived in Vietnam September 1968. “The next day we immediately began riding with another company on convoy runs to learn the routes and procedures,” Patterson writes.  Later, he takes stock of the war, seen from his front seat in the five-ton cargo truck he drove nearly 15,000 miles through South Vietnam, delivering troops, barrels of Peneprime, apples, oranges, ammunition, supplies, equipment, and canned food on pallets.

Patterson’s book describes the life of a convoy trucker so well that I see no need for another book on this interesting subject.  “The work was hot, dirty, and dangerous,” he writes. “I ate mostly C-Rations and drank water from my canteen. Our workdays were long and we did not get enough sleep. I saw and was near combat, ambushes, aircraft bombing and road mines, and was exposed to toxic chemicals and mental worry.”

Patterson’s unit logged over a million miles. When they returned home to the Bible Belt they encountered a cordial welcome, with little of the war protesting that others of us ran up against elsewhere. Patterson thanks President Nixon for enabling his unit to shave six weeks off their commitment and get home early.

He also complains bitterly about Jane Fonda. “While MS Fonda was enjoying herself consorting with our country’s enemy, hundreds of thousands of patriots were returning from war duty,” he says. “Her action and those of others caused some real disrespect to be shown towards these soldiers who had endured so much.”

I don’t think poor Jane Fonda can be blamed for the fact that when I tried to return to the state job I’d been drafted out of, I was told they didn’t want me back. It didn’t occur to me she was responsible at the time, and I don’t buy it now.

Patterson’s low-key narration and deadpan style makes this book an easy and pleasant read. He has a gift for understatement that I enjoyed. I highly recommend this book to those who have been jonesing for more information on Vietnam convoy trucking. This is the book.

—David Willson

 

 

Surprised at Being Alive by Robert F. Curtis

It takes Robert F. Curtis forty-two pages to get to Vietnam in his memoir, Surprised at Being Alive: An Accidental Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and Beyond (Casemate, 298 pp., $32.95 hardcover; $9.99 Kindle). But the wait was well worth the reading time.

Curtis’ eye for detail puts him in the top rank of my list of Vietnam War autobiographers. The precision of his style creates both the picture and the mood of acts as simple as crawling out of bed and shuffling to the flight line in the middle of the night.

Curtis repeatedly refreshed my Vietnam War memories. His highly personalized description of helicopter action during Lam Son 719 is the most straightforward account of that operation I have read. What’s more, Curtis injects historical references without breaking the narrative thread.

As a WO1, Curtis flew CH-47C Chinooks for the 101st Airborne Division in the 158th Aviation Battalion at Phu Bai. “For helicopter pilots at least, war stories don’t even require a war,” he writes. For war-time and peacetime missions, nights are just as dark, the weather just as bad, and loads just as heavy.

He describes helicopters as a “collection of thousands of parts flying in close formation” waiting for a “single-point” failure that, if it happens, brings the entire machine crashing down. Because helicopters do not have ejection seats and crews do not have parachutes, he says, “where the helicopter goes, also goes the crew.”

The book solidly supports Curtis’ claims and reinforces opinions held by other Vietnam helicopter pilots such as Bill Collier and Jim Weatherill in their recently published memoirs.

Robert F. Curtis

Curtis does not write about just the Vietnam War. His memoir covers a twenty-five-year, five-thousand-flight-hour career in helicopters. After leaving the Army, he flew with the Kentucky National Guard, the United States Marine Corps, and the British Royal Navy.

As a CW2 in the National Guard, Curtis’ tasks ranged from flying a governor on a tornado damage-assessment mission to helping state troopers spy on striking truckers from the air. Curtis flew an assortment of helicopters, and he details the peculiarities of each model.

The post-war section dispenses with the desperation in the earlier combat tales. The stories here are enlightening and funny. For example: “In the event of a complete loss of engine power at night, the pilot should turn on both the landing and searchlights. If he does not like what he sees, he should turn them off.”

After three years in the Guard, and with a new college degree and acceptance letters to two law schools, Curtis opted for a commission as a Marine aviator. Instructor duties, deployments, and exercises filled his years (1975-93) in the Marine Corps. He provides insights into helicopter operations from ships, mainly aboard the USS Guam, particularly at night. Without sparing the feelings of other services, he also highlights the Marine Corps’ distinctive approach to developing its Special Operations Capable units.

During two years of exchange duty with the Royal Navy, Curtis deployed from Africa to the Arctic. He mastered the difficulties of flying through brownouts from blowing sand and whiteouts from falling snow, on the ground and in the air. Operating from a ship in the notorious British fog further tested his airmanship. This section could have been titled “The Amazing Became Routine and the Routine Was Amazing.”

I found but one fault with Curtis’ thinking. He contends that success in flying results from “luck and superstition,” words that put final punctuation on most of his stories. Based on his stories and those of other pilots, I believe that success in flying helicopters results from the pilot’s skill and bravery that transcends fear—and, yes, perhaps with an occasional nod from Lady Luck.

On second thought, Curtis’ many references to “luck and superstition” that supposedly explain his surviving many narrow escapes from danger might simply be his way of downplaying his skill and bravery.

—Henry Zeybel

Those Who Remain by Ruth W. Crocker


On May 17, 1969, a North Vietnamese booby trap killed Army Captain David Rockwell Crocker, Jr., the commander of Alpha Company, 22nd Infantry, and three of his men. Although Dave Crocker’s wife Ruth had his body cremated, she also held a full military burial for a casket filled with her husband’s dress uniforms, her wedding gown, and letters he had written to her during their four years together.

A few months later, Ruth Crocker went to Switzerland and scattered her husband’s ashes at the foot of the Eiger’s North Face, his favorite spot on earth. After that, as a war widow at the age of twenty-three, Ruth tried to forget Dave. Forty years later, she had the casket exhumed “to excavate [her] deep love for this young man who transformed [her] world.”

Ruth Crocker’s story in Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War (Elm Grove, 283 pp., $18.95 paper; $5.39, Kindle) is a tribute to the power of young love and the depth to which it bonds people. Ruth Crocker tells of her recovery from losing her husband: basically, she had to overcome suppressing her grief.

Burying his letters was a defense mechanism: “I’ll never look back. I cannot look back,” she writes. “I don’t want to remember how much he loved me.”

Prior to meeting Dave, Ruth was part of a family closed to outside influences. Her parents owned and ran a Mystic, Connecticut, nursing home. The young couple married the day after he graduated from West Point. He introduced her to the world at large through travels across the United States for military training and while in Germany as an infantry platoon leader and aide-de-camp. They even scaled an “easy” level of the Eiger’s west side.

Ruth Crocker

Dave Crocker died two weeks before Ruth was to meet him for R&R in Hawaii. Death was not new to her, except that she had seen it as a process that took time among old people. Instead, her young husband was gone instantly. The Army’s mismanagement of notification, condolences, and information regarding how he died compounded Ruth Crocker’s confusion and helplessness. Her only solace came from her and her husband’s families.

The story jumps from when she spread the ashes on Eiger to 2006 to when she first attended an Alpha Company, 22nd Infantry reunion. The men of the company taught her that “fallen friends are ageless, frozen in time.” Their memories of their Captain were as vivid as hers and validated her feelings for him. Since then, she has attended all of the company’s reunions. Encouragement from men at the reunions led her to dig up the gravesite.

Opening the casket produced shock and disappointment along with enlightenment. The uniforms, gown, and letters had dissolved into a soggy clump. Ruth Crocker remembered that she had delivered Dave to the Eiger: that part of the story was perfect—and perhaps enough.

The author’s website is http://ruthcrocker.com

—Henry Zeybel

One Man’s Story by Michael Clark

For Michael Clark the road to Vietnam was as twisty and convoluted as a walk through the forest: stunning and green with its richness, covered with underbrush and sticker bushes in other areas, smooth and flat and compacted where it should be.

In One Man’s Story: Memoirs of a Vietnam Vet (Lulu, 176 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $13.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) Clark takes us through the four phases of his life, focusing on the most traumatic event of his life.

We get details of his childhood and youth; his draft induction, training, and misdirection in the Army; his 1970-71 tour in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division as a medic attached to the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Phu Bai, and his prolonged struggle to come to terms with what he endured in the war.

Clark’s childhood in Michigan gives way to outdoors as a youth, hunting, fishing, the Boy Scouts, high school, love, marriage, and the dreaded menace of a faraway war breathing on his neck. There is a not-so-funny recounting of how an Army trains, assigns, and mis-assigns people into military occupations. Clark wanted to be a Light Vehicle, Wheeled Mechanic, so they sent him to schools to be a medic and a physician’s assistant. When he arrives in Vietnam, there is no ‘open slot’ for him to fill.

Yet, as war heats up, choppers full of dead and dying men are medevaced and he is plunged into the nonstop gore: triage, eighteen-hour days, hideous wounds, burn casualties, blast injuries, limbs that cannot be re-attached or saved, shrapnel wounds, and the stress of doing everything, then losing more men than he can count. It’s a routine of ultra-long days, nights without food or rest, a dogged effort to survive, and memories seared into his soul.

Clark comes home in 1971 to an indifferent America, and begins the struggle to maintain a marriage, find work, and pay bills. He struggles with alcohol. The precision, the care, and the dedication of his work in Vietnam leads him to rebuild all of himself and his shattered psyche in slow measured steps.

During the next forty years Clark polishes his skills as a PA in operating rooms and emergency rooms. He also moves, changes jobs, restarts, and build houses, cabins, retaining walls, and wells–and he still feels the loss, anguish, and the isolation. He is blessed with a strong wife who struggles with him. It is clear that the cancerous growth that was his Vietnam experience eats at his psyche before he wrote his story and purged his soul of his war memories.

Throughout the book, we get Clark’s reluctance to serve, his opposition to the war, his reluctance to be drafted and be moved around for a disjointed mix of training and stateside military bureaucratic mistakes. Yet, when ordered to report for Induction, Michael Clark did his duty.

Michael Clark

Michael Clark’s post-war demons were not unlike those of many other veterans. In his last chapter, Clark goes into excruciating detail about the many repair, remodeling, and building projects he undertook, including what seems like details on every nut, bolt, and screw he used to rebuild homes, cabins, garages, wells, septic systems, and retaining walls to shore up his Wisconsin properties.

It is also clear that the detail, the precision, and the struggle to find and keep work—and to keep putting things in order–is Clark’s way to try to make sense his war experiences.

As the book closes, he gains a sense of how precious and fragile life, war, and devotion to family can be—and how lucky he is to have survived utter hell itself.

The book again proves how precious and fragile our allegiance to our great nation can be during very confusing and trying conditions. And it clearly demonstrates how a decent and honorable man earned the right to be called a citizen-soldier and a patriot through his courage, skill, determination, and will to survive.

The author’s website is www.vietnamvetmemoirs.com

—Robert M. Pacholik