At Home in the World by Thich Nhat Hanh

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Thich Nhat Hanh, the noted Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Zen teacher, philosopher, and peace activist, has written more than a hundred books in his ninety years. His latest, At Home in the World: Stories and Essential Teachings from a Monk’s Life (Parallax Press, 192 pp., $24.95, paper; $16.99, e book), is a memoir that offers an eyewitness account of both the French and American wars in Vietnam. Thich Nhat Hanh writes about events that took place in Saigon, Paris, Washington, D.C , and the North Vietnamese province where he was raised.

In one typical section of the book, he writes about working at the School of Youth for Social Service near Tra Loc in Quang Tri Province, which was built by monks in 1964. Tra Loc, which was just below the DMZ, was bombed out three times and yet the school decided to rebuilt the village a fourth time because, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “if we gave up hope, we would be overcome by despair.”

Time passed slowly during his boyhood years. “When I was four years old, my mother used to bring me a cookie every time she returned from the market,” he writes. “I would go to the front yard and take my time eating it, sometimes taking half an hour or forty-five minutes. A birthday party, a poetry reading, or the anniversary of a family member’s death would last all day.”

Creature comforts were primitive. Hanh was occasionally asked about his simple life as a monk, which included scrubbing bathrooms. He answered: “But in fact we’re lucky to have a toilet to clean. When I was a novice monk in Vietnam, we didn’t have any toilets at all.”

Hanh’s recollections of Vietnamese folklore, such as celebrating the blooming of the cherry tree, may seem unimportant to foreigners, yet Hanh writes, “taking time to create a special moment to drink tea or eat a meal together with joy, beauty, and simplicity can initiate your children into a spiritual life.”

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The young monk in 1942

Perhaps sharing these customs during the war years could have brought peace sooner had more troops had an opportunity along the lines of what happened to one twenty-year-old French soldier in 1946. Daniel Marty happened on the temple where Hanh lived. Sharing their family stories led to a strong friendship.

“I gave him the spiritual name Thanh Luong, meaning ‘pure and refreshing peaceful life,’” Hanh writes.

The monk and the soldier spent many days in the temple until Daniel Marty was sent to Algeria. Although they lost contact, Hanh writes “when I last saw him, he was at peace.”

—Curt Nelson

Twenty Days in May by John L. Mansfield

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John L. Mansfield served for more than thirty years as an officer in the Army, the National Guard, and the Army Reserve.  His short book, Twenty Days in May: Vietnam 1968 (PublishAmerica, 170 pp., $24.95, paper; $7.96, Kindle), recounts the actions of his unit—Alpha Company, 4th of the 31st Infantry Regiment—during twenty harrowing days at the height of the Vietnam War.

What makes this book unique is that—aside from the recollections of then 2nd Lt. Mansfield—it also uses his unit’s daily staff journal, its daily situation reports, official history, and radio logs, as well as several memoirs written by men in his company.

These twenty days in May represented a very hostile and intense period for Alpha Company. They had 69 wounded in action and nine killed. Most of the action revolved around the taking of Nui Lon, also known as Ghost Mountain. Mansfield, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, gives an excellent account of what it’s like to be an infantryman.

Along the way, he demonstrates some of the difficult choices facing Army infantry officers. Mansfield shows how a good officer leads from the front, not the rear. He follows orders, even after his platoon is tired and undermanned and facing a well-equipped NVA regiment.  Mansfield demonstrated this in his decision to follow orders to advance up Nui Lon at night, even though it placed his platoon at greater risk.

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John Mansfield

This is a serious book spiced up with a couple of humorous incidents, such as Mansfiled admitting to the CO that his weapon was accidently fired and scrambling to buy replacement ammo on the black market so no one would know.

The book’s true message for me lies in the last paragraph in which Mansfield talks about Tom Brokaw annointing those who came of age during World War II the “greatest generation.” Mansfield believes the men in his company in Vietnam should be considered the greatest generation.

“They went where they were sent by their government and did as soldiers have always done throughout the years, their duty as they saw it,” he writes. “These men are the real heroes and my greatest generation.”

— Mark S. Miller

The Light Where Shadows End and No Thanks by R.G. Cantalupo

I have a tendency to skip over narrative in italics in a book. R.G. Cantalupo’s long narrative, The Light Where Shadows End: A War Hero’s Inspirational Journal Through Death, Recovery and a World Without Home (New World Publishers, 171 pp., $9.99, paper), which the author calls a “lyrical memoir,”  is entirely printed—every single page of it—in italics, except for the illustrations. Why? I’ve no idea and the author does not tell us. I’m guessing, though, there was a purpose.

Cantelupo served in Vietnam as a Radio-Telephone Operator (RTO) with the 25th Infantry Division in 1968-69, and was awarded a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. In May 2015 he returned to Vietnam. He walked along Highway 1 “as thousands of motorbikes rushed by.” He sat at a table and reconciled with former “members of The Peoples Army, soldiers who lived in Trang Bang and who fought against me in 1968-69.”

The war’s legacy in Vietnam, Cantelupo says, includes “leaving hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs to kill more children,” as well as “fourth generation birth defects and genetic mutations caused by our massive spraying of Agent Orange.” That situation “will not allow for reconciliation.”

A member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the author took part in the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigations where he confessed to committing crimes and atrocities. This small book contains many powerful, poetic vignettes of the above, and covers much of the same ground as this same author’s book of poems, No Thanks (All in One Publishing).

Many of these two dozen poems in No Thanks were first published in the journal “War, Literature, and the Arts.” Their titles give a good idea of what they’re about: “Trang Bang,” “Monsoon,” “Search and Destroy,” “The Execution,” “Agent Orange.”

The poem, “Agent Orange,” hit me the hardest. How could it not?  Agent Orange is what’s killing me.

Breath in,

Nothing’s forever

Even this orange-brown haze

dies down, leaves a

tree of bone

There is a vignette in The Light Where Shadows End about a nurse nicknamed “Peaches” who the author fell in love with. There’s a full-page photo of her in jungle fatigues. There are many other full-page photos in this book, both famous ones and some I’ve not seen before. The photos are not credited. Some of them should be. John Wayne and his classic film The Green Berets are briefly discussed.

Read this book in tandem with his book of poetry, despite the italics.

—David Willson

Relfections by Andrew P. O’Meara, Jr.

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Andrew P. O’Meara, Jr.’s Reflections: Memories of Sacrifices Shared and Comrades Lost in the Line of Duty (Xlibris, 103 pp., $29.99, hardcover, $19.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) resembles a fragmentation grenade—small but impactful. The book aims to praise Col. George S. Patton–the son of the famed World War II general—and to find fault with journalists who reported the Vietnam War. It accomplishes both missions.

O’Meara served two Vietnam War tours: initially with the 1st Cavalry Regiment (ARVN) in 1962-63, and then with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (Blackhorse) as the S-2 Intelligence Officer in 1968-69. Patton commanded the latter.

O’Meara describes Patton as “a marvelous teacher and inspirational leader” who was his “coach and mentor.” He also rates Patton as a “tactical genius.” He credits the Colonel with guiding him in building an Intelligence staff whose plans (including targeting of two dozen B-52 Arc Light strikes) solidified Blackhorse’s control of its Area of Operations near Long Binh.

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Col. Patton in Vietnam

In firefights, Patton often led the advance.  “Every other commander I had served under hunkered down when he came under enemy fire,” O’Meara writes. “That wasn’t Patton’s style. His unspoken response was: ‘Let the enemy hunker down.’  His aggressive actions became our shield in battle.”

O’Meara followed Patton into situations that a lesser man would have avoided. He graphically portrays these encounters and credits Patton as the leader who “taught all of us who served under his command how to fight.”

Showing “the war as American combatants saw it,” O’Meara compares their sacrifices to war correspondents’ accounts. “Instead of being portrayed as defenders and liberators, [American soldiers] were wrongly depicted as war criminals,” he says.

In this regard, he sets new standards for how old problems might have been resolved differently. For example, he says, “Just as leaders prepare soldiers for what they will face in combat, they also need to prepare them for what they will face in a hostile homecoming.”

—-Henry Zeybel

Confessions of a Surviving Alien by Jon Meade

 

As a raconteur par excellence, Jon Meade possesses a huge but tolerable ego because his interactions with other people aim at betterment for all. In Confessions of a Surviving Alien: A Memoir of a Life Defined by One Word—Vietnam (Trafford, 504 pp. $39.99, hardcover; $25.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle), Meade presents a long, highly detailed account of his first fifty years of life, four with the Marine Corps that included a 1966-67 tour in Vietnam.

The middle half of the book deals with Meade’s time in the Marine Corps. In it, he talks about many events that were new to me, such as a USO Nancy Sinatra performance for his unit that turned into a riot; the life and death of a nine-year-old Vietnamese prostitute; and a Marine killing another Marine, practically in front of him. Meade clearly distinguishes between what he saw and hearsay.

Meade wanted infantry duty, but instead was sent to Vietnam as a welder with the Ninth Engineer Battalion near Chu Lai. He did get to be a perimeter guard, but never engaged in the higher level of combat that he desired.

A twist of fate made Meade an orderly for disfigured combat casualties. Concurrently, he learned that many of his boot camp comrades had been killed in their initial combat encounters. A realization that luck had kept him alive created life-long survival guilt.

He spent his final two Marine Corps years as a military policeman at Lemoore Naval Air Station in California. Stories from that period center on his determination, along with Vietnam veteran coworkers, to maintain discipline among sailors, frequently through intimidation or force. What he saw as unnecessarily harsh punishment for twelve of his fellow Marines for drug use shrouded his honorable discharge.

Growing up in Minneapolis with parents who acted unpredictably, Meade found excellent role models among relatives and friends. Most of the stories from his teenage years involve mental and physical confrontations between males with overabundant testosterone levels. He boxed and lifted weights and grew quick and strong for his age.

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Jon Meade

A sort of controlled turmoil filled Meade’s post-Marine life: Marriage, journalism school, boxing, buying and selling houses, four children, separation from the woman he calls “MyWife,” changing jobs, a reunion with “MyWife,” Mr. Mom duties, divorce, more conflicts with “Ex-Wife,” many romances, good and bad jobs, absent-father guilt, minor roles in movies, and more romances, all amid commuting in California, Utah, and Minnesota.

Jon Meade offers more than his life story. He presents strong opinions about life and labor in an honest and orderly fashion. He also has a strong desire to help other people, despite the heavy demand required to help himself cope with guilt for living through the war.

All things considered, Jon Meade impresses me as a good guy to have on your side.

—Henry Zeybel

Duty Is Ours, Results Are God’s by Randall Jansen

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Randall Jansen, the author of Duty Is Ours, Results Are God’s: A Marine’s Story of Duty and His Search For Truth (Tate, 189 pp., $12.95, paper: $10.99, Kindle), wanted to be a career Marine. In his book, Jansen succinctly tells his life story, including his belief that God’s plan for him included formal Bible study, theology, and becoming a Chaplain after his discharge.

Jansen’s transition from helicopter pilot to sky pilot began on April 29, 1966, when he was wounded near Chu Lai. On his 24th birthday, three days later, aboard the hospital ship U.S.S. Repose, a Navy doctor told him, “After surgery, you will have limited use of your arm, and your Marine career is finished.”

Jansen had joined the Marines in 1961 after deciding he was unprepared for college. He soon met his first Marine DI, who emphatically told him, Jansen writes, that “if I ever did anything again without permission he would jump onto my shoulders and unscrew my head. I was no longer in charge of myself.”

Having graduated from Marine Aviation Training and Officer Candidate School, Lt. Jansen’s first assignment was on the U.S.S. Donner for a six-months Mediterranean cruise. It included stops in Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Holland, France, and Greece. “I was having the time of my life,” Jansen writes. “I would have made the cruise for free.”

His next assignment took Jansen to the Caribbean on the helicopter carrier U.S.S. Guadalcanal for three months. His squadron spent six months in Okinawa before arriving in Da Nang in October 1965. The first thing Jansen saw was “an H-34 helicopter (the type I had spent the last twenty-two months flying) parked on the ramp. It was riddled by bullets. The instant I laid eyes on it, I knew without a doubt that I was going to be hurt.” He was correct.

In February 1966, Jansen received his first Purple Heart. Ten days later he was hit again while flying—and had another close call with death. If the bullet that hit him had been a “quarter of an inch front or back,” he writes, “it would have entered my right buttock and traveled through my heart and lungs.” Jansen credits God for the fact that the survived 248 missions in Vietnam.

He was wounded the last time soon after returning from R&R. That led to his discharge in 1970. As a civilian Jansen found himself incensed by the government, protesters, and the media. “My anger was eating me up,” he writes. “Finally I came to my senses and told the Lord that I forgave everyone. The lesson was simple. Forgive everybody for everything, because God forgave us much more.”

In his early forties, however, Jansen found himself out of work and “the peace and joy I had known most of my life was evaporating.” He began to question why there is evil in the world, and had deeper thoughts about truth, evolution, and the place of science in the origin of the universe.

He found his answers in his strong Christian beliefs.

—Curt Nelson

Kissing the Tarmac by James Hansen

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James Hansen in Vietnam in 1968

The wonder of it all never ceases: Young men go to war, survive unimaginable trauma, come home emotionally troubled, and struggle to get on with their lives. Draftee James Hansen’s memoir—Kissing the Tarmac: Winning the War With PTSD (Stories To Tell, 164 pp. $14.95, paper)—is the latest book written by a veteran who found it difficult to understand how and why he deserved to live through the Vietnam War.

During nine months of search-and-destroy missions, Hansen says that he accumulated a burden of “sorrow, regret, shame, and guilt.” Forty-nine men from his unit —Charlie Co., 2/501st Infantry, 101st Airborne—died in action during 1968-69 when Hansen served

Luck played an inordinate role in Hansen’s survival, a fact that he fully recognizes. He graphically describes how men died around him and in his arms while he remained relatively untouched physically. Every death, however, added to the emotional toll. Decades passed before he began to understand and work on the psychological effects of his post-traumatic stress disorder.

In civilian life, Hansen filled all the squares: He married, found success in his work, and built a family. At the same time, though, he felt restless, frequently changed jobs, moved from town to town, drove his wife to a divorce, and abandoned his family.

Hansen wastes no words in recalling the past. He tells what he did and what he saw in combat without seeking sympathy or understanding from the reader. He takes a similar approach to his PTSD. Overall, the book fulfills its goals: first, to cure Hansen, and second, to offer a plan of relief for others confronted by PTSD.

“There’s nothing groundbreaking here in the field of PTSD research,” he writes, “but these ten steps worked for me.” Writing the book was a big part of the treatment that helped to rid him of suppressed anxiety.

Hansen also wrote the book for his two sons and three grandsons, with whom he “never shared anything about the Vietnam War until now.” An in-country diary that he calls the Little Red Notebook and 224 letters  he wrote home served as guides to his recalling the war as part of PTSD counseling. That material had sat untouched in storage for decades.

It is easy to find interest in Hansen’s accounts of searching for the NVA. He jumps from one sudden, unexpected action to another. Although he describes much that has been written about before, he presents those events in a unique voice that makes them special to him. The mercilessness shown by men in his unit appalled him, for example, and yet he admits to having behaved in equally merciless ways.

In Vietnam, James Hansen was a young man within a man searching amid chaos to find an identity. He ended up lost and required most of his life after coming home to reach that goal.

For ordering info, send an email to hansen22769@aol.com

The author’s blog is jameshansen.wordpress.com

—Henry Zeybel