Senator Pressler by Larry Pressler


If it’s true that timing is everything, Senator Pressler: An Independent Mission to Save Our Democracy, by former South Dakota U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler (Fortis, 166 pp., $8.95, paper) is an example of perfect timing. This refreshing book has hit the market during a presidential election campaign in which the American public rates both major candidates low in trustworthiness.

Larry Pressler grew up on a farm in South Dakota. His family experienced poverty. His interest and love of politics grew out of his successful 4-H work. In 1964, after getting his degree from the University of South Dakota—where he was student body president and Phi Beta Kappa—he was awarded a two-year Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England.

In England, Pressler remembered words his father had told him: “If you decide not to go to Vietnam, it will mean that someone poorer and less able than you will have to go in your place. And knowing you, that will trouble your conscience for the rest of your life. So you might as well just go and do it.”

Larry Pressler decided to forfeit his deferment and joined the Army. He served two tours of duty in the Vietnam War from 1966-68. That included providing security along Highway 44 on the outskirts of Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. With enemy snipers all around, Pressler says that he and his men often felt like sitting ducks.



Lt. Pressler in Vietnam 

In 1967 Pressler contracted hepatitis and was sent to a convalescent center in South Vietnam where he experienced frightening nightmares based on what he had seen earlier in his tour. Although he received the Bronze Star and other medals during his two tours in Vietnam, Pressler turned down a Purple Heart. Eventually, he was turned off by the entire war.

Larry Pressler’s political life took off when he ran for Congress in 1974 as a Republican and won by 15,000 votes, unseating an incumbent Democrat. After two terms in the House, he was elected to the Senate in 1978, becoming the first Vietnam War veteran to serve in that august body where her served three six-year terms.

In 1979, Pressler ran for President in the Republican primaries on a platform emphasizing improving conditions for Vietnam veterans. He needed funds, and an opportunity to acquire money soon appeared. True to his character, he turned down what he believed was an illegal campaign contribution. It was—and it also was an FBI sting that became known as the Abscam scandal. The senator was very surprised when he was praised as a hero for doing the right thing.

Sen. Pressler was a favorite of Ronald Reagan. I found it interesting that they often discussed how Pressler’s father was doing with his Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps the strongest of Pressler’s attributes was his sincerity in dealing with the problems of people regardless of their political affiliations. That included working to improve the lives of Native Americans in his home state.


Sen. Pressler

Pressler lost his Senate seat in the 1996 election, but decided to try a comeback by running as an independent in the 2014 South Dakota Senate race. The challenges he faced in that endeavor bring the reader a much clearer understanding of what has been going on in the highly partisan atmosphere of congressional politics today. Pressler makes a convincing case for the need for more independent candidates.

I recommend this book to those who want to make sense out this election year. A special recommendation goes to those whose favorite line is, “It’s just politics.”  With more involvement by people with the integrity of Sen. Pressler we might learn we don’t have to just muddle through.

The Senator says that taking the high road of politics has set him free. He closes with a quote from Isaiah 25 made famous by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Free at last, Free at last! Great God Almighty, Free at last.”

Sen. Larry Pressler shows us how to change a nightmare into a dream.

The author’s website is

–Joseph Reitz



Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic


Former Marine Ron Kovic was arguably the nation’s most famous Vietnam veteran from the mid-seventies through the late eighties on the strength of his 1976 primal scream of a memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, which came out in 1976, and the Oliver Stone movie of the same name, which hit the multiplexes in 1989 (with Tom Cruise playing Kovic).

The book, which became a big bestseller, was reissued in July—the 40th anniversary of its publication—by Akashic Books (224 pp., $26.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper), with a new, brief introduction by Bruce Springsteen. The big rock star became a strong supporter of Vietnam War veterans after meeting Kovic in 1978. Springsteen writes that after reading the book, he ran into Kovic in Los Angeles. The two men hit it off and Kovic took him to the Venice Vet Center to meet a group of other Vietnam veterans.

“It was unforgettable and sparked my interest in veterans’ affairs,” Springsteen writes, which “led to our concert in support of Vietnam veterans” in 1981 in L.A. Springsteen gave $100,000 of the proceeds of that memorable concert to a young, fledgling Vietnam War veterans organization–Vietnam Veterans of America—a staggering sum that helped rescue VVA from the precipice of financial ruin.

Born on the Fourth of July is a short book that chronicles Kovic’s life beginning with his All-American fifties upbringing on Long Island, through his time as a gung-ho Marine who volunteered for a second tour in Vietnam, and into his life battling the VA and becoming an antiwar activist after he was severely wounded and paralyzed from the chest down. It’s a very moving book, told in bitter and emotional bursts.

Look for our review of Kovic’s second memoir, Hurricane Street, in the “Books in Review” column in the upcoming September/October print edition of The VVA Veteran.

T31 IM DOU 155

Ron Kovic

—Marc Leepson

A Year in Hell by Ray Pezzoli, Jr.


Ray Pezzoli, Jr., the author of A Year in Hell: A Memoir of an Army Foot Soldier Turned Reporter in Vietnam:  1965-1966 (McFarland, 263 pp., $19.99, paper), spent his time as a reporter trying, he tells us, to take “the Great Vietnamese War Photo” with the wrong camera and the wrong film—and with no training as a photographer. He also spent that time participating in as many 1st Infantry Division combat activities as he could.

The title tells us how Pezzoli–who died in 2014—served in Vietnam and when. In his Preface he defends President George W. Bush’s National Guard service, and when Pezzoli uses the word “liberal,” he uses it with disdain.

“Contrary to popular thought, America won,” he writes in his memoir, which was published originally in 2006, “losing only one half of one percent of their soldiers, stimulating the demise of communism throughout the world and devising the best Army in the world through its expertise there.” He refers to Vietnamese prostitutes as “strumpets” and labels the way he held his cigarettes in photos from that time as “fruity.” He was smoking up to four packs a day.

Aside from “strumpets” and “fruity,” Pezzoli uses plenty of references found in most American Vietnam War memoirs: John Wayne, body counts, “Oriental” rather than “Asian,” Good Morning, Vietnam, Jane Fonda,  Bob Hope, cowboys and Indians, friendly fire, antiwar protesters, being short, C-rats. And how the media never showed Americans all the good things the infantry did in Vietnam such as feeding orphans.

Pezzoli blames Oliver Stone and his films for giving the general public the notion that the troops in Vietnam talked dirty. He says that he only heard “foul language” in Vietnam once.


The author

He offers old rants about Jane Fonda, but his are even more anachronistic than most. Her antiwar activism, including the visit to Hanoi, took place in the early seventies. But somehow Pezzoli channels her into his mid-sixties tour of duty when she was a sexpot alien in the movie Barbarella and a popular pin-up in Vietnam.

Pezzoli calls into question his invented quotations and conversations with his characters when he quotes a Maj. Weeks as saying in 1966: “Brigade was afraid Jane Fonda would complain if we don’t warn the enemy that we’re going to pay him a visit.” At no time was Jane Fonda running the Vietnam War, especially not then.

So what is Pezzoli’s intent? Is his book factual? Or is it a fantasy narrative of his faulty memories of the war? My conclusion is that his narrative is not to be trusted.

When he has a beautifully described incident of friendly fire, can I trust that?  And his countless visits to whorehouses, and all his scenes of religious worship?  And his story of his buddy dying in his poncho and bleeding out in it so that Pezzoli becomes soaked in the blood and suffers from hypothermia? What is truth? What is fiction?

I could go on, but I’ve given the prospective reader plenty to allow an intelligent decision about this detailed but sketchy book.

—David Willson

Eyes over the Delta by Hank Collins


Hank Collins piloted Army fixed-wing O-1 Birddog aircraft in Vietnam during 1965-66, a period he calls “the defining year of my life.” He served as an adviser to an ARVN division.

In Eyes Over the Delta (Outskirts Press, 72 pp.; $19.95, hardcover), Collins records “historical fiction” from that era by combining real people and events with composite people and events. Assigned to the 221st Reconnaissance Airplane Company, he worked the area from Can Tho City south to the sea.

A 2007 reunion with men from the 221st motivated Collins to write and publish this short, thinly veiled memoir. In five vignettes that span a year, Collins describes combat flying, Vietnamese justice, war orphans, spontaneous friendship, and the power of prayer.

The stories deliver lessons in introspection with an undercurrent of goodness among people who practice Catholicism. Two stories that focus on flying are the highlights of the book.

Collins includes photographs and copies of letters in the book.

—Henry Zeybel


The author in Vietnam

The Long Goodbye by Michael Archer


The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited (Hellgate Press, 367 pp., $21.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is an exceptional book on many counts. It is very well researched and generously documented. As it is largely autobiographical, the book conveys to the reader a significant you-are-there quality. Plus, there is an element of mystery to this story, which covers more than four decades

Author Michael Archer includes the de rigueur critique of the tactics used in the Vietnam War by rifle units during his phase of the war. But the central theme of the book is the philosophical issue of battlefield casualty recovery and to what extent it should be pursued. It is an unwritten policy in the U. S. military that every effort should be made to recover combat casualties from the battlefield. This policy is designed to promote comradery, morale, and mutual loyalty.

I believe the most important contribution this book makes to military literature is the standard it sets for loyalty and caring among fighting men and women embodied in the statement: “No soldier will be left behind” on the battlefield.

The author narrates a poignant story about his close friend Tom Mahoney, his close friend from high school. Archer and Mahoney joined the Marine Corps together. Both went to Vietnam where they faced combat and death. It is this experience that helped them develop maturity, responsibility and loyalty that lasts throughout their lives.


Mike Archer


Mahoney was killed at Khe Sanh in 1968. Despite their best efforts, his fellow Marines were unable to recover his body. What followed was a long, earnestly pursued effort to bring him home. It involves many Marines, both those who made a career out of their military service and those who left active duty after the war.

Archer, in loving detail, tells of his and others’ efforts to recover the body of their deceased comrade. No one involved in this recovery task is left unaffected. These efforts include personal attempts at recovery as well as official government recovery attempts in which they participated.

Altogether these efforts have lasted more than forty-five years.

The author’s website is

—A. Robert Lamb





Fate Unknown by Galen G. Mitchell


Fate Unknown: Reflections of a Combat Tour (Labuela, 420 pp., $19.95, paper: $5.99, Kindle) pays tribute to the men of A Company of the 1/327th in the 101st Airborne Division during their deployment to Vietnam in 1965-66. The book follows the unit—called “Abu Company”—from its arrival by ship at Cam Ranh Bay to An Khe, and then through operations around Phan Rang, Tuy Hoa, and Dak To.

The author, retired Army 1st Sgt. Galen G. Mitchell, led an Abu weapons squad that spent eight months in the field. One of the more fully trained men in Abu, Mitchell had enlisted at age seventeen in 1961. He shipped home early from Vietnam after being shot in the face.

The book’s subtitle labels these stories as “Reflections,” and that is exactly what Mitchell provides. He pulls no punches analyzing combat and life in the field. The accounts of frequent encounters with the NVA provide a flow of facts and opinions about the learning curve of the Screaming Eagles, one of the first infantry units sent to Vietnam. He relates the behavior of men in his platoon to how their actions provided lessons for others.

Proud of his fellow warriors, Mitchell immortalizes them in chapter after chapter: Sgt. John T. Humphries, RTO Raymond T. “Rocky” Ryan, Pfc. Manual F. Fernandez, Staff Sgt. Billy R. “One Zero” Robbins, Pfc. Jimmie Lee Stacy, Lt. Eugene R. New, Pfc. James D. Wilson Sr., Pfc. Blair “T-Bird” Funderburk, Staff Sgt. Milton E. McQueeney, Spec.4 Reuben L. “Sweet Daddy Grace” Garnett Jr., and many more.

The strength of Mitchell’s memoir is his ability to personalize these men, both survivors and those killed in action. He respects his fellow soldiers without reservation.

“I can truly say that throughout my career, the best unit I ever served with was Abu,” he writes. In 1971 Mitchell served a second tour in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Mitchell’s experience of platoon-level combat more than qualifies him as an expert on the subject. Two chapters I found especially informative were “Collateral Damage” and “Gut Check,” which contain Mitchell’s deepest insights into casualties and leadership. He repeatedly lauds support fire provided by artillery and air power, from helicopter gunship strafing to B-52 carpet-bombing.


101st Airborne troopers in Vietnam

The last third of the book concentrates on his unit’s battle near My Phu, where Mitchell was wounded, and another near Dak To, which took place after his medical evacuation. He makes a sound case in faulting his Brigade Commander, Maj. David H. Hackworth, for the high American casualty count in both engagements. He chastises Hackworth for favoritism, a dearth of camaraderie, and, more so, for a lack of tactical savvy.

Mitchell also strongly criticizes Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara for mismanagement of the war, particularly the heartless treatment of men in Project 100,000 after the fighting stopped.

Although the book focuses on the men of Abu, Mitchell briefly mentions his childhood and his long Army and civilian careers. He devotes a chapter to explaining the origin and tradition of the Abu mascot.

Many photographs distributed throughout the book greatly enhance the text.

—Henry Zeybel

A Battalion of Angels by Mike Burns


Mike Burns’ A Battalion of Angels (Mira Digital Publications, 131 pp., $12.99, paper) is an anthology of the stories of thirteen Vietnam War veterans centering on how their lives were saved in combat through Divine Intervention. These essays vividly describe helicopters flying into hot landing zones, dropping in combat units and evacuating casualties; soldiers patrolling in thick jungles that hide snipers and booby traps; and Marines walking into enemy ambushes. These are tales of how premonitions, early detections of attack, and last-minute battle plan revisions spared lives.

William Whitmore is the subject of the first chapter. More than half way through his tour of duty with the 101st Airborne the Bronze Star recipient was in an intense firefight. “While firing and moving, Bill felt a hand on his back that pushed him hard to the ground,” Burns writes. “To this day, Bill considers the hand and push as divine intervention, or more precisely, the hand of God”

This brief volume is well organized with chapter titles bearing the veteran’s name and time of service in-country, including evidence of the influence of a deity or a surrogate. In addition, there are remarkable battlefield accounts uniquely recording actions that are historically valuable alongside personal paths leading to the spiritual encounter.

Readers may identify with dates and locations as I did with the entry submitted by Raymond Jobin. His Vietnam War service dates correspond to my own, August 1969 to August 1970.  We had the same Commanding General, Maj. Gen. John A.B. Dillard.

Jobin was offered a position on Gen. Dillard’s staff, but was uncharacteristically uncertain about whether to accept it. Perhaps God influenced his late-night decision to turn down the offer. Seven months later Gen. Dillard and nine staff members died when their chopper was shot down.

The final story introduces Navy Corpsman Kurt Turner, who served on the hospital ship U.S.S. Repose in the South China Sea. Turner and other Corpsmen typically carried wounded Marines from helicopters to triage, placing each patient on a gurney. One time this routine duty was nearly deadly. A Marine on the gurney had a live grenade hidden in a gauze leg bandage. When the grenade was safely removed Turner looked for an ambulator Marine who spotted the live explosive and told the Corpsmen about it. But that Marine was no where to be found.


“Kurt is very comfortable in his belief that the Marine was actually a guardian angel, whose name in life was James E. Williams, Jr.,” Burns writes.

I strongly recommend A Battalion of Angels. Mike Burns made contact with ten of the thirteen veterans in the book through the free ads he placed in the “Locator” column in The VVA Veteran magazine. Because of that he is donating some of the book’s profits to Vietnam Veterans of America.

—Curt Nelson