Yesterday’s Soldier by Tom Keating

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After graduating from Stonehill College’s Holy Cross Seminary in Massachusetts, but denied further advancement to ordination as a Catholic priest, Tom Keating surrendered to the inevitable and volunteered for the draft in 1968. Army Basic Training and Infantry AIT, along with his superior skill with weapons, overpowered Keating’s semi-monastic religious life style. And he began to concentrate on “how to survive and kill in battle,” Keating writes in his memoir, Yesterday’s Soldier (153 pp., $16.99, paper), and he moved on to Officer Candidate School.

As his infantry training continued, Keating re-evaluated this character transformation, and once again followed his religious training. Not wanting to kill people or order others to do so, he sought conscientious objector status.

In the first half of Yesterday’s Soldier Tom Keating does an excellent job explaining the dynamics of attaining conscientious objector status as an active-duty soldier during the Vietnam War. His recollections provided me with new knowledge and insights about a punishing, tedious, and sinister process. How sinister? Keating’s best friend became an Army Criminal Investigation Division agent assigned to evaluate the sincerity of his religious beliefs.

Although a Defense Department policy limited the number of conscientious objectors serving in the armed forces, Keating won his case: He would not be assigned a combat role or issued a weapon for the rest of his tour in the Army.

Nevertheless, he owed the military one more year of active-duty service. Without a job specialty, he was sent to Vietnam. On his arrival, Keating lucked out when a college friend classified him as an administrator and assigned him to a job with the 1st Logistical Command at Long Binh.

Keating’s writing style flows smoothly. I enjoyed reading his stories about the Vietnam War. But his book offers little new information about life behind the lines.

There are descriptions of surviving close calls during rocket, mortar, and sapper attacks on Long Binh. He tells of giving up his “seminarian virginity” in a Saigon bathhouse. Issued a Jeep, he chauffeured officers and performed other minor chores. He befriended a housemaid who was Catholic. R&R in Australia was a highlight of his tour. And then he came home.

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Tom Keating

Tom Keating found a different world than the one he had left two years earlier, especially within the Catholic Church. As part of a continuing evolution of character, his limited exposure to death had magnified his perception of the past. He determined he “could never return to that world, not after Vietnam. That world had collapsed.”

So he began a new life, earning a master’s degree in education and teaching high school for eight years before starting a long career in corporate communications.

The author’s website is tomkeatingwriter.com

—Henry Zeybel

Weapons of War by Robert E. Wright

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Weapons of War: A Compilation of Letters Recounting a Soldier’s Story of Service, Love, and Faith (AuthorHouse, 212 pp. $23.99, hardcover; $12.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) tells a love story far greater than a war story. In it, Robert E. Wright gives us letters he sent to Barbara Hampton during his two years in the U.S. Army, which included a 1969-70 tour in Vietnam as an infantryman with the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles.

The book works as a love story because Wright’s weapons of war were his M-16 to fight the NVA and Viet Cong; his pen to fight the loneliness and separation he felt; and his faith in God to fight fear and doubt. The power of the latter two exceeded that of the first. His letters concentrated on convincing Hampton that she was his one-and-only love forever.

As a grunt, Wright repeatedly walked point on lengthy search-and-destroy missions; turned a VC defector into a Kit Carson Scout; and cleared remote landing zones. His awards included the Bronze Star, two Air Medals, and the Army Commendation Medal.

I enjoyed reading his accounts of military life, but wanted more. That’s because Wright’s desire not to upset his high school sweetheart and their families with his combat experiences made him temper what he wrote. I respected his deep love for Hampton, which he pledged for eternity in every letter, but the memoir would have greater appeal for military history fans if, between letters, he had injected detailed notes about the actions that he otherwise quickly passes over.

The Army drafted Wright while he was still a teenager, and he quietly answered the call. He says military duty made him into “a mature man who is not afraid to make decisions and take on responsibility.” His personal motto of “Stay Focused on the Future” carried him through the war.

I admired Robert Wright’s integrity, particularly denying himself R&R to avoid temptations of the flesh. Best of all, his commanders appeared to respect his certitude about life by assigning him leadership roles above his rank.

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Robert E. Wright

Barbara Hampton and Robert Wright married in 1972 and raised two daughters, who like their mother graduated from Ball State University. Barbara died in 2002 at the age of fifty-two. Robert worked twenty-six years for the Indiana Bell Telephone, followed by twenty-one years of full-time ministry with the Eastern Star Church in Indianapolis.

His memoir teaches excellent lessons in self-restraint and perseverance. It includes photographs with many of the letters.

Wright’s website is weaponsofwar-indy.com/home

—Henry Zeybel

My War & Welcome to It by Tom Copeland

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Like most teenagers of the time, Tom Copeland had no burning desire to fight in the Vietnam War. But he was drafted into the Army and served for a year in Vietnam with the 1st First Infantry Division. His tour of duty in the war is the centerpiece of  My War and Welcome To It (Sunbury Press, 191 pp. $$19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), which is written in a voice ranging from youthful humor and wonderment to one of great fear of being killed. He prefaces this autobiography by saying: “I was aged beyond my years. I became an old man before my time.”

Copeland describes his life growing up in Southeastern New Mexico, mostly outdoors; getting drafted in August 1966; going through infantry AIT; operating from Lai Khe with a ground surveillance team with the Big Red One’s 2nd Battalion/2nd Regiment in 1967-68; and returning home and working his way up a corporate ladder. The last part was the most difficult.

He  describes military life largely by concentrating on the good and bad behavior of men of all ranks. Copeland highlights individualists such as a trainee who got away with impersonating the boot camp commander and drill sergeants, even in their presence.

He saw plenty of action, including fighting Viet Cong forces at Prek Loc II and Phu Loi, in the Ong Dong Jungle during Operation Paul Bunyan, and at Ong Thanh. Copeland writes in detail about the wounded and dead-and-maimed bodies in only one of those operations, Ong Thanh. That battle, he says, “marked a change in the way I saw the war and the value of human life.”

After the war, Copeland suffered decades of emotional stress involving his family, work, and schools without recognizing that he had post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2003, his nephew displayed PTSD symptoms following three deployments to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Copeland forced the young man to seek medical help. That’s when he realized he had the same emotional problems and went to the VA for treatment.

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Tom Copeland in country

In 2013, Tom Copeland went back to Vietnam to try to ameliorate the negative effects of combat that lingered within him. He and other Vietnam War veterans placed commemorative plaques and flowers at battle sites where friends had been killed.

The book’s concluding chapter is a deeply insightful distillation of the trauma serving in the Vietnam War inflicted on him. He closes that section—and the book—by letting us know that the war is still with him.

“Don’t think for a minute I have forgotten those things that took place years ago,” he writes, “They have just become easier to live with.”

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

Crooked Bamboo by Nguyen Thai

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Thank God for young historians who work with aged diplomats on their memoirs dealing with important world events. A short while ago, I read Japanese ambassador Saburo Kurusu’s The Desperate Diplomat, an account of his dealings with Americans in Washington during the weeks immediately prior to World War II. His book might never have been available for Western eyes without help from Masako R. Okura, a professor who finished editing it after a much-older historian died on the job.

Which brings us to Crooked Bamboo: A Memoir from Inside the Diem Regime (Texas Tech University Press, 272 pp., $29.95) written by ninety-year-old Nguyen Thai and edited by Texas Tech University history professor Justin Simundson. Thai was something of a favorite adopted son of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and was privy to a deep-inside look at his government. The book confirms that Diem’s regime overflowed with problems and should have collapsed after the first coup against it in 1960, rather than survive to 1963.

Simundson accepted the task of studying hundreds of pages of free-flowing thoughts and observations Thai made over many decades. As the Vietnam War historian Larry Berman notes in the book’s forward, Simundson’s prodigious editorial skills give shape to insights on crucial points in history. He is exceptionally helpful in introducing personalities and explaining their roles. 

Thai’s recollections fill gaps in the history of Diem’s misdirected leadership, and they also recreate Thai’s personal life. Simundson closely consulted with Thai while editing his notes and frequently relied on facts from Thai’s Is South Vietnam Viable?, a 1962 anti-Diem book published in a limited edition in the Philippines and nearly inaccessible today. Crooked Bamboo contains only two pages of end notes.

By 1959, corruption and authoritarianism in Diem’s government was overwhelmingly evident. The gross mismanagement had started within two years of his election in 1955. As Vietnam Press’s Director General, Thai’s close relationship with Diem compelled him to compromise the truth behind political maneuvers. 

Three chapters constitute the heart of the memoir. “The Convincing Test—Elections of 1959” shows how a rigged count kept Diem and his cronies in office. “The Aborted 1960 Coup D’etat” analyzes the political implications of in-fighting between Diem and high-ranking military officers that brought only minor changes to the government’s structure. Diem learned nothing from the unsuccessful coup, Thai says.

“Diem’s Overthrow” and assassination caused the most-bitter disappointment in Thai’s life. Thereafter, it was every man of rank for himself.

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Justin Simundson & Nguyen Thai

The book leaves many questions unanswered. For example: Who—Vietnam or America—was responsible for the war’s outcome? How important was democracy to the Vietnamese? Who should have replaced Diem?

Thai’s inconsistencies reveal the difficulty of resolving the Vietnam War dilemma even today. Simundson intensely examines these issues and others.

Crooked Bamboo is a great source for young people to begin studying South Vietnam’s early tragic political unrest—and for old timers to recall a once-familiar past.   

—Henry Zeybel

363 Days in Vietnam by Michael Stuart Baskin

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Michael Stuart Baskin, who was drafted into the Army during the height of the Vietnam War, classifies himself as among the large majority of troops who served in country who weren’t “grunts” but “have ALL kinds of stories to tell, even if they’re not ‘war’ stories, per se.”

Boredom and solitude filled the first 130 days of Baskin’s time with the Americal Division, as he recreates it in 363 Days in Vietnam: A Memoir of Howitzers, Hook-Ups & Screw-Ups from My Tour of Duty, 1968 to 1969 (Primedia eLaunch, 215 pp. $13.75, paper; $3.98, Kindle)

Wandering around LZs Cherry Hill and Fat City near Chu Lai, he had no official job and made no friends. He occasionally served as a “man Friday” to a supply sergeant, frequently stood guard duty, and often endured KP, which he calls “cruel and unusual punishment.”

On Day 130, he volunteered for, and began a job in, the Fire Direction Center (cinched by his high AFQT math score). Life among howitzer personnel pleased him, and he writes about nearly everything he learned within that environment. His group rotated among LZs: Fat City, Dottie, back to Cherry Hill, and Buff.

On Day 303, Baskin survived a large-scale Viet Cong attack on LZ Buff that killed eight Americans and wounded twenty. Afterward, Baskin and two other men buried 27 Viet Cong in a mass grave.

A week of R&R in Singapore, which he describes at length, provided Baskin’s other unforgettable main event in Asia.

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Michael Stuart Baskin

In a quiet manner, he portrays himself as a victim made to serve in the war. He felt as if “the powers that be were simply keeping us busy.”

He notes that countless men similar to him are examples of how the United States government needlessly stole a year from too many young men’s lives. He learned a moral:  Don’t send American troops to fight for a country unless that country is fully committed to helping itself.

I say, Amen to that.

Photographs shot by Baskin support every part of his story.

—Henry Zeybel

Grunt Slang in Vietnam by Gordon L. Rottman

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Gordon Rottman entered the U.S. Army in 1967 and served in the 5th Special Forces Group. He retired after 26 years of service, including at tour of duty as a Green Beret in the Vietnam War.  He was a special operations forces scenario writer at the Joint Readiness Training Center, and has been a prolific freelance writer specializing in military equipment and military history. Two of his books, FUBAR and SNAFU, deal with World War II military slang.    

Rottman returns to that subject in his latest book, Grunt Slang in Vietnam: Words of the War (Casemate, 240 pp., $34.95, hardcover; $17.99, Kindle).

It was only natural that I, as the author of the autobiographical novels, REMF Diary and The REMF Returns, chose to look up first the term “REMF” to see how complete the entry was. I figured a really good entry would mention REMF Diary. No such luck. My book wasn’t mentioned, nor was any book using the term. On the other hand, this was a good, complete entry. We are told how to pronounce the term and that 90 percent of the U.S. troops in the Vietnam War were by some definition REMFs. 

Next I looked up John Wayne. Rottman provides a good, short biographical note and also includes entries on a John Wayne bar, John Wayne crackers, and “to John Wayne it.” I found no entry for Audie Murphy, but Mickey Mouse, Mighty Mouse, and Sergeant Rock are included, as are Smoky Bear, Snoopy, and Snuffy. 

There is no index in the book, a minor annoyance to this ex-reference librarian, but that can be worked around. There is a good bibliography and several useful appendices. I especially enjoyed the pidgin Vietnamese-English appendix full of terms I didn’t encounter during my time in the Vietnam War. Appendix D contained many nicknames not familiar to me. Some of them are zany.

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Gordon Rottman

There are just under 1,500 entries in this book, which makes it useful and easy to use without causing pain in the wrists. The book has a likable tone and is accessible to anyone trying to better understand the special language of the Vietnam War as spoken by American servicemembers. 

If I were still teaching a class on the Vietnam War, I would consider using it as one of the texts.  I highly recommend Grunt Slang in Vietnam for reference collections at the community college and university level.

–David Willson 

Letters in a Helmet by Ron Sorter and Bob Tierno

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Ron Sorter and Bob Tierno became friends in the late 1960s as members of the Delta Kappa Epsilon (Deke) fraternity at the University of Oklahoma. They explain how friendship evolved into a “bond that remains intact for ever, despite the lapses in communication or the frequency of visits,” as Tierno puts it in Letters in a Helmet: A Story of Fraternity and Brotherhood (455 pp. $19.95, paper: $2.99, Kindle).

In the book Sorter and Tierno alternate chapters that chronologically tell their individual life stories. The most dynamic parts of the book recreate Sorter’s Vietnam War duties as a platoon leader and company commander with the Americal Division in 1970.

A tense realism permeates Sorter’s combat narrative. Amid the uncertainties of Vietnamization, he took undiminished responsibility for his men and their fourteen-day search-and-destroy missions. He anguished over every injury they sustained.

After five months in the bush, Sorter suffered his first wound and spent ten days in a hospital. “Thirty-two stitches was all it took,” he says. Four months later, he stepped on booby-trapped 81-mm mortar round. Shrapnel riddled his entire body. Eventually, doctors amputated his right leg.

Sorter’s account of his physical and psychological recovery is spellbinding. He never spells out the exact list of his injuries, but he does mention a continual shedding of shrapnel from many parts of his body throughout his life. Stoicism and a sense of humor carried him through the roughest times. Bob Tierno and other Dekes provided moral support.

In 2018, Tierno temporarily defeated death by having his cancerous prostate removed, statistically giving him ten more years of life. A year later he published The Prostate Chronicles—A Medical Memoir: Detours and Decisions following my Prostate Cancer Diagnosis, an irreverent examination of the condition.

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Beyond the two major episodes, the autobiographies of Sorter and Tierno largely describe their business lives and marriages. Sorter enjoyed a long career helping other wounded veterans with prosthetics in VA facilities across the United States. Tierno served many years with the Bureau of Prisons in Colorado, North Carolina, and California, and later bought and ran a Bed and Breakfast in California.

The two men have kept in contact for fifty years, sharing ups and downs.

Sorter and Tierno close the book with seventeen interviews of University of Oklahoma Dekes whose memories validate the benefits of finding brotherhood in fraternity. Their story clearly illustrates how friendship can significantly alleviate life’s harshest situations.

—Henry Zeybel