When We Came Home by Jack McCabe

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Jack McCabe begins When We Came Home: How the Vietnam War Changed Those Who Served (OddInt Media, 350 pp. $19.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) with his own story, including observations about his homecoming and the intervening years when he struggled despite the VA telling him, “just go home; there is nothing wrong with you.”

The more McCabe wrestled with his own demons, the more he realized he was not alone. Finally, after a successful business career in real estate, he began devoting his time volunteering to help other veterans.

The book is a compilation of stories about what happened after folks returned home from the Vietnam War. McCabe writes that “no one came home whole,” no matter what we may have initially thought. He recognizes two important aspects of Vietnam veterans: That we hid and tried to bury those times within without seeking out our brothers for many years, and that the war changed everyone who went there, no matter the job—cook, mechanic, pilot, or rifleman.

There are many stories in the book, all of them personal and important. The book broadens the mosaic of the story of the Vietnam War veteran.

In his interviews McCabe—a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America—followed a three-part formula, a short account of the veteran’s time in country, then tales of coming home and being home. He includes a range of servicemen and women, being careful to give them all a full and respectful opportunity to tell of their experiences.

One of the more poignant voices is that of Glenn Knight, a 1st Cav veteran trained to be a Huey repairman whose job in country morphed into being a gunner on hunter killer Huey team along the Cambodian border.

Upon his return, Knight realized he didn’t fit in despite his military experience. Marriage, followed by kids, soon turned into bouncing around in many jobs. The toll of raising a family and other pressures of life turned him to drink and bouts of anger. He admits the “guy who went to war is a KIA and he never returned.”

The courage Knight shows as he reveals his story is typical of the hidden courage of the men and women who went to war in Vietnam but did not know how to deal with the ghosts they brought home with them. It took many years, but Glenn Knight finally was able to get help with his PTSD at the VA.

One of McCabe’s lighter stories is that of former Red Cross Donut Dolly Rene Johnson, who decided she needed to go to Vietnam to see for herself stories she was hearing from friends and family before entering nursing school. During her first tour Johnson spent time with the 25th Infantry Division, the 9th Infantry Division, and the First Cav.

Johnson recalls stopping in Hawaii on her way home and spending hours just watching TV commercials. But after getting home, she realized something was missing. Depression set in, along with a feeling of failure that she somehow did not have a home per se. So she re-upped for another tour. It was not until 2012 that Johnson found help for her PTSD.

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Jack McCabe

The importance of this book is the voice it gives to Vietnam War veterans. It validates our service and puts the black and white honesty of what we did in print for all to see.

The courage of all the men and women in this book is raw, naked, awesome, and an encouragement to all who served to stand tall and be proud of what we did.

Jack McCabe has done a marvelous job of interviewing and telling these stories. This is a book that scholars of war and politicians would do well to read to see that war is not just a “tour” and learn about how the trauma taking part in a war causes can last a lifetime.

The author’s web site is jackmccabe.net

—Bud Alley

 

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A Lifetime in A Year by Lynda Ebanks Harrison

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A Lifetime In a Year: Remembrances by Vietnam and Vietnam-Era Veterans in Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War 2015 (Sparrows2, 86 pp., paper) book contains thirty stories from veterans who responded to a questionnaire from the Daughters of the American Revolution Star of Destiny Chapter in Katy, Texas.

The chapter’s Historical Preservation Committee chaired by Harrison edited the responses, which primarily came from Texas Vietnam War veterans, both men and women. These short reminiscences reflect pride in wartime service, whether in combat or support units.

Alfred Landon Peterson writes: “On my first tour at the 45th Surgical Hospital on the Tay Ninh base camp for three months, we got hit with rockets and mortars every hour on the hour. We would look at our watches and at five minutes to each hour, we would lie down on the ground and wait until all the rockets came in and hit the base.”

Helicopter pilot Gerald (Jerry) L. Ericsson recalls: “Jim Malek was a favorite aircraft commander. He would drink a little too much the night before and the more he trusted me, the more he would let me do before I was instructed to wake him up. So as he slept, I learned a lot.”

Nurse Judy)Hooper Davis says: “I worked twelve hour shifts, at time six days a week. Because it was intensive care and recovery room, the work was non-stop. It was very stressful. So many things I’d never seen before and we did whatever was needed to save lives. Before Vietnam, I had little over one year of nursing experience. After leaving Vietnam, I had a lifetime of nursing experience in one year. My roommate in Vietnam was so devastated by the tour that she never nursed again.”

Some of the veterans note that this is the first time they publically shared their Vietnam War experiences. John B. Boyd best summed up their feelings: “I was a nineteen year old Army NCO. I did a tough, demanding job in combat conditions and did it well. I was proud of my accomplishments. This is something I never shared because no one cared.”

The DAR cares. In this book they have given a few more Vietnam War veterans the recognition they have earned.

For ordering info, email StarOfDestinyDAR@gmail.com

—Henry Zeybel

Swift Boats at War in Vietnam edited by Guy Gugliotta, John Yeoman, and Neva Sullaway

Vietnam War Swift Boats exemplified a one-of-a-kind weapons system from 1965-70. They were designed and built for intercepting North Vietnamese trawlers that supplied NVA and VC troops in South Vietnam. In late 1968, their mission expanded to patrolling rivers, streams, and canals, which greatly increased their contact with the enemy.

The fifty-foot-long Swift Boats’ main strength was an ability to “outrun anything they couldn’t outfight,” the crewmen said.

On Swift Boats, an Officer in Charge commanded five crewmen and enjoyed virtually total independence of operation. Only 116 Swift Boats took part in the Vietnam War, manned by about 600 officers and some 3,000 enlisted men. Nearly all the men were in their early to mid-twenties. Fifty Swift Boat sailors were killed in Vietnam, and 400 wounded.

Guy Gugliotta, John Yeoman, and Neva Sullaway have combined their experience and knowledge to put together Swift Boats at War in Vietnam (Stackpole, 328 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $15.65, Kindle), an oral history. Gugliotta, a former journalist, and Yeoman earned three Bronze Stars each while commanding Swift Boats. Sullaway’s expertise centered on peaceful maritime activities.

Their book’s chapters tell the Swift Boat story chronologically from 1965-70—the life of the American operation. Thereafter, the boats were turned over to the South Vietnamese. Each chapter begins with a review of official monthly Operations Summaries for a given year. Then comes a series of oral histories from crewmen who served on Swift Boats during that year.

A large number of Swift Boat veterans responded to the editors’ requests for stories about their war experiences. Those selected for the book strike many emotional notes: humorous, sad, bitter, sardonic, enlightened. Their testimony reflects the pride of the crews and provides a vivid view of Swift Boats and their crews at war and at rest in Vietnam.

The book’s photographs are significantly enhanced by captions that explain the pictures, such as one showing a boat’s 81-mm mortar, aimed like a cannon, which “could accurately hit targets 4,000 meters away. In the horizontal mode, accuracy was good to about 1,000 yards.”

Swift Boats at War in Vietnam is an ideal place to begin reading for anyone unfamiliar with the subject. Those who know about the boats should be entertained by the range of feelings displayed in the short war-time stories.

—Henry Zeybel

Women Vietnam Veterans by Donna A. Lowery

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This encyclopedic volume is a valuable in-depth  history told in the words of women who served in the Vietnam War from 1962-1972. A book team of twenty members collaborated in producing  Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories (AuthorHouse, 733 pp., $36.99, hardcover;  $25.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Donna A. Lowrey, who served in Vietnam in 1967-69. 

The book contains the words of enlisted women and officers—other than nurses—who served in Vietnam during the war. The extensive databases and indices in this work are guides to this historical cornucopia containing the contributions of hundreds of female veterans.

The Army, Air Force, Marine, and Navy are all represented. I recommend a close look at the lists prior to reading the oral histories and biographical sketches, which are arranged chronologically according to when the veterans served in Vietnam. The entries would have been better had they included the homes of record of the veterans. I found connections to my own service in the extensive lists.

Readers will discover a wide spectrum of jobs and combat zone tales,  from humorous to tragic. Women served as physical therapists, switchboard operators, clerk typists, journalists, nutritionists, comptrollers, and staff Judge Advocates, among many other jobs. Many of the accounts recall the same February 18, 1968, night attack when the Viet Cong blew up the ammo dump at Long Binh.

Spec. 5 Sonia Gonzalez, a clerk typist, was new in-country when the attack woke her and she scrambled to the safety of the first floor of her barracks. “I managed to get my issue [clothes] on,” she said. “We stayed there until the next morning. A formation was called and as roll was being taken, everyone started laughing. My pants were on backwards; my uncomfortable boots pointed outward with the left boot on the right and the right boot on my left.”

Several veterans share other memories of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Some marked their arrival in Vietnam by the length of time until Bob Hope’s Christmas Show. Maj. Betty Jean Stallings recalled the Hope show being broadcast on Armed Forces Vietnam Television: “Once when I had to walk down the hall, I realized the same TV show was coming out of every office. The next day, it was easy to see who had seen the show in person and who had watched on TV. Those who had watched in person were quite sunburned.” I might add that I was there photographing the show that hot day.

 

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Donna Lowery

 
Geckos, bats, cockroaches, rats, and mosquitoes are described by many of the contributors—along with hot, wet, and humid weather, hygiene matters, living quarters, clubs, and Post Exchanges.

 

Morale is  the subject of many of these recollections. Spec. 5 Ida Colford wrote to the governor of Maine in November 1967 asking for a fresh Christmas tree. A month later, a Pan Am jet delivered a nine-foot Maine Balsam to Saigon. “It lifted the spirits of all of us so far from home,” Colford said.

So did the formation of a quintet in 1966 called “The Bootleggers of Old Long Binh.” The group wrote songs and performed at their base. There was also a 27-member Women’s Army Corps Drill Team that performed at the WAC Detachment.

Today’s parlance could be used to describe the typical women’s work schedule as 24/7. After their twelve-hour days, many volunteered at jobs such as visiting children in orphanages. Marine Sgt. Ermelinda Salazar worked at St. Vincent de Paul Orphanage, home to 75 children.”This whole orphanage is taken care of by two Catholic sisters,” she said. “The two sisters are Vietnamese who speak no English at all.”

 
Many of the reports describe combat situations such as what the late Mary Van Ette Bender experienced. She served as an Army Chief Warrant Officer and found herself guarding her hotel billet during the 1968 Tet offensive in Saigon. “The MPs guarding the building had been killed almost immediately,” she said. “I was then asked by a male officer to guard the stairwell to the third floor. He then gave me grenades and instructed me to blow up the stairwell in the event that the Viet Cong were able to take the bottom two floors.” CWO Bender was awarded two Bronze Stars for  defending her billet and the women inside. 
 
There are too many poems, songs, letters, and opinions pro and con on the Vietnam War to include here. I found a veteran who worked in the same Engineer Command building where I served at Long Binh in 1970. Sgt. Maryna Misiewicz served as Administrative NCO/ Attache Specialist to Gen. A.B. Dillard, our commander. 
Tragically, he and serveral others were  killed in a helicopter crash. When Sgt. Misiewicz returned home she attended Gen. Dillard’s funeral.
 
—Curt Nelson

The Soldiers’ Story By Ron Steinman

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First published in 1999 in conjunction with a six-hour Learning Channel documentary series, Ron Steinman’s The Soldiers’ Story: An Illustrated Edition: Vietnam in Their Own Words has been republished in a new, large-format, expanded edition (Wellfleet Press, 400 pp., $28).

Steinman served as the NBC News bureau chief in Saigon “through much of 1966, all of 1967, and most of 1968,” he tells us in the book’s Introduction. Steinman also tells us that his “mandate” for the TV show (and the previous editions of this book) was to tell the stories of men “in battle” through their own words. The result here is a long, profusely illustrated book that, indeed, concentrates heavily on first-person testimony from American soldiers and Marines who saw battle action in the war.

There are six chapters—on The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, The Siege height-200-no_border-width-200of Khe Sanh, The Tet Offensive, The Secret War (mostly in Laos and Cambodia), The Air War, and The Fall of Saigon. Steinman provides context, and seventy-seven men provide the voices of combat.

The book is handsomely produced. And the stories told by the former combatants ring true. We are given many riveting descriptions of all forms of combat.

Reading this book would give the uninformed the idea that the American war in Vietnam was one long series of battle action. That’s because the voices of the overwhelming majority of men and women who served in support roles in the Vietnam War are absent. Still, that was not Steinman’s mission, and he delivers what he promises: real-life stories of men in the trenches in the Vietnam War.

—Marc Leepson

 

There and Back by Lisa A. Lark

Lisa A. Lark, the author of There and Back: The Vietnam War Through the Eyes of Those Who Lived It (M.T. Publishing Company, Inc., 136 pp., $39.95), also has written All They Left Behind: Legacies of the Men and Women on The Wall, which was published in 2012 in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Lark is an English teacher at Edsel Ford High School in Dearborn, Michigan, and teaches writing at Henry Ford Community College. Her new commemorative book is dedicated to the 58,300 men and women who gave their lives in the Vietnam War. The contributors to There and Back include more than a hundred Vietnam veterans, along with members of the families of a dozen who did not make it home—families that donated their memories and photographs to this timeline of the war.

Beautifully designed and prepared, this coffee-table-sized book contains more than 300 photos, many in color. Through these photos and accounts the reader is guided through the day-to-day lives of veterans involved in nearly every aspect of the war from 1959-75.

The text contains three main sections:

“Getting There” takes the reader back to the first inkling that the draft board may be calling, or the decision to volunteer, and then what the journey was like once inducted into military service.

“Getting Through” covers being part of America’s involvement in the war.

“Getting Back” shares the memories of veterans as they marked the days off on their short-timer calendars awaiting the Freedom Bird flight back to The World.

No matter where, when, or how one served during the Vietnam War, this book will surely evoke the reader’s own memories. For those who did not serve in that war, this compilation of veteran memories and quality photographs will paint a vivid picture of what that experience was like.

—James P. Coan

Tours of Duty Edited by Michael Lee Lanning

Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Michael Lee Lanning is one of the most prolific Vietnam veteran writers. Many of his twenty-one military-themed nonfiction books deal with the Vietnam War.

That includes the well-received memoirs he wrote about his tour of duty in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, The Only War We Had: A Platoon Leader’s Journal of Vietnam (1987) and Vietnam 1969-1970: A Company Commander’s Journal (1988), as well as Inside the LRRPs: Rangers in Vietnam (1988), Inside the VC and NVA: The Real Story of North Vietnam’s Armed Forces (1992), and Inside the Crosshairs: Snipers in Vietnam (1998). He also wrote a comprehensive guide to Vietnam War films called Vietnam at the Movies (1994).

 

Lee Lanning

Lanning’s latest book is Tours of Duty: Vietnam War Stories (Stackpole, 288 pp., $18.95, paper), a collection of tales from some forty other Vietnam War veterans that Lanning collected and edited.

Virtually all are told by men who served combat-heavy tours of duty. Don’t therefore look between these covers for the voices of cooks, clerks, truck drivers, or other support personnel. Many of the tale tellers—like Lanning—served with the 199th.

Lanning chose not to put names with these first-person stories. But, he says, he can “personally testify to the veracity of some because ‘I was there.’ Others were related to me over the years by soldiers whom I hold in high regard. Names have been left out to protect both the guilty and innocent.”

The author’s website is www.michaelleelanning.com

—Marc Leepson