Hope in the Shadows of War by Thomas Paul Reilly

Thomas Paul Reilly is an award-winning columnist and the author of many books. He often advocates for causes important to military veterans.

His latest novel, Hope in the Shadows of War (Koehler Books, 278 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle), has a few short scenes that take place in Vietnam during the war, but primarily the book deals with the life of Vietnam War veteran Timothy Patrick O’Rourke who is struggling in 1973 America to find his way after a tough tour of combat duty.

He has a seriously damaged leg that has left him with a pronounced limp. This leaves Timothy open to be called “gimp” and “Chester” after the limping Gunsmoke character.

Much of the book takes place prior to Christmas. Timothy works at a Christmas tree stand where he struggles to do the heavy lifting. He does his part, but little slack is cut for him. Some attempt is made to make Timothy an “everyveteran” struggling with “alienation, hyper-vigilance, substance abuse, relationship problems, guilt, flashbacks, nightmares, and depression.”

Timothy is not a whiner, but is reluctant to share his troubles with his girlfriend Cheryl, who wants him to do so. Manliness issues prevent Timothy from coming clean with her about his money problems and other related issues.

People at the VA seem often to drag their feet about helping veterans, and people in general seem to not want to hire anyone who served in the Vietnam War. Timothy gets put on notice at the hospital where he works part time for seeming to be interested in talking with union organizers, which adds to the stress he has to deal with on a daily basis.

Little is made of Timothy’s military experience as a helicopter pilot, but much is made of his return to civilian life being marred by indifference or hostility on the part of former friends. Timothy supports his mother with a hodgepodge of part-time jobs, and fights to pursue his dream of getting a college degree.

Timothy does have a lot of support from friends and from his incredibly loyal girlfriend, and some luck which comes his way. I was glad that all his luck was not bad, because I was rooting for him as most readers will find themselves doing.

I recommend this novel highly.

The author’s website is tomreillyblog.com

—David Willson

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Ride a Twisted Mind Home by J. Dixon Neuman

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The pseudonymous J. Dixon Neuman is a  U.S. Navy veteran who was born and raised in the Allegany Mountains and served in the Vietnam War with Swift Boats and a Navy Support Activity.  The events his novel, Ride a Twisted Mind Home (Xlibris, 414 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $23.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), he tells us, are ripped from the pages of his life.

The main character, Jake Brewer, is modeled on the author. He is of Christian faith, which helped him to survive two brutal tours of duty in the Vietnam War. Early in the story, his marriage is rocky, but gradually gathers strength. Jake battles with PTSD and recovers enough to complete his military career.

The other primary protagonist is a member of the Slater Family, a group of primarily career criminals who learn stern lessons about life in prison. The Slaters are  “a family of vengeful troublemakers. These longtime residents of Sterling County are headed to war.” And that is where they end up. Prison, we find out, is not be the best preparation for military service.

The writing tends to be a bit overemotional. Early in the novel—actually, in the second sentence—Newman writes: “Gravity sucks them into a black hole of disastrous consequences.” That is hard to imagine. But we don’t have to imagine it, as the next few pages describe said black hole in great detail.

There are no Vietnam War battle scenes in the book. The war is mentioned, but only occasionally.  For example: there is “a warped half-crazed Vietnam vet with a chip on his shoulder,” and Dustoff pilots are referred to in passing.  This novel does include many mentions of “assault, rapes, arson, stalking and ongoing destruction,” but only in a peacetime environment. PTSD and trips to the VA are also mentioned in passing.

Many disgusting references are in this novel, enough for it to be characterized as more than occasionally disgusting in tone. I warn readers that this novel is not for the faint of heart—or the easily revolted.

I found myself resenting having to read this book for review. Rarely do I feel that strongly negative about a review novel—almost never, in fact.

The excessively vernacular writing in this book also made it a struggle to read. I would not describe myself as faint of heart, but perhaps in my old age I am becoming more easily offended when confronted with descriptions of individuals whose bodies and clothes stink or are rotting off their bodies.

When I worked decades ago as a welfare worker, I encountered such people from time to time and was able to deal with them with compassion, but this novel’s characters tested my patience—and my compassion.

—David Willson

Under Fire with ARVN Infantry by Bob Worthington

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Over the years American Vietnam War veterans have written countless books about their war experiences. In Under Fire with ARVN Infantry: Memoir of a Combat Advisor in Vietnam 1966-1967 (McFarland, 240 pp. $29.95, paper), Bob Worthington brings us a story, as the subtitle indicates, of an American adviser assigned to the South Vietnamese Army, the ARVN. By his reckoning, during the U.S. involvement in Vietnam starting in 1945, more than 66,300 American advisers worked with the South Vietnamese military.

In a relatively short and compact book, we are introduced to a side of the conflict not commonly considered or explored. All of us in Vietnam knew there were advisers for most everything, but back then didn’t think about it all that much.

Worthington begins his story in the late 1950s when he was out of high school and not ready to handle college. So he enlisted in the Marines in early 1957. He takes us along on his adventures in boot camp and his release from the Marine Corps two years later to return to college. From the Marine Reserves he transferred to Army ROTC and then to active duty.

He got married, and he held a series of jobs at home and overseas. Before he went to Vietnam Worthington completed Special Warfare Training and the Military Assistance Training Advisor course at Ft. Bragg, as well as Vietnamese language school at the Presidio. In-country, Capt. Worthington worked with ARVN units in Da Nang, Hoi An, An Hoa. and other areas of I Corps.

Worthington relates his experiences and reactions using little direct dialogue, opting instead for indirect quotes and attributions. He goes into detail about encounters with the NVA and VC, replying primarily on his daily journals and unit histories. The Vietnamese officers and personnel he worked with are well portrayed. His descriptions of riding on an O-1 Birddog and on board a fire mission with a Snoopy Gunship alone are worth the price of admission.

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Worthington (left) in Vietnam

He briefly goes into “oft ignored” inter-service rivalries, and the derisive attitude of some U.S. officers about the Advisory programs. After a second tour as an adviser in 1968-69, Worthington left active duty and earned a Master’s and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. He was involved with research on returning troops and POW’s, and was a psychological consultant with the Army’s Health Services Command.

Worthington found success in civilian life as a writer, University of New Mexico professor, and business owner. Under Fire with ARVN Infantry is a good story by a good man—and a good soldier.

—Tom Werzyn

Rat Six by Jack Flowers

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Clifford Price, the hero of Jack Flowers’ novel Rat Six (Page Publishing, 452 pp. $36.95, hardcover; $22.95, paper; $9.99 Kindle), like hundreds of thousands of other young Baby Boomers, was drafted into the U. S. Army and served in the Vietnam War. His grandfathers had served in the First World War and his father in World War II.

After being selected for OCS, Price served in the Army Corps of Engineers. He arrived in Vietnam in 1968. For a few months he commanded a platoon of bridge builders, but then volunteered to lead the 1st Infantry Division Tunnel Rats, one of the most dangerous jobs in the war.

In his new job Price was eligible for the Combat Infantryman Badge, a goal of sorts for him.  His mindset was antiwar, but as a tunnel rat that attitude was not one that would enable him to survive. Price and his fellow tunnel rates descended into tunnels armed only with a flashlight and a pistol and their training in how to ferret out the enemy below.

The tunnel rats navigated the tunnels, seeking intelligence, and then would destroy the tunnels and any food and other materiel stored there. The novel well communicates the terror that the tunnel rats felt when they went under ground and pursued the enemy in his own very alien habitat.

In the novel, our hero must deal with a soldier who has made this pursuit of the enemy in the tunnels his domain—a man called Batman. His actual name is Bateman and he had been in Vietnam for several tours, making a career of being a tunnel rat.

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Jack Flowers

Sgt. Bateman is a scary guy who nobody dared mess with, but Price has to mess with him when put in charge of the tunnel rat team. Most of the drama and conflict in this novel has its source in the battle between Price and Batman, who had seized control of the tunnel rat team through the force of his personality and his success in killing the enemy.

This novel held my attention, and I recommend it to anyone who has interest in the underground war in Vietnam between our tunnel rats and the entrenched VC who were totally at home in the dank, dark recesses of Vietnam’s vast tunnel complexes.

The author’s website is ratsix.com

—David Willson

Circus of the Absurd by James O’Leary

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In Circus of the Absurd (Focused Publishing, 375 pp. $15.95, paper; $5.95, Kindle),  James O’Leary definitely reigns as ringmaster. Based on the cover or the title page, the book’s contents are either “Notes from the Clown Car, Vietnam 67-68,” or “A Novel Look at our War in Vietnam.” In both cases, “absurd” rings true.

The novel also serves as Jim O’Leary’s war memoir. A member of Vietnam Veterans of America, he says he had input from “several fellow Vietnam veterans” at an Orlando VFW post.

The book’s stories live up to the “circus” in the title: Practically everyone Leary describes had an act. Usually it was a scam to make money or to abuse power. O’Leary himself tried illegal money exchanging and ghost writing before settling on black market PX Courvoisier cognac. That income financed his acting-out desires. Along the way, he met many interesting people with clever schemes, such as manufacturing and selling counterfeit war souvenirs.

O’Leary’s storytelling has no boundaries. His ability to embellish events reminded me of Carl Hiaasen‘s talent for amusing readers. He examines whatever trips through his mind. At one point, he resolves the arguments surrounding John Kennedy’s assassination. Occasionally, I tuned him out, but his determination to entertain soon won me back. The humor often hides within irony, sarcasm, cynicism, and ridicule.

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O’Leary’s main desire centered on carnal pursuit of women. His success in this quest proved formidable and made me recall the escapades in Tom Jones. Sexually, there was no such thing as too much, but friendship also counted.

Trained as an armor crewman, O’Leary’s bachelor’s degree in journalism earned him a job as an Army information specialist USARV headquarters at Tan Son Nhut and, later, Long Binh. He worked days and met his obligations, but his nights were free and Saigon’s women called. A twenty-three year old draftee with no real responsibility, he behaved more like a man on vacation than a soldier in a war zone. He describes one day as “doing my perpetual tourist thing.”

Not unexpectedly, the war intruded on his pleasure and O’Leary witnessed the deaths of friends and foes, along with being a target himself. Defending a base perimeter constituted his major contribution to the war, and that too turned farcical. He finished his tour by returning to Saigon from a Bangkok R&R amid the 1968 Tet Offensive, a tale that could stand alone as a novella.

O’Leary’s wartime journey followed a path well worn by others, but his approach was highly personalized. Here’s his summary of the Vietnam War:

“I had to hand it to LBJ. If you’re going to hold a war, do it somewhere warm, with an abundance of beautiful women, a low cost standard of living, and a very benign attitude toward unbridled sex, smoking dope, and other assorted hedonistic pursuits.”

Even a one-way ticket to Hell might possibly provide first-class seating.

—Henry Zeybel

Wizard and Me by Gary Gill

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Gary Gill’s Wizard and Me: Or How We Survived Vietnam and Evolved into Real Human Beings (AuthorHouse, 230 pp., $13.99, paper; $3.99, e book) is fictional, but the events are not. Gill is a veteran of the Vietnam War who served in a tank battalion—as do his two main characters. Gill’s real-life unit took part in the 1970 incursion into Cambodia.

His small, readable, and engaging novel covers some familiar territory. It features the 2/34th Armor and a battalion of M-48 tanks. The familiar Vietnam War novel (and memoir) territory includes mentions of John Wayne, Rambo, shit-burning , newbies, dapping,33 beer, the fog of war, and “Indian country.”

There is a character called Sgt. Rock who thinks that Vietnam should be bombed back into the Stone Age. The characters listen to Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and Roger Miller’s “Dang Me.” They chew Red Man and when fear strikes, they experience puckered assholes.

We are informed that 19 million gallons of Agent Orange were dumped on the war zone and that Rome plows took care of the rest of the jungle. The Bob Hope Show makes an appearance and the troops are labeled baby killers, rapists, and murderers. The wizard of the title is Spec 4 Merlin James Hogan, who receives a Silver Star for courageous actions under fire.

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The novel is written in the language of the time and the place. Here’s a sample:

“Demetry had come in country not long after I was assigned to 2/34th and, as it turned out, he ended up replacing me on the back deck when Red made me the loader for Double Deuce.”

Gradually the reader gets used to the special language and can easily figure out what is happening.

This is a novel easily read in one sitting, and most people probably will rip right through it.  I recommend it to those curious about American tanks in the Vietnam War.

–David Willson

Firebase Tan Tru by Walter F. McDermott

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After listening to the problems of war veterans for thirty years as a licensed clinical psychologist, Walter F. McDermott has written his own memoir: Firebase Tan Tru: Memoir of an Artilleryman in the Mekong Delta, 1969-1970 (McFarland, 218 pp.; $29.95, paper; $15.99. Kindle). McDermott served in Vietnam as an enlisted man with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Artillery Brigade of the 2nd Field Force attached to the 9th Infantry Division. His book’s main themes are fear of being killed and incompetent leadership by officers.

For McDermott, fear of dying in combat emerged simultaneously with the realization that he would be drafted. He attributes a similar reaction to most other draftees. He attempted to beat the system with ploys such as claiming conscientious objector status and volunteering for officer candidate school, but abandoned those ideas, opting to serve two years as a draftee.

In the opening chapter, McDermott expresses disgust with the military’s authoritarian culture. One reason: His psychology degree made him feel superior to the high school graduates commissioned by completing OCS. Later, though, he says that the Vietnam War “is where I received my real education.” During Basic and AIT, McDermott challenged officers and NCOs, and suffered punishments that confirmed their authority over him.

McDermott deplored the certainty of rank that prevailed when questionable issues arose in the war zone, and he provides excellent examples of poor decision-making based on that certainty. For example, during a search and rescue operation, a captain pulled rank and overrode an artillery solution that McDermott and two other enlisted men drew up. The resultant misdirected fire killed fourteen Vietnamese civilians and four water buffalo. According to McDermott, families of the dead received compensation of forty dollars for each human and seventy dollars for each animal. The captain received a written reprimand.

Working primarily in the Tan Tru tactical operations center, McDermott plotted targets and took pride in his duties. He helped draw up more effective patterns of firepower. Despite forming friendly working relations with a few forward observer captains, McDermott says, “Negative encounters with our officers prevented me from ever developing a firm respect for our officer class.” Above all, irrational ranting by colonels disillusioned him about the purpose of the war.

McDermott experienced combat in the field humping with infantrymen as a radio telephone operator for artillery forward observers. On Tan Tru, he endured frequent enemy rocket, mortar, and small arms attacks. He vividly describes an advancing string of 107-mm rockets that utterly terrified him and his bunker mates. In this and other passages McDermott unhesitatingly shows both up and down moments in his life.

As men close to him were killed, McDermott’s attitude toward the war transitioned from a self-survival and anger against the enemy to unadulterated hatred for them. As a result of self-analysis, he says, “I cannot forgive the Vietnamese communists for the despicable inhuman violence they displayed against American and ARVN soldiers, as well as toward Vietnamese civilians.”

The intensity of McDermott’s feelings is meaningful considering that his negative emotions still persist fifty years later. It led him to graduate studies in clinical psychology. In 2012, he wrote a book called Understanding Combat Related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He calls his effort to help veterans and their families as “more than a job… a crusade.”

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McDermott at Brigade HQ, Tan An

McDermott’s writing is easy and enjoyable to read even when he covers everyday routines, such as eating C-ration, living alongside rats, and burning shit, which are part of every grunt memoir that I have read. He also examines issues of greater complexity: the Vietnamese mentality, North and South; religion; weddings; drinking; and the news media.

McDermott filled gaps in my education with detailed recollections about fragging attempts that never were investigated and the permissive drug use that permeated Firebase Tan Tru.

Point of information, however. McDermott writes: “Spooky gunships proved so successful that after the war our Air Force expanded and updated the concept of ground attack aircraft by heavily arming the C-130 Hercules transport airplane.”

The fact is that AC-130 Spectre gunships supported troops in Cambodia and Vietnam and destroyed thousands of trucks in Laos during the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel