Proud to Be edited by Susan Swartwout

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I wish I was a little bird

So I could fly away;

I’d go to all the far off places

Where my daddy has to stay.

—Ashley Williams

The “far off places” in this anthology are battlefields from Sharpsburg, Maryland, to Kanduhar, Afghanistan, and many American wars in between. Stories and photographs from veterans are collected in the fourth volume of Proud To Be: Writing by American Warriors (Missouri Humanities Council/Southeast Missouri State University Press, 270  pp., $15, paper) edited by Susan Swartwout, who worked on the previous three volumes.

Swarthout selected the short fiction, poetry, interviews, essays, and photography with the help of a six-person panel of judges. “The War Within” is the only screenplay in the volume. It succinctly and cleverly presents a cast of character in two versions, one a proud Marine and one dealing with PTSD.

PTSD is also covered in an essay by David Chrisinger, who teaches veteran re-integration at the University of Wisconsin. This well-researched essay centers on Marine Brett Foley’s service in Afghanistan, where he witnessed an IED explosion that killed two and wounded several others.

Dealing with the horror two years later, Foley said: “At the end of the day, it all comes down to the fact that at times I wished desperately that I could simply erase parts of my memory so that I could just be normal again.” In addition to counseling and his wife’s support, “what helped Brett’s resilience was talking about his trauma and remembering the good men he served with.”

The essay, “Korea 1951–Marines Don’t Cry,” predates the study of PTSD and describes how trauma can be dealt with on the battlefield. To wit: “I slowly walked out into the woods. Alone, I couldn’t stop the tears. I reached into my holster and took out my .45. Self-pity turned into anger. I lifted the gun, holding it in both hands and aimed at the sky. I shot it over and over. A couple Marines came running out yelling, ‘What’s going on?’ I pulled my cap down over my eyes so they couldn’t see the tears, turned to them and said, ‘Just practicing.'”

The irony of war could almost be the theme of this compilation. One account describes an action in Sicily during World War II in which German soldiers captured a group of American medics despite the fact that red crosses were on their helmets. They were imprisoned because the Germans had heard a rumor that American generals hid howitzers in ambulances.

“Best Revenge” is a stunning piece of short fiction in which a Marine corporal and a staff sergeant meet during the corporal’s last days in Vietnam. The surprise ending made this standout my favorite.

Another must-read is the essay “My Vietnam Nightmare” written by a former Navy Corpsman. He writes: “Terrified, I think this could very likely be the last day of my life. This suicidal waltz is known as ‘doing your duty.'”

The final section of Proud To Be is devoted to poetry. I recommend taking quiet time to read these poems, especially the well-crafted “Dead Man’s Cap” and “The Flight of the Liberty Belle.”

I would be remiss not to mention the photography category. “Remembering Home” and “Iraqi Boy Sitting” are two I particularly enjoyed.

Finally, here is the poem “Proctors” by Kanesha Washington:

You signed your names on the front lines of war

Susan Swartwout

Susan Swartwout

You packed your duffle bags with manhood
Many only teenagers yet you knew what you were fighting for.
while putting away your adolescence
You left behind family, children and even friends
to become a protector of our nation
Adorned in a uniform of freedom and pride
you marched with bravery on the battlefield of uncertainty
By land, ship, or sea
you proudly and selflessly carried out your duty
You are the stars represented on our flag
America salutes you

for your future, present and especially your past

—Curt Nelson

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A Hard Decision by Westley Thomas

Westley Thomas served with the U. S. Marines in Vietnam from 1966-68 and in the Marine Reserves from 1975-77. The action in his book, A Hard Decision (AuthorHouse, 136 pp., $23.99, hardcover; $14.95, paper; $$3.99, Kindle), we are told, “takes place during and after the Vietnam War era, on Staten Island in the North Shore area.” This is a two-act play with many short scenes.

One of my favorite scenes is the one in which a captured American is interrogated by a VC, who—in the most astonishing coincidence of all time—happens to be the guy who used to be his barber. I’ve encountered the trope of the VC barber again and again in Vietnam War fiction, but Thomas takes this to an illogical extreme. I enjoyed it—in a perverse way.

Here’s some dialogue, illustrating the disconnect between the American troops in Vietnam and the Viet Cong fighters:

VC soldier #1:  (yanking Captain Dickenson from the chair) Get up you bastard, hold still. This is how we treat American prisoners. Move, I’m no longer your barber, you bastard. I am your enemy and you are my prisoner.

(VC interrogator and VC soldier #1, laughing)  

Captain Dickenson: “How could you? You who have cut my hair so many times and given me shaves as my own personal barber and houseboy? I thought we were friends!”

This short play is filled with bad things that happen to Vietnam veterans, and it ends in terrible violence. I can’t imagine how this play would be staged, but I would love to see it to find out.

Plays don’t benefit from being read, in my opinion, but should be seen when performed. But A Hard Decision held my attention to the very end.

—David Willson

The Vietnam Trilogy by Walter C. Kuhlman

Walter C. Kuhlman, the author of The Vietnam Trilogy (Outskirts Press, 314 pp., $19.95, paper), served in Vietnam with the U. S. Army in 1967-68 as a gunner on a Quad .50. He is a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America.

The Trilogy consists of three plays: Survivor, The Innocents of War, and Rap. Plays are written to be performed, and it is always a challenge for a reader to visualize a playwright’s intent, no matter how rich the stage directions are. Reading these three plays has made me eager to see them performed.

Survivor is set in Phouac Binh Province in South Vietnam right after the start of the 1968 Tet Offensive. The characters are a squad of 101st Airborne Division Army paratroopers—Company A, 1st of the 506th. The men are sent out on a search-and-destroy mission, but it turns out that they really are bait to draw out the NVA.

In the play we are told by one character that the whole war is an exercise in population control. It is mentioned that after coming home the men were spat on and called baby killers by antiwar demonstrators.

The survivor of this patrol, Fred Mercer, later tells his wife that their son is a cripple because he was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.  America’s superior firepower is mentioned. Gen. William Westmoreland gets credit for his optimism about the light at the end of the tunnel.

This is a bleak play in which the ghosts of the dead soldiers Fred Mercer served with play important parts. His life after the war conforms to the great American cliché of how combat survivors spend their post war lives. He tries having a family, but is no good at that. He deals with his survivor guilt by drinking. He can’t keep a job. He becomes homeless and we see him putting a pistol to his head.

In The Innocents of War the protagonist, David, is the eldest son of a typical, very patriotic middle-class American family. The dad of the family, Olly, makes the point that the day after Pearl Harbor he volunteered for the Army.

Lots of hubris is expressed in this play. The family is convinced that David will go to Vietnam, kick ass, be back in a jiffy, and God will look out for him.

The family asks: How can little people in black pajamas hope to defeat Americans who have superior firepower and much better equipment? They laugh about how outgunned and out-performed the VC must be. Ollie regrets that Barry Goldwater is not president as he would drop the Big One and that would be that.

Walter Kuhlman

David leaves for Vietnam, time passes, and neighborhood boys start coming home in boxes. “We should have never let him go,” his mother says.

Uniformed Army men show up on their porch with bad news. David is MIA. Ollie says that this is not like any war we have fought before.

Time passes. David’s younger brother avoids the draft. Ollie dies. Eventually David’s commanding officer informs his mom what really happened to David. He was not missing. He was simply dead.

Rap is the third play. I can’t attest to the verisimilitude of how the rap group portrayed in the play is run. I’ve never been in such a group. I did approach a couple of such groups after I got back from Vietnam, but it was explained to me, none too gently, that they were for combat veterans only.

The leader told me that even some “girls” had applied. They’d been nurses in Vietnam and said they wanted to be a part of the group. “Can you believe that? They wanted to use up valuable time and energy needed for real combat vets.”

If the rap group portrayed in this play is representative, I missed nothing valuable. The leader of this group is clueless. She has sex with one of the group participants.

There is a schism between the Marines and the Army guys that sometimes leads to violence. Throughout the play the Marine Corps is referred to as “the crouch.”  That’s not right. My Marine Corps friends often lovingly called it  “The Crotch.” That oft-repeated mistake annoyed the hell out of me.

Also it is said in the play that the war was fought “on the cheap.” Really? The war I took part in was not fought on the cheap. Yes, there were distribution problems, but tons of money was spent.

This play did make me think, which is a good thing. I would love to see it performed. On the other hand, I have trouble believing that the sex scenes would not trigger audience laughter.

Agent Orange and malfunctioning M-16s are mentioned. The main point seems to be that the U. S. government poisoned us and then refused to care for us when we needed care.  It’s impossible to argue with that.

—David Willson