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

Snapshots from the Edge of a War by John Buquoi

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John Buquoi was trained as a Vietnamese linguist at the Army Language School in Monterey, California, and then assigned to the Army Security Agency’s 3rd Radio Research Unit, a military branch of the National Security Agency in Saigon and its Detachment J in Phu Bai in Vietnam from 1963-65.  After separation from the Army he returned to Vietnam where he worked as a civilian for defense contractors for more than five years. During that time Buquoi traveled to virtually every province in South Vietnam.

Snapshots from the Edge of a War (CreateSpace, 138 pp., $9.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a book of poems, written fifty years later—or, as Buquoi puts it: “This is a work of fiction.”  The back cover has a photograph of the author in the aftermath of the Brinks Hotel bombing in Saigon on Christmas Eve 1964. The photo and the poems demonstrate strongly that John Buquoi was a man who was there, “in the shit.”

The back cover blurb says it well: “The poems in this volume are, after fifty years, echoes of that experience in a series of reflective narrative vignettes which one critic has called, ‘first rate in every respect, resonating on all levels—emotional, personal, factual, historical, literary.'”

Buquoi’s six-page story poem, “The gifts of Christmas,” is the best piece of any kind I’ve read on the bombing of the Brinks Hotel, which served as a Bachelor Officers Quarters in downtown Saigon. Buquoi writes of “Mr. Xuan, the sapper santa” who  sat across the street and sipped coffee after the bombing, “Satisfied as he watched his plastique work explode.”  His 200-pound car bomb killed two and wounded more than 200 Vietnamese and Americans, civilian and military alike.

This story poem brings home the reality of a war that could kill you anywhere. You didn’t have to be “out in the shit.”  The shit could come to you—anytime, even on Christmas Eve.

This book also contains one of the best things written on Gen. William Westmoreland, whom Buquoi calls by his nickname, “Westy.” He was the general who seemed designed for photo ops and little else. He showed up after things calmed down for the heroic pictures that appear in most books and articles about him. Certainly the Westy I knew was a photo op general.

“Get a haircut,” he once told me.  I felt like asking, “Why?” since nobody was taking my picture.  I just said, “Yes, sir.”

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John Buquoi (in steel pot, center right) outside Saigon in 1963

The language of this poetry seems written to be read aloud, what this poet calls a “talkie poem.”  We encounter Terry Southern, Jack Kerouac, “john fucking waynes without no brains,” Wile e. Coyote, Bob Dylan, and in person, Raymond Burr, who shows up to buoy up the troops by out-drinking all of them.

I loved every page of this book of poems and highly recommend it to everyone not just to poetry fans.

—David Willson

The Dark Side of Heaven by Robert G. Lathrop

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Retired Marine Corps Capt. Robert G. Lathrop’s The Dark Side of Heaven (AgeView Press, 68 pp., $24.99), as the title suggests, is a dark book. Lathrop, a former A-4 Skyhawk pilot, arrived in Vietnam during the  1968 Tet Offensive. In fifteen months, he flew more than 275 missions. His squadron, VMA-311, flew 54,625 sorties and dropped some 9 million tons of bombs.

We’re told this record will never be broken. I believe it. This is a book for those who believe that if we’d only dropped more bombs on Vietnam, the outcome of the war would have been different.

Lathrop was tortured by his role in the Vietnam War and he wrote some moving and powerful poems about what he viewed as war atrocities.  “He wrote them to honor the men and women who served,” the book’s collaboration Jeanette Vaughan writes.

The poems often moved me to tears, as did reading Gene Lathrop’s biography and how he spent his time after the war. He was born in Walla Walla, Washington on June 8, 1942.  He graduated from Dayton High School in 1960.  This overlap with my own biography and the skill of his writing, often made me feel as though I could have easily ended up in his shoes.

His being the exact same age as I am—and being born and raised in Washington State—was often on my mind as I read his verses.  The old cliché, “There but fortune go I,” dogged me throughout the book.

After the war, Lathrop endured PTSD and sought treatment at the VA’s American Lake Hospital near Tacoma, Washington, where many of my close friends also have  been treated. Lathrop spent much of his retirement “in periods of solitude,” writing down his memories of his experiences in Vietnam, seeking “answers and meaning to the controversial questions, occurrences and mysteries that took place during the Vietnam Conflict.”

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An A-4 Skyhawk in the skies over Vietnam

Lathrop was a lucky man, in that he married the love of his life, Joy.  “She was his confidant and supporter as PTSD threatened to unravel Gene’s mind and destroy relationships with friends and family.” Gene Lathrop died on June 13, 2012, “while out on his farm doing what he loved, working the land in solitude.”

This small book of verse is dark and honest and tormented. The titles of the thirteen poems include  “As I Lay Dying,” “After Mission 186,” “The Field of Despair,” and “The Phantom Battalion.”  It’s difficult to quote from a book of this sort, so I won’t even try, but the language of war and of pilots has never been served better in any book I’ve read.

“All of the missions described in this work are purely from the imagination of the author,” Vaughan writes. “Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”  Okay, I buy that, but Gene Lathrop paid the dues that made each of the poems seem to me to be the purest of truths.

The pen and ink drawings by Laura Brown and L. Lederman are perfect to support and amplify the poems. This is a book that everyone concerned about the costs of war should read.

—David Willson

 

 

Whispers in the Woods by Richard Kraft

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Richard (Doc) Kraft served twenty-two years on active military duty—half of it as a Navy Corpsman—and eight years in the Fleet Reserves in Vietnam and elsewhere.  He is a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America.

Whispers in the Woods: A Compilation of Poetry (CreateSpace, 182 pp., $9.99, paper, $3.98, Kindle) is a sizable collection of verse on a variety of subjects.  Kraft divides the book into six sections:  Enlightenment, Love and Family, War and Soldier, Nature, Silly and Lighthearted, and Inspiration. Doc Kraft writes nonspecific rhyming verse of an old-fashioned kind.

Even though there is a section called “War and Soldier,” war images appear elsewhere. In his poem “Now I Lay Down to Sleep’” Kraft goes to  “A place of cordite hell and fret-full fear.”  He goes on to say that “Sleep carries him away to a scary place,/ A place I’ve been before.”  I don’t doubt that place is wartime Vietnam.

I thought I might encounter specific imagery from Kraft’s experience in Vietnam in his poem, “A Firefight in Hell in Vietnam,” but there was more about Hell and Satan than there was about the war. It brought to mind John Milton’s poetry rather than the work of many Vietnam War poets.

To wit: “Satan appeared and with smoke and fire he roared/And showed his ugly face.”  Later in the poem we find out that “Our blood that night was very light,/As God was on our side.” The poem ends: “We faced the devils,/One on one,/And sent them straight/To hell.”

“Two-Nine on the Line—Hell in a Helmet” begins: “Hot and steamy was the day,/When through the jungle,/We found our way./Our mission was simple,/or so they say./But we knew that/Some would die that day.”

And: “In the bush, we forced our push/V.C. we did find./A fire fight ensued the night,/With the corpsman on the line.”

Some of the members of that little group of seven ended up with their names on The Wall. Some were rewarded with “Purple Hearts and Stars of Bronze.” Kraft writes: “I was that corpsman at the rear/And felt the sting of steel.” He “stopped the blood from bleeding/But with death it was a ride./I did my best but will never rest,/With this horror deep inside.”  Kraft dedicates this poem to the Ninth Marines.

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A Navy Corpsman ministering to a wounded Marine in Vietnam

More typical of Kraft’s poems is “The Last Patrol” in which men die after fighting well. “We carried them home where the buffalo roam/And people live without fear.”

I hope I’ve given a strong taste of this book so that those readers who take pleasure in reading verse of this sort can buy it and support a veteran who has worked hard for years to help other veterans and their families. That includes his program, The Ground Pounders, which provides financial help to veterans.

Doc Kraft also creates and sells decorative key fobs, which represent past and current wars. After he retired as a Chief Corpsman he went on to serve twenty-years with the U.S. Postal Service.

—David Willson

Now I Lay Me Down to Weep in the Valleys of My Mind by Richard Kraft

The Vietnam War veterans I admire most served as corpsmen and helicopter crewmen. I rate their duties as the riskiest. Therefore, Richard (Doc) Kraft’s Now I Lay Me Down to Weep in the Valleys of My Mind: The Life of a Navy Corpsman (CreateSpace, 220 pp., $14.95, paper) pleased me.

Kraft’s combat life began as a child abused by a merciless stepfather. Robbed of a boyhood, Kraft ran away from home at fifteen and worked his way through high school. In 1957, at the age of eighteen, he enlisted in the Navy and went on to serve twenty-two years on active duty.

Introspection and compassion are Kraft’s strongest attributes—and also his most powerful enemies. He clearly expresses the fear he felt about combat and his nagging concern over providing proper care for the wounded and dying.

The book is a collection of Doc Kraft’s prose and poetry. The poems parallel and re-emphasize the messages in the prose stories. At times, the prose takes on its own cadence and grows more emotion-laden than the accompanying poems.

This style prevails in the Prologue in which Kraft labels his memoir as “a book of fiction” and delivers a grim lesson: “War is without morals, regardless of who is holding the weapon. The dying aspect is all that’s left for clarification. There can be no glory in dying for family and there can be no glory in dying for a war.”

Wounded twice in Vietnam, Kraft developed a front-line knowledge of death with the 2nd Battalion of the 9th Marines in Leatherneck Square.

A Navy Corpsman at work with U.S. Marines in the Vietnam War

In wrapping up his Vietnam War experience, Kraft presents one-page explanations of field gear, monsoons, sanitation, alcohol, combat patrols, helicopters, doctors, chaplains, and others. Although much of this can be found in many Vietnam War novels, memoirs, and history books, Kraft includes several short biographies that qualify as priceless reading.

Kraft—a member of Vietnam Veterans of America—retired from the Navy in 1979. He then endured bouts with leukemia (from Agent Orange exposure) and PTSD. The latter initially overwhelmed him in 1998, and he has never rid himself of the fear of not having done enough to keep others from dying or suffering pain. Kraft describes the effects of PTSD to a depth that is as enlightening as anything else I have read on the topic.

People who favor war over diplomacy should be required to read the PTSD portion of this book.

—Henry Zeybel

The Different War by Michael Miller

Michael Miller served as a Marine from 1958-62. He was a young Marine, joining when he was eighteen. The poems in The Different War (Truman State University, 64 pp., $$16.95, paper; $9.99 e book) deal with the Vietnam War, as well as our recent wars in the Middle East. The thrust of these fine literary poems is the butcher’s bill of war. 

Miller’s poems have been published in The New Republic, The Kenyon Review, Ontario Review, Pinyon Review, The Sewanee Review, Raritan, The Yale Review, and other places. They bear tribute that Miller is one of our finest current war poets. 

Here is one of Miller’s most powerful poems, “Corporal Torres.”

The white rose that was his brain

Had closed, its petals folded

Upon the seams of blood,

After a thorn of shrapnel

Lodged in the frontal lobe

Was delicately removed,

One patch of silver-gray titanium

Perfectly placed.

He awoke from his ten-day coma,

Swollen face recognizable

To his mother alone.

The next surgery was awaiting him.

He would never pronounce

Afghanistan again. 

My advice is for everyone to buy this small book of poetry and read it. Buy it for any young friends who are considering joining the military. Especially the Marine Corps. It is a thought -provoking book.

—David Willson

The Physics of War & Land of Loud Noises and Vacant Stares by Peter M. Bourret

Peter Bourret served with 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, as an 81 mm mortar man in Vietnam in 1967-68. He is a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America.

His two small books of poetry–The Physics of War: Poems of War and Healing (CreateSpace, 92 pp., $15, paper) and Land of Loud Noises and Vacant Stares (CreateSpace, 106 pp., $15, paper)—revisit many of the same things that many Vietnam War memoirs, poetry books, and novels dwell upon.

PTSD is much in evidence here. Agent Orange gets serious time. We read about Indian Country, the Thousand Yard Stare, John Wayne being AWOL, the light at the end of the tunnel, Walter Cronkite, trigger time, the sins of Dow Chemical, Marine veterans being spat upon, and the Animals’ “Sky Pilot.”  The National Anthem and the rocket’s red glare get needed attention.

Peter Bourret puts his boots back into the red clay of 45 years ago, revisiting the pain that has never left him. I hope that Bourret gives the reader some concrete images and passages dealing with the important job of being an 81 mm mortar man in his next book of poetry. I have a great curiosity about how Bourett would turn his considerable word skills on that job. I spent my time in Vietnam as an Army stenographer, so I could learn a lot from Bourett, and would enjoy the chance to do so.

These are handsome books and would make great reading for those who have grappled with PTSD since their return from Vietnam—or for others working through a traumatic event that left them with PTSD. Buy these books for that person in your life who is brave enough to sit down and read these poems.

The poem “a twenty-first-century Hawthorne character” is a fine example of Peter Bourret’s  best work. There’s pain on the page here:

i wear no Purple Heart upon my chest

but rather

i wear the scarlet letter

PTSD

and

hester Prynne will show me

the road

that leads me

away from the shame

that has stained my days

newwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww

—David Willson