The Rakkasans by Andrew Robbins

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Andrew Robbins’ stimulatingly dismal reflections on military life and combat triggered my entire repertoire of WTF reflexes. His book, The Rakkasans (December 1967 through October 1969): A Vietnam Veteran’s Memoir (CreateSpace, 298 pp. $18.95, paper) rounds up—and convicts—the usual suspects.

Robbins served in Vietnam with the 3rd Battalion/187th Infantry Regiment, aka the Rakkasans (“Parachutists” in Japanese), in the 101st Airborne Division. He confronted two big problems . First, he questioned the purpose of the war. Second, he despised the lack of leadership and battle skills of his officers. At one point, Robbins says, he seriously sought a sergeant’s approval to shoot a junior lieutenant who could not read maps and frequently became lost.

A teenage enlistee from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Robbins paid close attention during basic training, infantry AIT, and Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol school. Beyond that, while helping train reserve officers, he sat in their classes and learned combat tactics, mastering map reading. In his spare time, he “devoured writings on guerrilla warfare and Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Chiang Kai-shek, Ho Chi Minh, and Che Guevara,” he says.

In Vietnam, along with taking part in many search-and-destroy missions, Robbins fought in three large engagements: Operation Rakkasan Chaparral in March 1968, Ap Trang Dau, and Fire Support Base Pope, both in September 1968. He describes the action in vivid detail . Between the first and second engagements, he spent three months locked up in Long Binh Jail. Upon returning to his unit, he voluntarily extended his combat tour.

Self-confidence based on his study of the guerrilla mentality prompted him to question superiors when they devised risky or incomplete operational plans. His habit of questioning authority led to the court-martial in a trial during which he was barred from the courtroom.

The book describes many Vietnam War leadership practices that defy reason. Robbins saw how irrational leaders destroyed esprit and caused unnecessary deaths. He provides example after example of avoidable combat disasters to prove his point. Based on his observations, the foremost goal of officers in-country seems to have been winning command positions to advance their careers. Victory was secondary. Furthermore, the way the military gave out medals to officers damaged military valor, Robbins says. He spends a chapter demeaning the combat awards of generals that he cites by name.

Robbins’ blunt complaints are supported by operation orders, daily entries in duty officer logs, eye-witness accounts, excerpts from the Abrams Tapes, other personal narratives, and his letters from Vietnam to his mother. His research reveals cover-ups of events that might have damaged officers’ careers and false battle claims such as inflated body counts.

The book takes on a tone of international intrigue after Robbins meets “SBC” (his moniker for a unidentified “Skinny Black Contractor”) and Mr. Q. while in LBJ. Based on Robbins’ map reading skill, LRRP training, and familiarity with firearms, the two mysterious men unexpectedly and without explanation enlisted him for secret missions.

Long after the war when Robbins worked for the Department of Defense, he met SBC at the Pentagon. Their conversation then proved equally as mystifying as their relationship had been in Vietnam. SBC related complicated ideas that finally showed Robbins the true purpose of the war. His explanation gives an entirely new dimension to Southeast Asia. At least that is how I read it.

To clarify a long-ago war for present generations, Robbins includes two appendices in The Rakkasans. The first reviews Vietnamese history. The second explains the influence Ho Chi Minh exerted on his nation. Robbins’ message: Vietnam’s savior built a dictatorship using imported revolution.

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Andrew Robbins

Following the account of his time in Vietnam, Robbins applies a logical approach to long-term health care by calmly discussing the war-incurred medical problems for which he sought treatment from the VA: malaria, hearing loss, exposure to Agent Orange, impaired vision, and Post-traumatic stress disorder. Unproductive encounters with VA doctors and administrators—as well as unreasonable policies that hindered his treatment—eventually reduces his logical argument to an emotional one unfavorably comparing the VA to “real hospitals” and “true medical” facilities.

He sums up years of unfulfilled VA medical care, particularly for PTSD, by saying: “I tried the VA’s mental health program and found it to be a complete failure. VA treatment is unreliable, inhumane and not in any patient’s best interest.”

In 2004, Robbins wrote It Took My Breath Away: One Man’s Experience May Save Your Life, an investigation into problems associated with working in toxic environments.

Robbins’ web site is http://www.therakkasans.com/page-4/

—Henry Zeybel

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Vietnam Veterans Unbroken by Jacqueline Murray Loring

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In 2010, working in conjunction with a Vietnam War veterans group in Hyannis, Massachusetts, Jacqueline Murray Loring began studying the resiliency of Vietnam vets and their assimilation into the American social structure after coming home.

Loring, a poet and writer of stage plays, movie scripts, and articles, labels herself a “non-military writer.” She wholeheartedly acknowledges the support she received from the group’s Director of Counseling, Jack Bonino.

With Bonino’s help, she compiled interviews and writings from seventeen Vietnam War veterans (including her husband) to broaden her understanding of how they overcame the trauma of exposure to combat. Seven of her subjects served in the Marine Corps; eight in the Army; and two in the Navy.

Loring’s research culminated with her new  book, Vietnam Veterans Unbroken: Conversations on Trauma and Resiliency (McFarland, 212 pp. $29.95, paper).

This book resembles other Vietnam War memoirs that provide the life stories of a group of veterans who enlisted or were drafted from the same region and returned there following their military service. However, rather than providing complete memoirs one after another, Loring separates each person’s experiences into four parts that she then collects into the following groupings:

  • Growing Up in America and Arriving in Vietnam
  • Coping with Coming Home
  • Post-Traumatic Stress
  • Resiliency and Outreach

That structure helps the reader distinguish similarities and differences among the interviewees at four critical junctures in each of their lives.

The veterans—one woman and sixteen men—provided information in a questionnaire that is not included in the book. Their most common problem was the inability to speak about their war experiences. In general, civilians were not interested in stories of what the returnees had done overseas; likewise, most returnees did not want to talk about their experiences, which compounded their emotional problems.

The veterans describe their common feelings in everyday life: anxiety, depression and hopelessness, sleeplessness, anger and rage, nightmares and flashbacks, and suicidal thoughts or attempts. They talk about dealing with emotions that intensified low-level confrontations at home, in the work place, and in therapy. The depth and duration of their therapy to treat PTSD far surpassed what I had imagined.

Loring presents the facts and allows readers to reach their own conclusions about psychological outcomes. I concluded that the returnees’ major need was social acceptance and a method to unravel their innermost feelings, a task for which they received virtually no support.

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Jacqueline Murray Loring

That might sound like self-evident truth, but more than anything else, Loring’s book reconfirms how long it took for doctors and counselors to recognize the long-term psychological damage inflicted by the Vietnam War. Fortunately, these veterans found the resilience to construct at least a semblance of normal existences.

Although Loring’s work focuses on Vietnam War veterans, her findings will help those who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As one of the Marines interviewed for the book put it: “The young kids coming home today are facing the same quandary.”

Overall, the book is cathartic. It includes no battle scenes. It mainly displays the resiliency of a small group of veterans who paid a steep psychological toll for serving their country.

The book’s page on the author’s website is jacquelinemurrayloring.com

—Henry Zeybel

Edison 64 by Richard Sand

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Sixty-four students from Thomas Alva Edison High School in North Philadelphia died in the Vietnam War—the largest number from any high school in the nation. Richard Sand—historian, novelist, attorney, and college professor—commemorates these men in Edison 64: A Tragedy in Vietnam and at Home (Righter’s Mill Press, 248 pp. $22.95, paper).

Each man’s photograph fills a page in the book. Nearly seventy percent of them had volunteered for duty. They lost their lives between 1965 and 1971. Forty-seven died before they were eligible to vote.

Based on interviews with the men’s families, Sand has put together seven short biographies. He also interviewed twenty Edison graduates who survived the war. Most of the survivors have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or from cancer due to exposure to Agent Orange and other toxic defoliants.

All of the young men thought and behaved similarly. President Kennedy’s speeches influenced many of them to serve their country. Their parents were loving and concerned for their futures. In general, the young men came from large families who lived in row houses in North Philly. They worked part-time jobs to help their parents financially; avoided contact with the neighborhood gangs; and took part in sports, including fencing, at Edison.

In the book Sand also recognizes other people who made sacrifices in the war. He cites women military veterans who served in Vietnam and lauds the eight who lost their lives there. He also appreciates the “inestimable value” of Red Cross Donut Dollies.

He analyzes the plight of war veterans in dealing with PTSD and the “incomprehensible delays” they faced when trying to get help from the VA in the sixties and seventies.

Sand’s study of North Philly reveals a scenario familiar to men fresh from high school facing the challenge of finding a career in the sixties. He portrays years of high unemployment and low salaries among civilian workers, as opposed to a guaranteed paycheck from the military, coupled with fulfilling a sense of dedication to the nation. For many young men, the decision to serve was not a difficult one.

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Overall, Edison 64 records the lives of lower-middle-class Americans as much as it recalls their involvement in the war. Mostly, their post-war successes have exceeded those of their parents, which was the social expectation of the time.

An Edison dropout who received three Bronze Stars succinctly summed up his life: “I’m married and have four children. By far, they are the awards I’m most proud of.”

The book’s website edison64.org

—Henry Zeybel

 

Memories of a Vietnam Veteran by Barbara Child

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Barbara Child packs a big dose of love and sorrow into Memories of a Vietnam Veteran: What I Have Remembered and What He Could Not Forget (Chiron Publications, 200 pp. $28, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle). The book takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster as Child bares her soul in describing her often-futile pursuit of understanding a man she loved.

Her story pays tribute to Army medic Alan George Morris and captures the essence of the aftereffects of his exposure to combat. Morris committed suicide in 1996. Child’s ability to analyze his mentality, as well as her own, reconnected me with Jungian psychiatry, which I had not thought about for decades.

Alan Morris was twenty years old in 1970 when he completed a tour of duty in the Vietnam War with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. He had gone through countless blood-drenched episodes while treating the wounded and collecting pieces of the shattered dead. He was grounded from flying rescue missions after a day in which his helicopter took heavy damage and he was shot, and then after landing he went into shock during a mortar bombardment and ground attack.

Barbara Child’s life is one of successful endeavors: fifteen years as a tenured English professor at Kent State University; another fifteen years as an attorney practicing poverty law and teaching in California and Florida law schools; and accreditation as a minister.

She met Alan Morris at Kent State in 1970, the year National Guardsmen shot and killed four students during an antiwar demonstration. She and Morris shared the stage during a 1972 ACLU/VVAW rally, a photo of which is on the book’s cover. They lost track of each other until 1986 when Morris contacted Child and they embarked on a one-sided love affair (for Child), which did not stop with Morris’ suicide.

Their time together was chaotic. Both drank excessively until Child recognized her problem and stopped. Morris was antisocial, sober or drunk, and alcohol only increased his belligerence. Guns, which Child detested, were important to Morris. He slept with them, including a Colt .45 he later used to kill himself.

Despite sharing light-hearted times, they failed to understand each other’s needs. Child recognized the problem; Morris appeared not to notice. Along the way, she acted as a spokesperson for him. Occasionally they separated for months at a time. Her “An Open Letter to a Vietnam Veteran” is a masterful summation of their dilemma.

Morris left her a legacy of questions that are impossible to answer. As she reconsidered his behavior during times when they had been apart, she developed an obsession about his obvious closeness with other women, a feeling she had suppressed when he was alive. She describes in detail her grieving and second-guessing. Aid provided by professionals improved her psychologically.

Nearly twenty-five years after Alan Morris’ suicide, Barbara Child traveled to Vietnam. Seeing sites where Morris had barely escaped death helped her. Meeting Buddhists and participating in emotional cleansing ceremonies led her to write, in closing:

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Alan Morris & Barbara Child

“I used to say to Alan that I could not tell his story. The only story I could tell was my own. Through writing this book, I have at last let loose of it. And I do believe that just as the story of Barbara in Alan was finished when he died, the story of Alan in Barbara is now complete.”

She signs the statement: “Barbara Child, Ha Noi, Viet Nam, November 16, 2018.”

Child concludes the book with twenty-five pages of “Further Reading,” which is “not a comprehensive bibliography,” she says, but a collection of enlightening and thought-provoking resources. She recommends the writings of war correspondents and veterans, authorities on PTSD, the psychotherapist Edward Tick, antiwar advocates, and Jungian psychologists. For each recommendation, she cites an excerpt well worth reading.

—Henry Zeybel

Thank You For Your Service: Battling PTSD by Richard Baker

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Richard Baker served with the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division Band in Vietnam from 1966-67. He and I were in Vietnam at exactly the same time, but we did very different things. He didn’t spend much time playing in the band, but learned how to fight a war he knew nothing about. He was wounded twice and has battled PTSD since he came home. Thank You for Your Service: Battling PTSD (387 pp. $15, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is about that battle and it is a very interesting one.

I didn’t expect the book to be about boxing, but that is what it largely turned out to be. It’s also about suicide, music, nightmares, and sex.

Baker is tempted to tell the Vietnamese, he writes, that he was “happy to be involved in killing over a million people from a 3rd world country who wanted the freedom to govern their own country and to help save our democracy and way of life by keeping those vicious, evil, forces from rowing across the Pacific to sling a few arrows at the West Coast. Had I not gone, I would have been sent to prison.  Such is the life in an American democracy.”

The above paragraph is a fair example of what Baker has to say in this book. He is careless with punctuation, but careful with ideas. This is a beautiful book, filled with poetry and philosophy and should be read by everyone who plans to enter the military. The book is a warning and a rant about America and how we have treated the rest of the world.

I enjoyed every page of this book, just as I enjoyed the more than a dozen other books of Baker’s that I have read that relate the American war in Vietnam. Richard Baker has written more than two dozen books, including Shellburst Pond, Janus Rising, Shattered Visage, Feast of Epiphany, Gecko, Smoke Tales, The Last Wire, The Flag, The Last Round, Siege at Dien Bien Phu and Cow Bang.

He starts off this latest book with a short essay on how boxing and war relate. Boxers and soldiers often share a common social status, he notes. They come from the middle to lower classes and occasionally constitute the bottom stratus. Food for thought.

Buy this book and Richard Baker’s other books. You will have invested your money well.

—David Willson

One for the Boys by Cathy Saint John

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Cathy Saint John’s One for the Boys: The Poignant and Heartbreaking True Story of SGT John W. Blake, a Newfoundlander from Canada who Volunteered and Served in the Vietnam War (Sinjin Publishing, 457 pp. $22.95, hardcover; $9.95, Kindle) is a tribute to the author’s brother, John W. Blake, who joined the U.S. Army and served eighteen months in the Vietnam War.

The book is made up of five main parts, each of which could stand on its own. The first covers Blake’s time in the Vietnam war, from January 1970 to August 1971. Serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Sgt. Blake received a Bronze Star and suffered wounds from grenade shrapnel three different times.

Using her brother’s journals, Saint John says he “witnessed atrocities that were horrid, criminal behaviors and actions completely against his training as a soldier and as a human being that shocked him to his inner core.”

Blake estimated that he took part in 70-100 incidents in which he had a high probability of being killed, and that at least fifteen of his buddies were killed in combat. He also wrote of experiencing “airport assaults from protesters” when he returned home.

Once Blake was in Canada, he wouldn’t speak to family about his war experiences, though his sister writes that it quickly became clear he had “died spiritually and emotionally in Southeast Asia.”

Blake moved to the United States in 1976 thinking he would find more “understanding and acceptance” here than he had in Canada. He also hoped to find some meaning from his war experiences.

The book’s second part deals with John Blake’s seven-month solo walk across the United States to draw attention to the service of Vietnam War veterans. He wore out six pairs of boots walking in uniform and carrying an American flag from Washington state to Washington D.C.

That 3,200-mile trek was planned to coincide with the November 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He called his the walk, “Mission at Home 1982, One for the Boys.” He also described it as his “long journey home.”

The third part describes Blake doing volunteer work as an advocate for Vietnam War veterans that ends with him fighting his own losing battle with PTSD. He took his own life in 1996. A note he left behind said, in part, “I’ve always been wondering where the boys went—I think I’ll go looking for them now.”

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The fourth section of the book covers his family’s five-year struggle to have his cremated remains accepted for burial in a military cemetery in Newfoundland. The final part describes Saint John communicating with, and meeting several, of the men who had served alongside her brother in Vietnam.

John Blake often expressed his feelings through poetry and hoped someday to write a book about his experiences. The task ended up falling to his younger sister. She has served him well.

Cathy Saint John wrote this book for family members too young to have known John Blake. It also serves, more generally, as an exploration of the general causes and effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

–Bill McCloud

Pilgrim Days by Alastair MacKenzie

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Born in the U.K., Alastair MacKenzie spent most of his childhood in the Far East before his family settled in New Zealand at the end of his father’s British Army career. At the age of 18 in 1966, MacKenzie joined the New Zealand Army—AKA, the Kiwis. He arrived in Vietnam in May 1970.

The first half of MacKenzie’s memoir—Pilgrim Days: From Vietnam to the SAS (Osprey, 224 pp. $25, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle)—recalls his year commanding platoon out of Nui Dat on search-and-destroy missions to protect Route 15 that linked Saigon to the port city of Vung Tau.

In Vietnam, MacKenzie says, “We operated differently [than] the Americans, South Vietnamese, Thai and Korean forces, who would go and find the Viet Cong and once they found them would ‘pile on.’” Because of their reduced numbers, the Kiwis, “like the Australians,” MacKenzie writes, were “more subtle.”

He goes on to describes field operations that, except for greater respect for mines and booby traps, resembled American tactics that heavily relied on artillery and ground-attack aircraft in encounters with North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong. He emphasizes, however, that his men moved slower and much more quietly in the field than the American troops did.

His unit took part in major operations but fought no large-scale battles. As expected, his men suffered casualties. MacKenzie says he was “disappointed” that his platoon “and I were not able to kill more than we did.” In his eyes, the Kiwis were “small in terms of manpower,” but “big in terms of operational efficiency.”

His account provides evidence of the universal nature of infantrymen who work to avoid unnecessary exposure to danger and complain about unrealistic upper-echelon expectations. Those sections of the book make for good reading.

MacKenzie also writes about a long line of military contemporaries. Their stories occasionally stand alone. Citing the men’s pros and cons, he often uses only a first name and an initial to identify them.

Upon returning home from war, PTSD temporarily alienated MacKenzie from his wife, Cecilia, but he received no counseling—much like Americans.

In 1973, MacKenzie resigned from the New Zealand Army to join the British Army Paras and eventually the British 22 Special Air Service Regiment, with whom he patrolled Northern Ireland. Later, he contracted with the South African Defense Force. On Pathfinder Brigade missions in Angola, he had “moments of excitement” similar to those he felt fighting in Vietnam, he says. His list of esoteric jobs also included counter-terrorism duty in Oman with the Sultan’s Special Forces.

The pace of Pilgrim Days slows when MacKenzie discusses training, which throughout his career was the core of his temporary assignments in Germany, Italy, Sudan, Belize, and Hong Kong. On the plus side, he includes explanations of training exercises that were as dangerous as combat was.

`11111111111111111111111MacKenzie switched to civilian employment in 1989 as a salesman for the Royal Ordnance Ammunition Department. Within a few years, he visited “almost every country in Africa, Asia, North America and Europe,” he says.

Thereafter, he served for ten years with the Duke of Lancaster’s Territorial Army before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. MacKenzie also started an independent security consulting company, which he sold in 2005 before settling down in New Zealand.

Pilgrim Days gave me a clearer view of men and parts of the world that were somewhat vague to me. I admire MacKenzie’s independence and his ability to move between organizations based on his expertise in counter-terrorism and security. As a soldier, he was a man for all seasons.

As is the case with all Osprey Publishing books, Pilgrim Days contains excellent graphics. That includes enough color photographs to produce a television documentary.

—Henry Zeybel