Once We Flew Vol. II by Joseph Michael Sepesy

Joseph Michael Sepesy’s Once We Flew, Volume II: Aftermath (Lulu.com, 306 pp. $24.95, paper; $10, Kindle) is the sequel to the author’s memoir detailing his experiences as a Huey helicopter pilot with the 1st Cav and the 1st Aviation Brigade flying some 2,200 combat hours during his three years in the Vietnam War. This volume focuses on the Sepesy’s life and times after coming home and leaving his Army service behind.

The book is uniquely constructed; the chapters are chronological and are titled as such. At the top and at the bottom of each chapter—before and after the copy—are epigraphs, a series of shorter paragraphs pushed to the margin. They’re informational items that expand on the words in the chapters and also relate to Sepesy’s post-military PTSD challenges. The format at first appears disjointed and cluttered, but as we read on, what Sepesy is doing becomes evident and the book reads well.

After coming home from the war, Sepesy became a special-education teacher in some of the rougher areas of his native Northeast Ohio. He takes the reader through his preparation for teaching, and details some of his classroom and administrative adventures. The epigraphs explain developments that will, in later years, prove to be symptoms and manifestations of his as-yet-undiagnosed PTSD.

Through the years, health issues developed directly related to injuries suffered in a crash landing in Vietnam. Sepesy describes his challenges and continually fills in bits of information with the epigraphs.

During is counseling sessions with VA therapists he was introduced to ballroom dancing.  As his PTSD became more evident and his medical issues more acute, ballroom dancing became very effective therapy. On the dance floor his pain falls away and his balance issues fade as he concentrates on the mechanics of the dance.

Some chapters are almost stream-of-consciousness narratives, another interesting, non-standard construct. A reader might profit from first reading Volume I as there are references in this book that would be clearer with the first book under your belt. Perhaps a short Glossary of military terminology would be good as well.

This is a good telling of one Vietnam War veteran’s efforts to rise above the PTSD gripping his psyche and his world.

Sepesy’s website is booksbyjmsepesy.com

–Tom Werzyn

Heart Shots by Bob Lantrip

Heart Shots: A Vietnam War Veteran’s Troubled Heart (Friesen Press, 156 pp. $27.22, hardcover; $15.49, paper; $4.99, Kindle) by Bob Lantrip is a short novel about a young Marine’s experiences in Vietnam and how he deals with the effects of PTSD after coming home from the war. Lantrip, who holds a retired Chiropractor, served as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War.

In the novel, main character Damon Lee Lane joins the Marine Corps because he likes the uniform. Graduating from his training in San Diego he knows he is joining “a brotherhood that would last a lifetime.” After Boot Camp at Camp Pendleton he finds himself thinking that “the most fun part of preparing for war was that the Marines were taught how to blow up stuff.”

His thinking sobers up as he finds himself developing “the mindset of surviving Vietnam.” Pondering the question of how one really prepares for war, he decides that “perhaps the best way to survive a war was to have a reason to.”  With that in mind, Damon gets married a few weeks before he leaves for Vietnam.

He arrives in Da Nang at the end of 1969 and is sent to Chu Lai. He engages in a great deal of combat action during his first few days with men wounded and killed all around him.

We read of air strikes being carried out by “angels from heaven.” There are times when orders are given to burn all the structures in Vietnamese villages. There are poisonous centipedes and attacks by the near-mythical rock apes who throw huge rocks at the Marines from the jungle trees before swinging away to safety.

One of the book’s heroic characters, squad leader Wild Wit, serves two tours in heavy combat, then returns home, as many others did, with “No Purple Heart, no Medal of Honor—just the pride within that he had done his job. One day he was there, then gone the next.” Damon returns only to spend the rest of his life dealing with PTSD and survivor’s guilt.

Along with an interesting story, Heart Shots includes information aimed at helping those who still carry emotional scars from the war. Heart Shots is a useful PTSD handbook with a religious emphasis.

–Bill McCloud

The Deacon and the Shield by John E. Howard

The Deacon and the Shield (Austin Macauley Publishers, 174 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $11.95, paper; $4.50, e book) by John E. Howard, is a fictional story infused with religious testimony. Howard served a 1967-68 tour of duty in Vietnam with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade’s 1st Battalion/14th Artillery in the Americal Division in Chu Lai.

In an author’s note Howard writes of learning about the “horrific event” known as the My Lai Massacre in mid-March 1968. He suggests that what happened there led to a general sense of PTSD among U.S. troops in country. He also, intriguingly, suggests that PTSD may also be caused by the fact that after finishing their tours of active duty, Vietnam War veterans were still in the inactive reserves and could be called back to military service at any time.

The novel centers on twenty-two-year-old Eddy Riffle, who is married when he is drafted into the Army. When the guys in his unit learn he was a church deacon back home, that becomes his nickname. In his last combat action in Vietnam he feels that he was saved from death by an angel. After coming home from the war, he frequently has nightmares about which his wife says, “It seems that he just goes back to the jungles.”

Riffle’s family grows as he becomes a successful attorney. After being caught in a compromising situation with a co-worker, he loses his job, and becomes estranged from his family. His life spirals out of control as a new sense of failure and unworthiness combines with his PTSD. He regrets and fears all the things that might be said about him on the judgement day. To boost his income, he becomes a licensed, wise-cracking private detective.

The story goes on to include a physical fight with an angel who appears on horseback in which Riffle pits his “military training against his angel training,” as well as money laundering, undercover assignments, classic double-crosses, the antichrist, alluring women, and near-death experiences.

The Deacon and the Shield is difficult to classify. It’s not a fantasy because it’s based on a sense of spiritual reality. Basically, it’s a religious tract with a fictional story supported by many biblical verses.

The book might work for a men’s church group. Although it deals with the Vietnam War, its veterans, and PTSD, the main subject is the Deacon and his Christian faith.

–Bill McCloud

Combat to Conservation by F.J. Fitzgerald

F.J. Fitzgerald’s Combat To Conservation: A Marine’s Journey through Darkness into Nature’s Light (Koehler Books, 166 pp. $23.95, hardcover; $15.92, paper; $7.49, Kindle), is both haunting and inspiring. Fitzgerald presents an account of the horror of combat tempered with the beauty of nature with his life story beginning with a happy childhood and including details of his tour of duty as a Marine with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam.

Growing up in Southeast Minnesota farm country, Francis Fitzgerald loved the tranquility of the fields and woods. Walking and often sitting for hours, he came to love every animal, plant, and tree, especially white pines. His accounts are so compelling that readers can readily see themselves traveling the back country with the author.

Exceptionally bright and talented, Fitzgerald wanted a college degree and a career as a game warden. Yet doubts about his youth and his lack of experience, combined with a yearning for action and adventure, inspired him to join the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school in the summer of 1969. He arrived at LZ Baldy, a fire support base in the hills south of Danang, in the spring of 1970.

Fitzgerald writes with exceptional style; his descriptions are at once spare and poetic. With tight sentences and concise accounts of what he saw and endured, he presents a stark picture of the environment in which the Marines operated. He includes one eerie anecdote after another from patrols in dense jungle, as he strained to find his way through a claustrophobic world too often dark—and always wet.

Particularly striking are his graphic depictions of the misery of trench foot and the difficulty of treating it in a place where dry feet were every Marine’s futile wish; of sitting next to a tree limb and finding himself face to face with a poisonous snake and realizing he was an intruder in the animal’s world. And of sighting and killing an elusive enemy, then feeling little afterward, except that it was a consequence of war, as certain as night following day.

Then there is Fitzgerald’s account of coming to grips with post-traumatic stress disorder. As a way to try to fight it, Fitzgerald returned to nature when he returned to civilian life. He found that every waking moment he spent in the great outdoors was a balm for his troubled spirit. To move and breathe in the air and the light—to be continually reminded of the beauty of the world—empowered him. It continues to sustain and heal him.

Combat to Conservation is an excellent read; it’s a book as subtle as it is inspiring.

Fitzgerald’s website is www.fjfitzgerald.com

–Mike McLaughlin

Pop a Smoke by Rick Gehweiler

I believe that crewing on a helicopter—especially piloting one—was one of the most dangerous and difficult assignments in the Vietnam War. Fifty years after the fact, Rick Gehweiler has mined his memory and confirmed my belief with Pop a Smoke: Memoir of a Marine Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 172 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). He and I also agree that medics and corpsmen had it just as rough as helicopter crews.

Fresh out of the University of North Carolina and influenced by an uncle (a three-star Navy admiral), Gehweiler enlisted in the Marine Corps. After going through OCS and pilot training he arrived in Phu Bai in 1968 and joined the “Ugly Angels” helicopter squadron HMM-362. They flew the old Sikorsky H-34s, which would be taken out of service the next year.

Gehweiler tells his story as he best remembers it, frequently making the point that many events are deeply etched into his mind forever. He uses the second half of Pop a Smoke to spell out combat events filled with danger and tragedy he took part in. As a lieutenant, he entered the war with barely a clue as to why. Frisky as college fraternity boys, he and other young LTs matured into men of destiny.

“We just were along for the ride,” Gehweiler says, “with no control over what happened. We never discussed the validity of what was going on.” Following their missions, they headed off to the O Club “to see how much we could drink. It was the only way we knew to decompress and try to relax. “

Losing close friends and classmates in combat made him realize that he had to fly “at razor edge’s efficiency.” And he did.

Rick Gehweiler flew 150 missions, and describes about a dozen of them that are doozies. He dazzled me with stories about an overloaded Sikorsky bouncing to get airborne surrounded by NVA troops; extremely hazardous recon inserts and extractions; the time his helicopter was shot down and his copilot killed; night rocket attacks on Phu Bai; and medevac rescues. I only wish he had shared the details of more missions.

Gehweiler displays a few fits of righteous pique, but fundamentally he cares about the welfare of others. At heart, he is a selfless and humble guy who has repressed accounts of his exploits out of modesty, as I see it. He does include humorous accounts of lieutenants outwitting their superiors, noting that his “whole tour seemed like a full season of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.”

Rick Gehweiler

Like other youthful troops, Rick Gehweiler came to realize how the post-traumatic stress disorder that still clouds his personality developed. As I interpret his work, he had difficulty in seeing the inevitable while swept up in combat and suffered the repercussions of combat trauma.

He ends the book by discussing his and others’ treatment for PTSD, “a disease,” he says, “we will always have.”

Gehweiler adds an epilogue that analyzes America’s decision to get involved in the war, its consequences, and its lessons. He emphasizes the pitfalls of poor decision making at high levels of government.   

Not surprisingly, he reflects the attitude of many Vietnam War veterans, myself included, when he says: “As bad as it could be some days, it was still the most challenging, exhilarating, and satisfying time in my life. As odd as it may sound, I still miss it, and would do it again in a heartbeat.”

—Henry Zeybel

Once We Flew., Volume I by Joseph Michael Sepesy

Once We Flew Volume I: The Memoir of a U.S. Army Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and a Life with PTSD, (Lulu.com, 674 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $39.95, paper; $10, Kindle), Joseph Sepesy’s memoir, is his sixth book. His first five were a series called Word Dances, that dealt with ballroom dancing. His next book will be titled Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.

Once We Flew is a different kind of memoir. The book’s main body is broken into six main parts. Combined, they contain 160 very short, chronologically ordered, sections. Each section tells a complete story. Many are riveting, bone-chilling tales of Vietnam War combat flying.

This is a long book—and I wish it were longer. While I had to put it down from time to time, I did so only reluctantly. It is a fascinating read.

From an early age, Joe Sepesy, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, wanted to fly helicopters. The U.S. Army presented him the opportunity to fulfill that desire. He was not a natural, though, and had to work long and hard to conquer the basics of flying. After a while, he learned to fly and became a master at combat flying.

During his first year in the Vietnam War with the First Cav’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion and the 1st Aviation Brigade and during two subsequent, voluntary six-month tours of duty, Sepesy accumulated a staggering total of 2,200 combat flight hours. While he displayed great amounts of skill and selfless courage, Sepesy never considered himself a combat hero—simply a man doing his job.

Being a very visible, high-value target and being shot at nearly every day, Sepesy did not dwell on death while in Vietnam, but was well aware of its nearness. Always keeping in mind, that, as he puts it, “complacency kills,” he became very methodical in addressing the dangers of flying in the warzone.

A man with Sepesy’s experiences is a prime candidate for developing post-traumatic disorder, and he writes a lot about it in this book. I found that to be a distraction. If PTSD is what you want to read about, I recommend Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.

I experienced a lot of suspenseful moments while reading Volume I. I liked Joe Sepesy’s honesty, his grit, and his writing style. After completing the book, I doubled back and reread much of the front matter.

I highly recommend Once We Flew: Volume I, which tells the life and times of a heroic American combat aviator.

Sepesey’s website is booksbyjmsepesy.com

–Bob Wartman

From Darkness to Light by James E. Hackbarth

From Darkness to Light (152 pp. Mill City Press, $16.99 pp.) by James E. Hackbarth, is a book of poetry that focuses on one man’s journey with post-traumatic stress disorder. Hackbarth, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, served as a U.S. Army Huey helicopter door gunner from 1968-69 with the 1st Cavalry Division’s 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, in Vietnam.

In “Destiny,” he writes:

“Am I living tomorrow today?

Have I been here before?

What is waiting for me behind

those doors?”

In “Men of War”:

War is not about men

Telling their story

Nor telling of past glory.

War is about a minute of one’s

Life filled with terror

It doesn’t go away because

You see it every day in replay.

The most memorable poem in this collection, “Soldier’s Wind Chime,” has this opening stanza:

Do you hear it?

Listen closely be still

Now can you hear it?

The soldier’s wind chime

It is whispering to me

Telling his story

A sad war story

Of a place, we know too well

Generously, Hackbarth includes a handful of poems written by friends. A stunningly gorgeous poem, by Joy April DeNicola, “I Wish I Were Vietnam,” includes this stanza:

If I were that place I would be seen by him.

I would be known if I were Vietnam.

He would want to discern every way and why of me/

He would dream of me, feel me in the root of himself.

He would think me, drink me, breathe me in, if I were Vietnam.

Hackbarth’s “We Demand More,” with this gut-wrenching opening stanza:

Have I not bared my soul for you?

Have I not shed enough tears to please you?

Must I carry this weight upon my shoulders to make you see me

Did you not see the real person upon this stage?

Must I bleed, must I break down and beg for your approval,

your pleasure

Is it not enough that I have done as you ask?

Is there more you ask

That’s all you have they say

Have we used you up so soon?

We demand more we demand more tell us the truth.

It’s been said that poetry is the most personal form of writing. In this collection James Hackbarth digs deeply into himself and uses poetry to express all that his heart, mind, and soul are pouring out.

–Bill McCloud

A Soldier’s Heart by Raynold Gauvin

A Soldier’s Heart: The 3 Wars of Vietnam (Friesen Press, 192 pp.) is Raynold Gauvin’s accounting of his life from birth to today. Much of the book consists of details about his Army training, his year in the Vietnam War, and the challenges he faced for decades after returning home.

“Soldier’s Heart” is a term used to describe men who suffered from what is now known as PTSD after coming home from fighting in the U.S. Civil War. Gauvin’s three wars are the one he fought on the ground in Vietnam, his post-war battles with PTSD, and the with effects of exposure to Agent Orange.

Gauvin was born in northern Maine and grew up with family on both sides of the Canadian border. His family spoke French at home, even though English was required at school. This, along with being dyslexic, created considerable problems. The family suffered a major blow when his father died, leaving his mother the bread-winner for six children.

After his first year of college Gauvin registered for the draft, not worrying about a war that seemed very far away. Shortly after realizing he did not have the money to return to school he received his draft notice, or, as Gauvin puts it, “a love letter from Uncle Sam.” This spurred him to enlist in the Army, hoping he’d be able to avoid the infantry. As his job choice he picked X-ray Technician.

After basic at Fort Dix, he was sent to Fort Sam Houston for combat medic training, then to x-ray school. He did a residency at Fort Lewis, and then went to Vietnam.

Landing in country in 1968 he was surprised to find that he had been chosen to become a member of a small, elite team. Not the kind that hunted down the Viet Cong. He would be working in a mortuary in Saigon and taking part in a study to evaluate the causes of death of combat casualties. The hush-hush work involved performing autopsies in the name of research. It would last only the year Gauvin was in Vietnam when 8,000 combat fatality cases were studied.

The rest of the story involves Gauvin’s decades-long efforts to deal with PTSD and then cancer that was likely caused by exposure to the highly toxic herbicide Agent Orange in Vietnam.

Every Vietnam War veteran has a personal story to tell. We’re fortunate that Raynold Gauvin chose to share his with us. It’s truly inspiring.

–Bill McCloud

Mercy’s Heroes by Tom Crowley

Tom Crowley’s Mercy’s Heroes: The Fight for Human Dignity in the Bangkok Slums (Koehler Books, 190 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $24.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is an inspirational, often heartbreaking, look at a long-established children’s charity in Bangkok, Thailand.

Crowley served in the Vietnam War, commanding a 25th Infantry Division rifle platoon. After the war, while battling PTSD, he made a significant life change. After working as a U.S. State Department Foreign Service Officer and for General Electric in Asia, he left the business world to take on life as a volunteer, helping to rescue and protect street kids in Jet Sip Rai, Bangkok’s largest slum. He believes that through this work he has been able to find great personal spiritual understanding.

The Mercy Centre and Human Development Foundation has 23 kindergartens throughout Bangkok, working to prepare children for grade school. The first school opened in 1972 in a pig slaughterhouse pen. The organization grew beyond the schools, helping the children’s families, as well as the general community. Some of the children are brought to the Centre, Crowley reports, by concerned people who “basically” kidnap them away from the dangers of the streets.

Today the Mercy program is based on education, shelter, and community assistance. Mercy also provides medical support for children with HIV/AIDS. Crowley worked with Mercy for more than 14 years.

Mercy Centre was started by Father Joe Maier who, Crowley says, “believed working with the poor meant living with the poor.” He followed that principle by living in the same shack for twenty years. When Crowley first decided to volunteer he wasn’t sure what he would be able to do. But then, he writes, he was told, “Don’t worry about where you might fit in. Things will develop. You have to change for Mercy; Mercy will not change for you.”

He sometimes took groups of older girls to dance classes and on camping excursions to national parks. He tells stories about an adult with Down Syndrome who was placed in a kindergarten class, and about children he called the Follow-Me-Home Girl, the Woodshop Boy, the Sleepy Boy, and two Rail Line Kids. The heroes of the book’s title include the children, staff, and volunteers at Mercy Centre.

Crowley in country in 1966

Early on, Crowley says, he fell in love with all the kids. The sections of the book in which he tells of individual children that includes their photos, drive the story. Crowley occasionally incorporates stories about his experiences in the Vietnam War in 1966. He remembers, for one thing, that death was always present, and that he thought of himself then as “a dead man walking.”

The Mercy Centre is an independent foundation, not funded by the Catholic Church. It’s dependent on public donations to sustain its programs. Contact information is included at the back of the book for those interested in making contributions.

If you read this story of selfless work being done to help children who try to survive in one of the poorest parts of the world and I have no doubt you’ll reach for your wallet. I did.

–Bill McCloud

Bury Him by Doug Chamberlain

In  Bury Him: A Memoir of the Viet Nam War (Love the West Publications, 348 pp., $19.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) Doug Chamberlain, a former U.S. Marine Corps Captain, has penned a well-written and engaging look at his time in the Corps, concentrating on his 1967-68 tour of duty commanding Echo Company, in the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in the 1st Marine Division in South Vietnam.

Chamberlain, who grew up in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska, writes about his rural childhood and upbringing, which was agrarian and lonesome, a theme he follows throughout the book. He joined the Marines to avoid the draft, he says, and writes about his basic and advanced training with little fanfare.

He also talks about of the “agony” of deciding finally to write this book, and the support of friends who helped him in that undertaking. His return to The World was unheralded, even by family and friends. He describes his ensuing PTSD and its continuing effect on his life and careers.

The book’s title becomes apparent about half way through when Chamberlain writes about what happened when his unit came across the decomposing body of a fellow Marine and he called for a Medevac chopper to recover the remains. Someone at headquarters refused to authorize that, then told him: “Bury Him. Don’t Rock The Boat. This Is An Order.” The patrol did bury the remains, with the regret and horror that came with breaking the “leave no man behind” military credo.

Chamberlain goes on to write about the turmoil, both physical and psychological, that he and his fellow Marines faced after they tried to recover the remains of the Marine they were ordered to bury, including dealing with a decision to bomb the area to obliterate the remains. The man’s family had to endure two funerals—one for the initially recovered left leg, and the other for the rest of the remains. Chamberlain lived with that deceit and dishonor for more than 40 years before he chanced upon an investigator who helped him discover the details that went into writing this book.

On its face, Bury Him is one man’s story of redemption and closure—and a well written one at that. More deeply, it’s the story of Doug Chamberlain exposing a deeply flawed command layer that pervaded the entire Vietnam War.

Chamberlain’s website is marinedougchamberlain.com

–Tom Werzyn