Knight’s Blessing by R.T. Budd

41taqdzalwl-_sx312_bo1204203200_

Telling a story through flashbacks is not an uncommon device. But in R.T. Budd’s hands, we see a story that unfolds through the memories of a man who is trapped between sanity and derangement caused by what he has seen in the Vietnam War.

In Knight’s Blessing (Strategic Book Publishing, 496 pp., $32.50), the lead character, Steven Blessing, is a newly arrived grunt whose naiveté will shrink as his disillusionment grows.

We will come to like Blessing, the Knight, and we’ll care about what happens to him. The journey from wide-eyed new guy to seasoned veteran is told in a series of short chapters, each of which is a vignette—some coarse, some funny, some tragic.

There’s Blessing, leaping out the door of his helicopter to land on his belly, low-crawling in firing position as his comrades laugh and applaud. How was Blessing to know it was a secure LZ?

There’s Blessing, torn between the savvy instinct to remain in a rear-echelon job and his relentless desire to prove himself on patrol, ridiculed by for volunteering for hazardous duty.

Over time, he will turn cynical.

“We had to cover some 50 kilometers before nightfall to complete the mission, and that’s what the war in Vietnam was all about—completing the mission. A little one here, and a little one there; no matter how small or insignificant they seemed, complete them all, one at a time, and then move on to another one. They all meant something to someone, didn’t they? All the little missions were like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle, being put together by someone important, somewhere, who supposedly knew what the completed picture looked like. Or did they?”

Through it all, Blessing appears, somehow, to be blessed. Whenever disaster strikes, there’s a warning voice inside his head. He struggles to understand why. Are they premonitions? Is it just a horrific dream? Or is he merely psychotic?

As a member of his team puts it, “Some of these guys over here are going to have some really bad problems when they get back to the World that nobody’s ever going to understand.”

The book begins with its lead character speaking directly to the reader, telling us that some of what we’ll read is simply fiction, although, he says, it’s actually true.

The themes are not new. There’s politics and chaos, slaughter and survival, brawls and beer. And an overwhelming sense of devastation.

The pseudonymous Rudd, a retired Army Major who served with the First Cav in Vietnam, doesn’t dig too deeply into what it all means. Ultimately, we may come to believe that he has chosen simply to spread clues through the jungle, leaving us unsure of his intent. He tells us that he will invent some of the language in the book and that if we understood it all, we might chuckle over his choice of words.

Were the warnings a manifestation of Blessing’s guilt? Are they reformed memories? Are they the voice of his guardian angel?

Who knows? But Knight’s Blessing is an easy read and an entertaining one.

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue

Advertisements

Firebase Tan Tru by Walter F. McDermott

51yvxa9q8cl-_sx329_bo1204203200_

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.”

11111111111111111111111111111-e1540293497924.png

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

Post 8195 edited by Bobby White

51tt44hk85l-_sx331_bo1204203200_

Twenty-three men recall “untold truths” in Post 8195: Black Soldiers Tell Their Vietnam Stories (Beckham, 228 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper) edited by Bobby White. Far beyond their confrontations with the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, the men still battle post-traumatic stress disorder.

These twenty-three men served in every branch of the service and performed the duties expected of them with lasting pride. A majority of them were infantrymen and remember horrific episodes from the thick of combat. Their gut-level candidness exceeds what is found in most Vietnam War books.

They focus on fears that nearly overpowered them. They emphasize challenges more than heroism, although they acted heroically in times of crisis. They often still show amazement for what they did and saw long ago. Even today, they dwell on how “Vietnam was a big hell spot,” as Ismael Rolle, Jr., put it. “We had no alternative but to fight and survive.”

Mostly draftees, the men express controlled anger regarding racism during their time in Vietnam. They recognized that a racial bias existed, but lived with it. Several became squad leaders.

Eulas Mitchell Jr. says, “I had a squad of fifteen men; all were black.” They performed with “perfection,” which “didn’t sit well with the powers.”

His unit was broken up. Then, Mitchell says, he “was given thirteen southern boys nobody wanted.” He turned them into a “good group” that simply “wanted a proven leader.”

The VFW Post in West Park, Florida, under the guidance of Bobby White, began a program to counsel veterans in multiple ways, especially those with PTSD. Called Stone of Hope, the program is an extension of one offered by the local Vet Center. White, retired from a thirty-two year career with the VA, organized a rehabilitation program that emphasized transcendental meditation, yoga, and chiropractic.534951_lno7y3kp

Post 8195 grew from this program and enhanced the men’s recovery from PTSD. Today, most of the men are in long-term marriages, have families and children, and enjoy retirement benefits earned from civilian careers.

The VFW post plays a major role in the lives of four hundred African Americans, White says,  providing them with both guidance and “the place” for adults to “hang out.”

—Henry Zeybel

Straining Forward by Michelle Layer Rahal

40123435

Finding a niche in life might require a lifetime. Imagine the difficulty of that task for an adolescent woman suffering feelings of responsibility for her parents’ unhappiness; who sees her loving father and two siblings shot dead by a Vietcong soldier; endures war and the indignities of prison, torture, rape, starvation, and homelessness; and loses her mother to prostitution.

Michelle Layer Rahal accepts the challenge of unraveling such a life in the biography, Straining Forward: Minh Phuong Towner’s Story (Xulon Press, 374 pp. $19.49, paper; $9.99, Kindle).

Born in 1958 to an upper-class Vietnamese family in Saigon, Minh Phuong Towner attended a Catholic school that conducted lessons in French. When the communists won control of Vietnam in 1975, her world collapsed, and her mother ordered her to flee the country with her younger brother Thanh.

The escape of Minh and Thanh from Vietnam is a spellbinding story and sets the stage for all that follows. Searching for freedom and identity, Minh traveled through Taiwan, France, and Australia, ending up in the United States. Her life is a study in coping with emotional and physical trials by adapting to the demands of her environments.

Along the way, Minh experienced nearly every pain and privation that could befall a defenseless young woman. Her naivety led to repeated victimization. She suffered, but never gave up.

To win acceptance in each country, she learned the local languages and analyzed herself. At the end of a torture session in Vietnam, she thought: “God has abandoned me.”

In Taiwan, she decided: “I know how to care for others, I do not know how to care for myself.” France taught her that “Working to stay alive is not the same as working to live, and [she] wanted to live.”  In Australia, after becoming a registered nurse, she asked herself: “Who am I? What do I want out of life?”

She married an American in Australia, and had a son and daughter. Her brother Thanh’s death from cancer made Minh consider suicide: “Death would have been easy,” she says, “but I chose the harder route. I chose life.” When the marriage failed, she moved to the United States.

She married for a second time and evolved spiritually. Diagnosed with PTSD, she learned to manage. She earned a graduate degree and attained a satisfying life in ministry and became a United States citizen.

a1f-overvjl-_us230_

Michelle Rahal

The pace of this uplifting book slows after Minh reaches Australia. Activities during her nearly thirty years in that nation relate mainly to repetitive domestic conflicts. Thankfully, Rahal’s fluid writing style sustained my interest.

Twenty photographs that perfectly span sixty years show Minh and her family from childhood to the present.

Mihn’s story reminded me of Thuhang Tran’s Standing Up After Saigon. Both books focus on young women facing life-changing challenges and provide information about the assimilation of Vietnamese people in other nations, as well as their acceptance into the United States.

—Henry Zeybel

  Other Dreams by Marc Levy

Former Vietnam War Army Medic Marc Levy’s Other Dreams (Telegraphos Press, 361 pp., $18, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is another amazing book from the author of Dreams, Vietnam and How Stevie Nearly Lost the War. I never figured that Levy would produce a dream record to top his first book in this series. But he has done it—in spades.

“You are about to read a rare and valuable gift to human understanding and to dream research,” G. William Dormhoff, the author of The Emergence of Dreaming, says of Levy’s new book.

This is an understatement. Levy has endured PTSD for most of the last fifty years. I can’t help but think of something my mom told me thousands of times when I was growing up. “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” If Marc Levy has done that here by writing about some 250 of his dreams, this lemonade is the best drink ever created from the swamp water of war.

The best friend any survivor of war can have is a dog, and Levy’s first book presented dogs in that loving context. This book, though, boggled my mind with dog references: dogs in general were encountered dozens of times, but also specific dogs—pit bulls, talking dogs, three-hundred-pound dogs, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Shepherd-setter mixes, Huskies, a big blue dog, Siberian Huskies, seal pups, a Degas dog, a huge shaggy dog, a Weimeraner, a black lab, and more.

The poet makes the statement at least once in a recorded dream, “I love dogs, too.”

My only complaint about the book is that it lacks Levy’s fabulous drawings. His word images compensate for this. But still…

Other Dreams benefits from slow, careful reading, like difficult modern poetry. Not since I read Saul Bellow’s Henderson, the Rain King, have I been so struck by the recurring motif of animals in a work of modern literature. Dogs, certainly, as mentioned above, but also cats, seals, a bull with no ears, hawks and eagles, ducks, cattle, horseshoe crabs, polar bears, foxes, butterflies, water bugs, swans, rabbits, mice, a beast man, kittens, goats, rats, ticks—and Jane Fonda.

On December 8, 2016, Levy tells us, he dreamed:

“I’m in a war zone with another person, possibly my brother, walking along a moonlit, snowy path. We pass a wide-open, snow-covered field. I say to the other person, ‘Hey buddy… hey buddy… just keep walking.’ I’m aware that at any moment we may be shot. Each time I say, ‘Hey, buddy…’ the other person tries to crowd me off the path. ‘Hey, buddy… Hey buddy,’ I say, pushing back, ‘Just keep walking.’”

This dream has elements of poetry, story, and song, and I feel fear in every line. Also, mystery and malice.

It was brave of Marc Levy to commit this dream to print, and I honor that bravery. Levy is always just one short dream away from being back in the jungles of Southeast Asia. I thank him for sharing the war he survived in that jungle. It is a scary place. 

Once you have read Marc Levy’s dream books, I recommend his classic volume of short stories, How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and Other Postwar Stories.

Stay tuned for his next work. I’ve been informed it is coming soon.

–David Willson

Why? By P.J. Dodge

41gsn6tvudl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

P.J. Dodge lives in Jacksonville, Florida, with her husband. Her father was a disabled veteran who has spent much of his life fighting for his veterans benefits and for the compensation he felt he had coming to him. Her veteran husband was diagnosed with cancer and with PTSD, and also has tried to receive veterans benefits and appropriate compensation. He continues to fight for his benefits today and the government continues to deny his compensation claims.

Dodge wrote Why? (Page Publishing, 245 pp., $14.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) when she realized that her father’s and husband’s problems with the VA were “not isolated instances but experiences many of our Veterans continually faced.”

Why?, a novel, is heavily based on the real-life experiences of the author, her husband, and her father. It is meant, she writes, to bring to light “the plight of so many that will not speak out but are fighting for medical, psychological, and monetary help.”

The novel starts off with a sentence that sets the tone for the entire book: “When Raoul showed up at the VA for his appointment to try to fast-track his benefits request, he knew deep down in his heart it was a lost cause.”

The band of veterans who make up the main crew of this novel seem mostly to have been Rangers, Green Berets, SEAL,s and members of other elite military units. No clerks and jerks allowed.

The story line, in a nutshell, consists of setting up a new My Lai massacre, but this time a massacre aimed at eliminating those who run the VA. Why? Because those VA people are  responsible for siphoning off funds intended for needy veterans and using those funds for their own lives as fat cats, driving big flashy cars, wearing three-piece suits, and eating expensive meals at the taxpayers’ expense.

The message of the book is that “our enemy is the VA.” The level of animosity toward the VA is high and is unremitting. Shooting VA doctors is mentioned as though it is a reasonable thing to do. “John Wayne and the Calvary” are mentioned as co-conspirators, and that is how “cavalry” is spelled in the book.

I gave up counting the mentions of beer and Jim Beam consumed in the course of this story line. Food and drink dominate this narrative, but not to the extent that firearms do, such as “two M79 grenade launchers and a .50 cal. Machine gun.”

veterans-benefits-2The heart of the bitterness of this book is that those of us who went to war “to keep their precious offspring out of danger” came back and were made to feel like second-class citizens and were attacked.

Those who need a book that preaches this message should get this one.

Those who have received good care at the VA—and I am quick to say that I have—would do well to steer clear.

—David Willson

Happiness is a Warm Gun by Cheryl Breo

Cheryl Breo’s memoir, Happiness is a Warm Gun: A Vietnam Story (Tellwell Talent, 68 pp., $20.99, hardcover; $10.99, paper; $3.99 Kindle), starts with a sentence about her husband that is typical of much of this small book: “He would grab me by the neck with one hand wrapped around my throat and lift me straight off the ground, my feet dangling as he pushed me up against a wall, banging the back of my head against it until it nearly cracked.”

The book, Breo tells us, is “a personal account of my life. It bears no endorsement or authorization from the Beatles or Apple Corps.” The spine of this heavily illustrated little book is made up of quotes and references to the Beatles and their songs. The book focuses on the aftermath of Cheryl’s husband Ed’s  tours of duty in the Vietnam War,  something that brought “that war home to our front door.”

The Vietnam War “and all its hell,” Breo writes, “took the man I married and made him its victim, and in turn, he made me his victim.”  In the Breo household the refrigerator was almost empty, the bills were all past due, and eventually the couple lost their house and their pets and were forced to live in sketchy neighborhoods.

“Even my Liverpool lads reminded me that ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun,’” Breo writes. And then things got worse. Her daughter had a breakdown and Breo contemplated suicide before she took the Beatles’ advice, “She’s Got a Ticket to Ride,” and she used that ticket.

So this blackbird took her broken wings and flew into the light of the dark black night of freedom. Ed Breo finally resigned himself to acknowledging that he needed help and went to the VA. But the VA didn’t help him enough. The “stigma” of being a Vietnam War veteran, Breao writes, lingered “like the stench of the treatment they received from this country when they returned home.”

Cheryl Breo

A walk through the airport, she writes, “became a war zone of its own, as complete strangers yelled vulgar obscenities at him; calling him a ‘baby killer,’ a ‘murderer.’ “

In the dedication, Cheryl Breo writes that John, Paul, George and Ringo “saved my life many times over.”

She was friends with her husband until the day he died after the book was published in 2017.

How they did that, I don’t know, but buy this book and read it and find out how the Beatles were a big part of the therapeutic treatment that enabled them to survive being treated horribly.

—David Willson