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

Honor & Indignity by Gregory D. Doering

Although Gregory Doering’s HONOR & Indignity: An Unheroic Memoir (216 pp. $11.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is, as he puts it, an “unheroic” book, I can say with no uncertainty after reading it that Doering is anything but unheroic.

In December 1967, after finishing USMC boot camp, the Marine Corps decided his MOS would be 3531, motor vehicle operator. Doering had mixed feelings about that, but at the same time was elated that he was not going to be a rifleman. He arrived in Vietnam in April 1968, was sent to the 9th Marines at Camp Carroll, then was quickly moved 20 miles north to the Ca Lu Combat Base in Quang Tri Province where he was put to work driving an M274, a small light-weapons carrier vehicle known as a Mechanical Mule.

Within a month, the Marine Corps saw fit to change his job again and he filled an open position as an ammo humper in a mortar team and began seeing serious combat action. After several months of fighting along the southern edge of the DMZ, he was sent back to the rear. Arriving in Quang Tri with “the distant blank stare,” he was assigned to a headquarters Motor Transport unit.

This is where HONOR & Indignity turns dark. With abundant supplies of alcohol and drugs, Doering’s morale crumbled and his mental health deteriorated. All he cared about was getting out of Vietnam. On his return to The World, he was sent to the mental health ward at Camp Pendleton. As Doering describes what happened there, his book gets even darker.

With his mother’s persistence and help from the Red Cross, he was transferred to a VA Medical Center closer to home in Washington State. After being finally diagnosed with severe PTSD and getting discharged, he sought treatment and after several years began living a normal life.

His initial ignorance and shortcomings were common to newbies in combat zones. But unlike many who hide these embarrassing moments, Doering writes about then in great detail in his memoir. His honesty and candor are at sad, yet refreshing.

Greg Doering is, in my mind, a real hero. Not just for his performance under fire, but for this brave and selfless presentation of his life. You will be hard-pressed to find a more completely detailed and honest war memoir. 

HONOR & Indignity is very well written, but raw language and depictions of combat might offend some readers. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book.

–Bob Wartman

War and the Arc of Human Experience by Glen Petersen

Glenn Petersen ran away from home at 16 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy shortly after turning 17. By 19, he was flying combat missions from the U.S.S. Bennington in the Vietnam War in 1966-67. Peterson, a research anthropologist and City University of New York professor, tells his story with wonderment and vigor in War and the Arc of Human Experience (Hamilton Books, 290 pp. $24.99, paper; $23.50, Kindle), an autobiography that should touch the soul of most people who served in the military.

In the first half of the book Petersen describes his emotional growth under a domineering father and wartime conditions; in the second half, he reveals his challenging ascent through alcoholism, antiwar civil disobedience, and parenthood.

Youthful exposure to movies, TV shows, books, and songs that emphasized duty to fight and to kill for our country (and to die for our faith) imbued him with the belief that dedication to duty was the primary trait of a warrior. This dedication reached its pinnacle when Petersen flew as an intercept controller and flight technician in E-1B Tracer early warning aircraft. On the aircraft carrier’s deck, he also maintained radar systems in an undermanned and under-equipped unit. He ranked his job ahead of his wellbeing, and the earnestness of his work brought recognition and promotions.

In the book Petersen skillfully recreates the dangers of aircraft carrier operations: the on-deck and inflight rigors of maintenance; the emotional and physical toll of catapult launches and arrested recoveries; and the absolute absence of free time. All of this fortified his aggressiveness as a warrior. When his crew mistakenly overflew China’s Hainan Island and barely evaded intense antiaircraft fire, Petersen reached a new heroic level in his mind.

After separating from the Navy and returning to school Petersen began to rethink his role in society. He tells extremely interesting stories about those years, showing how, in class, he worked as hard as he had in the Navy. He also drank a lot and totaled three cars in two years. He became an antiwar protester. He made what he calls the “bizarre decision to become an anthropologist” and live in exotic places, including Micronesia.

As the book progresses, Petersen disassembles his psyche with surgical-like precision. For him, it is open season on every aspect of his thoughts and behaviors, primarily involving marriage and fatherhood. He reduces war to an intellectual topic and simultaneously analyzes the emotions of the world at large from a hardcore anthropologist’s perspective, which involves neurobiology, guilt, just-war theory, and moral injury.

Peterson’s discussion of PTSD far exceeds what you’ll find in most Vietnam War memoirs. He repeats himself by bringing up the topic several times, but on each occasion, he digs deeper into the problem, and finds greater revelatory reasons for his PTSD and its resulting behavior. His thoughts about PTSD stretch to the end of the book.

Glenn Petersen has led a tough life—one I wouldn’t want. (He names Yossarian of Catch-22 as his role model.) His willingness to write about what he suffered induced me to look at my own self-destructive shortcomings that I could have prevented. Too late, though, in my case.

Anyone with an open mind will have it opened wider by reading this book.

—Henry Zeybel

Another Kind of Eden by James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke, the creator of my favorite fictional Nam vet lawman, Dave Robicheaux, is one of the best yarn spinners around. And one of the most prolific.

Starting with 1987’s Neon Rain, he’s churned out 23 top-notch Robicheaux detective/thrillers starring the morally upright but troubled Cajun sheriff’s deputy—along with two short story collections and 16 other novels, including nine in the Holland Family series.

Burke’s just-published Another Kind of Eden (Simon & Schuster, 245 pp., $27), is the ninth Holland family saga. This one centers on Aaron Holland Broussard, (semi spoiler alert) a veteran of the Korean War who—like Dave Robicheaux—is a good man plagued by mental demons sparked by what he experienced in a vicious shooting war.

Aaron, an aspiring novelist, is not a lawman, though. He’s is a drifter with secrets, a well-educated aspiring writer battling post-traumatic stress disorder. Although he doesn’t carry a badge, Aaron has a Robicheaux-like soft spot for life’s disadvantaged people, especially those who’ve been victimized by powerful evil doers. He also emulates Dave (and his partner in fighting crime and in committing misdemeanors) former Vietnam War Marine Clete Purcell, in that he has been known to get physically tough with life’s dirtbags.

Another Kind of Eden is set in rural Colorado in the early 1960s. It begins when Aaron hops off a boxcar and finds a job on a big family farm. He soon runs into a gaggle of strange, evil characters and a troubled young woman with whom he gets romantically involved. As is the case with more than a few Burke novels, this one also contains a mystical element, and much violent mayhem.

As always, James Lee Burke brings to life both physical landscapes and the inner workings of his characters’ minds. He also keeps you glued to the pages with a fast-reading, plot-twisting thriller. Next up—I hope—is the 24th Dave Robicheaux.

–Marc Leepson

Running Toward the Guns by Chanty Jong

Running Toward the Guns: A Memoir of Escape from Cambodia (McFarland, 167 pp., $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle) is a sleeper. At first glance it seems to be a pleasant little book that recounts, in almost transcription-from-interview prose, an eight-year-old girl’s escape from Cambodia in 1975. But soon the reader realizes that nothing pleasant happened to Chanty Jong after she was taken by the murderous Khmer Rouge and forced to endure what became a holocaust against the Cambodian people.

Jong’s father was an elementary school principal in Phnom Penh. She was in the third grade and just learning to read. That meant she was on the way to joining a learned family in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge, who were wreaking havoc on the Cambodian people during the infamous Pol Pot regime.

The descriptions of her tribulations written by Jong with the help of her American family physician, Lee Ann Van Houten-Sauter, are graphic in their details of the violence and the jungle camps where she was forced to work as child slave laborer, building roads by hand, as well as the areas she fled through as she made her way to a refugee camp in Thailand. She survived there for months until an interview with a UN aid official afforded her the opportunity to emigrate to America.

During her captivity, the Khmer Rouge camps were overrun by Heng Somren fighters, supported by the Vietnamese. During one raid Jong ran toward the oncoming troops through a hail of bullets in an effort to escape the Khmer Rouge, a act that gives the book its title.

Learning English was always one of the her goals, yet she arrived in the U.S. with the barest knowledge of vocabulary or grammar. She began studying the language in earnest after she arrived. Jong came to the realization, through meditation and self-examination, that all was not right within her psychologically. She describes the best self-diagnosis of intense PTSD I’ve ever read.

In the last 50 pages of this book, Jong takes the reader through the memories and mental jungles that have populated her sleep—and nearly every waking moment. She also describes her therapeutic use of deep meditation, grounding techniques, identifying triggers, compartmentalizing, and memory confrontation.

Even with a few grammatical and punctuation errors, this book offers a true, self-help opportunity for struggling survivors of most traumatic events—not just the horrors of war. This small book also was a pleasure to read—and to experience.

–Tom Werzyn

Take Me Home Huey by Steve Maloney and Clare Nolan

At nearly ten-by-twelve inches in size, Take Me Home Huey: Honoring American Heroes Through Art (Take Me Home Huey Publishing, 216 pp. $45) by Steve Maloney and Clare Nolan offers a new historical dimension of the American War in Vietnam. The book explains why and how Steve Maloney took a wrecked and abandoned UH-1H Huey helicopter (#174) and turned it into a unique piece of art to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the conflict: a symbol that celebrates brotherhood, dedication, and self-sacrifice among American service personnel..

Co-author Clare Nolan’s expertise in high-stakes drama storytelling greatly enhances the book’s military value. She has written documentaries and created multimedia productions about war and space for National Geographic and Discovery television channels.

Maloney’s artistic career involves repurposing found objects—especially things originally designed to move. Recognition of his artwork began in 2001 with exhibitions in museums, galleries, and traveling shows, following a successful business career. He had served as a member of the 156th Signal Battalion of the Army National Guard in Michigan from 1963-69. This background, coupled with a fascination with helicopters, focused Maloney on his commemorative goal.

Take Me Home Huey vividly recollects Maloney’s quest for the “perfect canvas” for his project. To start the search, he interviewed American Vietnam War veterans. He tells us what they taught him in two chapters that detail wartime helicopter missions, with an emphasis on the shoot down of Huey #174 in 1969. He cleverly charts the aircraft’s 30 years of service that ended two decades before he found its frame in a scrapyard in Arizona in 2014.

The book comes alive in many ways. Opening its huge pages to double-truck photographs of Hueys and of soldiers in danger and pain made me feel as if I were gliding through a time warp into the past. The dynamic images gave me rushes of nervous appreciation for crewmen and grunts whose survival depended on helicopters.

In equally detailed chapters Maloney explains how he enlisted help from many veterans and well-wishers to find Huey #174 and the parts he needed for its reconstruction. He repeatedly reconfigured the design of his paint job to match veterans’ memories. Thirty-six pages of double-spread photographs show the Huey from different angles. Drawings, slogans, and lists cover the airframe to symbolize and grunts’ dreams and needs from long ago.

When paraded before the public, the Huey #174 has reunited men who had not seen each other for decades. New feelings and truths arise and old feelings are reborn. The flood of emotional impact generated by the helicopter motivated the authors to also discuss PTSD and art therapy as a way to help combat the emotional trauma of war. At every opportunity, they champion veterans’ welfare and sense of community.

Huey #174 spent two years traveling to 29 venues in 11 states from November 2015 to November 2017. By then, the project also included original music and songs, poems, films, and a PBS documentary. At least a million people viewed it in person.

In 2019, Huey #174 became a permanent part of the collection of the Palm Springs Air Museum in California.

The Huey’s website is takemehomehuey.org/sculpture

—Henry Zeybel

Saigon Kids by Leslie Arbuckle

Saigon Kids: An American Military Brat Comes of Age in 1960’s Vietnam (Mango Media, 308 pp. $19.95, paper; $10.99, Kindle) is a tell-all book about the adventures of some self-proclaimed military brats, the sons and daughters of the American military service members, Foreign Service officials, and civilian families who lived in South Vietnam in the early 1960s. The book is an amalgam of accounts of teen-aged antics, along with a bit of gunfire, mortar fire, oppressive heat and humidity, Saigon traffic, and Buddhist Monk self-immolations.

Arbuckle, the second oldest of four sons of a U.S. Navy Chief Journalist who managed the Armed Forces Radio Station in Saigon from 1962-64, takes us along with his posse of friends as they navigated the heat, sounds, and smells of Saigon before the big buildup of American troops. His narrative toggles among angst-filled teenage dialogue, contemporary commentary about the U.S. war in Vietnam, and general philosophical impressions of what it was like living in the South Vietnamese capital at the time.

Arbuckle also regales us with tales of his family’s dealings with “just another duty station” in a “very hot place.” We get descriptions of his high-strung mother, his stern and demanding father, his two younger brothers, their Vietnamese maid, and how they interacted.

Some of Arbuckle’s stories about his social life—such as his quest for cigarettes and his visits to brothels and bars on To Do Street—border on the tedious. His stories of the goings on at the American Community School, however, enliven the narrative.

Arbuckle, who joined the Army in 1968 and was assigned to the 50th Army Band at Fort Monroe, Virginia, went on to became a professional musician. He played the saxophone and had a successful career. He writes about this talent in the book, but not to a great extent. We hear more about that in his author’s note at the end of the book.

Interestingly, in the Epilogue Arbuckle speaks of his own “struggles” with what we have come to recognize as post-traumatic stress. Some of what he has experienced does not differ from what those who fought in the war have gone through emotionally.

This is a well-written book with a cast of interesting characters.

Arbuckle’s website is lesarbuckle.com

–Tom Werzyn

Jumping from Helicopters by John Stillman and Lori Stillman

Jumping from Helicopters: A Vietnam Memoir (Turtle Creek, 242 pp. $25, hardcover; $16, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is a paean by a loyal and thankful veteran to his unit in the Vietnam War. John Stillman, ably aided by his daughter Lori, takes the reader through his 1967-68 year in-country with the 1st of the 502nd in the 101st Airborne Division.

This book is presented in a unique format. Following an engaging story, well written and edited, there are a few chapters designed to encourage conversations that might be developed for a high school AP English class. This book could be a useful tool for today’s students who typically get little historical exposure to the Vietnam War or the stories of its veterans.

For 50 years Stillman did not talk to anyone about his war experiences. He also put up with daily—and nightly—hidden struggles with post-war traumatic stress. An invitation to address a few classes following a high school reunion and his daughter’s sensitivity to his demons convinced him to break down the walls and write this book with her.  

He begins at the beginning, with his birth in Chicago and rearing in the Saint Louis area, noting his desire to be a soldier from an early age. Stillman enlisted in the U.S. Army after high school and describes being inducted, and what it was like going through Basic Training, AIT, and jump school. He leavens the narrative with wry humor and anecdotes.

Before his departure for Vietnam, Stillman’s father gave him a journal “to record [his] thoughts.” Those journal entries are sprinkled throughout the book, providing insights into Stillman’s experiences.

Despite the book’s title—and although he was with an airborne unit—Stillman and his fellow 101st troopers didn’t make any parachute jumps helicoptes. They did, however, make countless plunges from helicopters before the before the skids hit the ground. Stillman writes that the times he felt the most free in Vietnam were when he was sitting in choppers, his feet on the skids, riding the wind.

This is a worthy offering–a good read and one I recommend.

The book’s website is jumpingfromhelicopters.com

–Tom Werzy

Flashbacks by R. Dean Jerde and Tom Pisapia

Disappointingly, R. Dean Jerde appears or is quoted only sparingly in his own book, Flashbacks: A Vietnam Soldier’s Story 50 Years Later (Luminaire Press, 260 pp. $14.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle). His war story—as a member of a searchlight battalion during his December ’67-to-January ‘69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War—could have been a much more interesting one if he had put more of himself into his own book. Jerde and his co-author Tom Pisapia, instead, have providing a lot of well-known information about Agent Orange, PTSD, the VA’s mistreatment of Vietnam War veterans, and the negative reception we received upon returning to the U.S. from the war.

As indicated by the book’s title, Pisapia put Flashbacks together after a series of conversations, meetings, and interviews he had with his old friend Jerde and his brother over the span of about a year. During those sessions Jerde’s recollections, by his own admission, amounted to a series of mostly unrelated flashbacks to his time in Vietnam. 

Upon returning to the states after his tour of duty, Dean Jerde married, began a family, and immersed himself deeply into his chosen occupation as a carpenter. He buried his wartime experiences, not speaking about them, even to his wife, for fifty years. Not until his retirement with time on his hands and the advent of the conversations and meetings with his brother and with Tom Pisapi, did some of the stories and experiences come out, along with symptoms of his long-carried PTSD.

As can be the case with self-published books, Flashbacks could have used a fact checker and more editing as it contains more than a few spelling, syntax, and punctuation errors.

Flashbacks, in short, is a book that needs more story and a bit of polish.

Pisapia’s website is tompisapia.net

–Tom Werzyn