Keep Forever: A Novel by Alexa Kingaard

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In her novel, Keep Forever (BookBaby, 268 pp., $14.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), Alexa Kingaard thanks the Veteran’s Writing Group in Oceanside, California, which gave her “shelter from the storm.” Keep Forever, she writes, is based on her experiences living with and “tragically losing” a Vietnam War veteran.

The book tells the story of Paul O’Brien, a Marine who returns from the war with terrible burdens he shares with those he loves. “It was inspired by the Vietnam neterans I have known and loved,” Kingaard writes, “and their lifelong struggles with PTSD.”

Paul O’Brien wants to make a nightmare-free life for himself, but his sleep is disturbed by guilt. Blurbs from readers say that they couldn’t put the novel down once they started reading it, even when they were sobbing. I admit to shedding a few tears myself.

Late in the book we are told that “no amount of visits to the VA were fixing the problem, and the answers from the overworked and understaffed medical facility were always the same. ‘It’s the best we can do. We don’t have the resources. You have to wait like everyone else. It’s a long line.’”

That’s the tune my friends and I frequently heard in the years immediately after the war and for a long time after that. However, things have improved at my local VA (in the Seattle area).They may not have not improved elsewhere.

Paul O’Brien comes alive on the page as a seriously disturbed veteran, but also as a believable one. He keeps a duffel bag packed at all times to take with him when he leaves the house so he is prepared for all exigencies. He is very slow to get ready and is usually late for all appointments—if he makes them at all.

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Alexa Kingaard

When his wife suggests he see a therapist, his reaction is, “Definitely not. That would be cowardly and weak.”

He remains on high alert at all times. He postpones going to see his doctor, even though he has serious symptoms.

When he finally goes to the doctor, he’s told he has stage-four prostate cancer, and it’s too late for Paul O’Brien. He was a lifelong collector, storing and hoarding his treasures intending to leave them as his legacy to those he loved. Or so he told himself.

He would have been wiser to give them the gift of himself. Most likely all that junk would prove a burden to his loved ones.

If you are looking for a very sad book that tells the familiar story of a veteran unable to get past his war, this book could be the one for you.

The author’s website is alexakingaard.com

–David Willson

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Jellybeans in the Jungle by Bob Whittaker

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When Bob Whittaker was a student in the sixties, his sympathies were with the antiwar movement. He was working as a primary school teacher in western Queensland in Australia when he was drafted into the Aussie army in 1969.

In his memoir, Jellybeans in the Jungle: From Teacher to NASHO and Back (EIEIO, 165 pp., $32, AUD, hardcover; $7.50, AUD, e book), we learn the details of recruit training, after which Whittaker was assigned to the 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, which deployed to Vietnam in 1970.

Whittaker describes his service in Vietnam which included deadly encounters with the enemy as well as humdrum service in the rear where he worked as a projectionist—a job he’d learned as a civilian teacher on a similar Bell and Howell machine. We also learn a lot about R & R in Bangkok.

Whittaker writes about his re-entry problems after coming home to Australia. He encountered many of the same sorts of prejudices that Americans did when they returned home from the Vietnam War. He had no brass band waiting for him in Toowoomba.

Whittaker says that in the book he focuses mostly on the lighter aspects of his tour of duty. But he also describes incidents of friendly fire and includes a discussion of the effects of carpet bombing on the indigenous population, as well as details about Agent Orange and what it did to the people and environment in Vietnam—and what it did to him personally. He is convinced that one of his offspring was born dead due to his extreme exposure to the highly toxic defoliant.

“More than thirty-five years later, in the summer storm season at my home in Toowoomba, the sound of distant thunder reminds me of the rumbling sound of B-52s carpet bombing suspected North Vietnamese concentrations,” Whittaker writes.

Whittaker in the jungle

I was especially interested in the comments he makes about the ARVN being not good soldiers and that there were “some very good American units.” He goes on to say, though, that he didn’t “trust the Americans after witnessing a live-fire demo” during his first week in-country.

The jellybeans of the title (and featured on the cover) do appear in the book, but how they appear is too complicated to explain here. Buy this fine book and read more about jellybeans than anyone needs to know.

For ordering info, go to the book’s website, jellybeansinthejungle.blogspot.com

—David Willson

Brother Brother by Dan Duffy

In Brother Brother: A Memoir (May Day Publishers, 300 pp. $12.99, paper: $2.99, Kindle) Dan Duffy tries to reconnect with his older brother Rich who vanished in 1970.

Dan Duffy recreates his brother’s disappearance by taking the reader on a road trip across the United States. He ends the coast-to-coast journey by describing a rock concert he attended at the Atlantic City Racetrack (held two weeks prior to Woodstock, but just as wild) and an antiwar rally in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco before trying to resolve the mystery of Rich’s departure.

Dan Duffy says his story is “mostly true, part fiction” and written from memory. That’s why it might help to suspend disbelief when reading his book. Much of the story evolved from a journal that Rich Duffy wrote in 1970 while driving cross-country with his girlfriend, after which he disappeared. The journal provides a broad foundation for Dan Duffy’s imagination.

Rich’s spirit accompanies Dan on the trip. They “discuss” the rigors of life and listen to songs from the era to match the moods of their talks. At one point, Dan asks himself, “Was I really traveling with my missing brother or was I going crazy talking to his voice in my head?”

The book fits into two literary categories: road trip adventure and coming-of-age tale in which, through many flashbacks, a younger brother reflects on lessons passed down from an older sibling.

Dan Duffy

Rich Duffy served as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War and returned home to face PTSD. The accounts of his combat experiences do not reveal anything new about the war and have a secondhand tone. After the war, he lived a hippie lifestyle guided by a belief in God.

After tracing his brother’s tracks over five thousand miles from New Jersey to New Mexico by way of California, Dan Duffy says, “I wanted to be just like my older brother Rich. Although this changed over the years, I am still trying to understand the impact he had on my life.”

—Henry Zeybel

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

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Kristin Hannah has published a long list of well-received, best-selling novels, most with strong female characters. Her latest, The Great Alone (St. Martin’s Press, 448 pp. $28.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), is no exception. Two people, a mother and daughter, are at the center of the novel. They revolve around the main male character, who is one of the most dangerous and seriously damaged Vietnam veterans in modern popular American fiction.

He beats his wife; he beats his lovely, thirteen-year-old daughter. These were hard scenes to read for this Vietnam veteran, damaged to an extent by my time in the military and having been raised by a Marine Corps veteran of Iwo Jima.

The Allbright family becomes convinced—or at least Ernt, the damaged veteran, does—that moving to Alaska will be the way for him to deal with his demons. Or to leave them behind in an America that he no longer wants to be a part of—and that seems to want no part of him.

It’s said repeatedly in the novel that Vietnam changed Ernt or that it broke him. He needs to be fixed, but there is no program set up to fix him. He refuses to deal with the VA, even to try to get a disability check. He’s too proud and haughty for that. He received medals during his tour in Vietnam, but Hannah makes little of that.

Hippies and peace freaks have taken over America and Ernt is characterized as a “baby killer.”  In a speech early in the novel, he says:  “I just want… more, I guess. Not a job. A life. I want to walk down the street and not have to worry about being called a baby-killer.  I want…” Hannah does not give Ernt the ability to state what he wants or needs, except that he is convinced that Alaska will be the place for him to have freedom and peace of mind.

The Allbright family arrives in Alaska completely unprepared for coping with the situation they find themselves in, unskilled in all the ways they need to survive. They find danger at every turn: bears; cold, deep icy rivers; not much food; and even less money.

People try hard to help them, but Ernt is not the sort who does well with getting help, nor with asking for help. His way of dealing with frustration is to anoint the problem with alcohol. He self-medicates at the slightest provocation.

His wife Leni and daughter Cora begin to wonder if they will survive in Alaska with Ernt as part of their family. They struggle for years, but eventually choose an extreme solution to their problem.

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Kristin Hannah

I found the novel engrossing and in some parts so tense that I had to close the book and catch my breath before continuing to read. Ernt is a realistically drawn Vietnam War veteran, one very much like several I have known well.

He is a veteran I avoided becoming, but if my circumstances had been different during my tour, I could imagine becoming that sort of veteran. Even having worked a rear-echelon job failed to prepare me to re-enter America effortlessly and with any kind of grace or equanimity.

Read this book and see if you recognize yourself or a friend in the character of Ernt. It could very well be the case.

The author’s website is kristinhannah.com

—David Willson

Creatures Born of War by Bruce Taneski

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Creatures Born of War: A Novel about the Korean and Vietnam Conflicts (CreateSpace, 574 pp. $23, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a continuation of Bruce Taneski’s first novel, Creatures Born of War: A Novel about the World Wars. Both books emphasize, Taneski says, a “depiction of the psycho-social impact of war; not only for the veterans who served during these wars, but also the lasting impact post war for the service member and their families.”

Taneski served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War with recon companies in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade and the 5th Infantry Division. Forty years later he is still living with the trauma he endured during that war. The writing of these novels became a way that the author coped with his symptoms. In some cases Taneski uses real-life experiences in this novel.

This massive book contains two not-so-small war novels—one about the Korean War and one set during the Vietnam War. Taneski struggles mightily with apostrophes and commas in this novel, and the apostrophes and commas win the battle. Or they lose, depending on how you look at it.

Taneski’s strength lies in his ability to tell a story. He’d be better off telling tales around a campfire and letting errant apostrophes and commas fly off into the night sky like fireflies or sparks from the campfire. He lists two editors in the front of the novel; it would appear that too much escaped their editorial attention.  

In the first book in this series, the Bataan Death March was an important part of the story. In this novel, the Tet Offensive gets thorough coverage. The characters we’ve grown attached to in the hundreds of pages of narrative get worked over in a serious way by the Viet Cong and the many enemies who rise up to run Americans out of their country.

Walter Cronkite’s famous statement about the war being lost is echoed by characters in the novel. Their opinion is that the country should be given back to the peasants in the rice fields.

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Bruce Taneski

John Wayne gets several mentions and even the actor Aldo Ray gets a shout out. Ham and motherfuckers are mentioned, but the characters seem to think they are canned ham and eggs, rather than ham and limas. Hippies are busy cursing returning troops and even spitting on them, and the epithet “Baby Killers” is bandied about.

The only time I’ve ever been exposed to any of this is in novels and memoirs. And I returned home from Vietnam to Seattle, which is often figuratively spat upon for being a hotbed of liberalism.

This book contains the Korean and Vietnam War novels that the first book paved the way for, and it does not disappoint as a panoramic tale tracing the history of war trauma and PTSD.

Taneski has skill at showing young men in the context of war, and this novel continues that saga.

—David Willson

When We Came Home by Jack McCabe

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Jack McCabe begins When We Came Home: How the Vietnam War Changed Those Who Served (OddInt Media, 350 pp. $19.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) with his own story, including observations about his homecoming and the intervening years when he struggled despite the VA telling him, “just go home; there is nothing wrong with you.”

The more McCabe wrestled with his own demons, the more he realized he was not alone. Finally, after a successful business career in real estate, he began devoting his time volunteering to help other veterans.

The book is a compilation of stories about what happened after folks returned home from the Vietnam War. McCabe writes that “no one came home whole,” no matter what we may have initially thought. He recognizes two important aspects of Vietnam veterans: That we hid and tried to bury those times within without seeking out our brothers for many years, and that the war changed everyone who went there, no matter the job—cook, mechanic, pilot, or rifleman.

There are many stories in the book, all of them personal and important. The book broadens the mosaic of the story of the Vietnam War veteran.

In his interviews McCabe—a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America—followed a three-part formula, a short account of the veteran’s time in country, then tales of coming home and being home. He includes a range of servicemen and women, being careful to give them all a full and respectful opportunity to tell of their experiences.

One of the more poignant voices is that of Glenn Knight, a 1st Cav veteran trained to be a Huey repairman whose job in country morphed into being a gunner on hunter killer Huey team along the Cambodian border.

Upon his return, Knight realized he didn’t fit in despite his military experience. Marriage, followed by kids, soon turned into bouncing around in many jobs. The toll of raising a family and other pressures of life turned him to drink and bouts of anger. He admits the “guy who went to war is a KIA and he never returned.”

The courage Knight shows as he reveals his story is typical of the hidden courage of the men and women who went to war in Vietnam but did not know how to deal with the ghosts they brought home with them. It took many years, but Glenn Knight finally was able to get help with his PTSD at the VA.

One of McCabe’s lighter stories is that of former Red Cross Donut Dolly Rene Johnson, who decided she needed to go to Vietnam to see for herself stories she was hearing from friends and family before entering nursing school. During her first tour Johnson spent time with the 25th Infantry Division, the 9th Infantry Division, and the First Cav.

Johnson recalls stopping in Hawaii on her way home and spending hours just watching TV commercials. But after getting home, she realized something was missing. Depression set in, along with a feeling of failure that she somehow did not have a home per se. So she re-upped for another tour. It was not until 2012 that Johnson found help for her PTSD.

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Jack McCabe

The importance of this book is the voice it gives to Vietnam War veterans. It validates our service and puts the black and white honesty of what we did in print for all to see.

The courage of all the men and women in this book is raw, naked, awesome, and an encouragement to all who served to stand tall and be proud of what we did.

Jack McCabe has done a marvelous job of interviewing and telling these stories. This is a book that scholars of war and politicians would do well to read to see that war is not just a “tour” and learn about how the trauma taking part in a war causes can last a lifetime.

The author’s web site is jackmccabe.net

—Bud Alley

 

The Miracle Workers of South Boulder Road by Bob Fischer and Grady Birdsong

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“It looks a lot like a textbook,” my wife Jan said while thumbing through The Miracle Workers of South Boulder Road: Healing the Signature Wounds of War (Bird Quill, 199 pp. $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) by Bob Fischer and Grady Birdsong.

“Maybe,” I told her, “but it’s filled with information that touches your heart.”

The book pays tribute to a treatment program run by the Rocky Mountain Hyperbaric Institute in Boulder, Colorado. The book’s most significant picture is of a gray brain with a Purple Heart medal affixed to it because hyperbaric oxygen treatment (HBOT) helps war veterans with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

As my wife noted, the book contains charts and photographs, almost like a textbook. It also has “Exhibits” that illustrate the need for—and effectiveness of—HBOT.

Fischer and Birdsong, Marine Corps Vietnam War veterans, bring the text alive by describing the people who run the program and those who have benefited from using it their own words. The miracle-working heroes of the story are Ryan Fullmer, Eddie Gomez, Dr. Julie Stapleton, Pepe Ramirez, and their team.

Both Fullmer and Gomez suffered physical problems that HBOT cured, which motivated them to join forces and establish a clinic to perform feats similar to those that saved their lives. The authors helped find funding for starting a non-profit clinic. The clinic has treated hundreds of veterans.

Stapleton, a Certified Hyperbaric Physician, joined the group in 2007 to fulfill government regulations. She champions the use of HBOT to treat those with PTSD, although neither the Department of Defense nor the FDA endorses the concept. The VA recently announced that it would offer HBOT for PTSD patients.

Ramirez, a retired Marine Sergeant Major, specializes in EMDR (Eye Movement, Desensitization, and Reprocessing) psychotherapy and physical exercise that complements HBOT. He served three tours in Iraq.

Fundamentally, HBOT replaces the unsatisfactory array of drugs (and even career-ending brain surgery) routinely provided by VA hospitals as treatment for TBI and PTSD. Autobiographies of veterans who found renewed life through HBOT testify to its success.

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As treatment for combat injuries, HBOT is a relatively new form of medicine. I knew nothing about it prior to reading The Miracle Workers of South Boulder Road. As I said earlier, the book touches a reader’s heart. It is written by and about people who possess faith and perseverance in their cause.

The authors walk the reader through HBOT from start to finish and explain every step along the way. I doubt that you can find a better source to begin your education in this area.

Grady Birdsong’s web site is gradytbirdsong.com

—Henry Zeybel