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

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