Knight’s Blessing by R.T. Budd

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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

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Between the Sheets Behind Enemy Lines  by Michael J. McCormack

Michael J. McCormack, the author of Between the Sheets Behind Enemy Lines: A Life Story of a Decorated Vietnam Veteran (CreateSpace, 396 pp., $19.99, paper; $19.99, Kindle), served as a Marine in the Vietnam War.  He “was born into a poor family in the Irish slums of Chicago and still went on to become a self-made worldwide journalist,”  McCormack tells us.

His father and grandfather were both Marines, but growing up McCormack was a screw-up and always in trouble with the law. He thought there was no hope that he could be a Marine. But a Marine recruiter thought differently.

Mack McCormack had to stand in front of a judge to get into the Marines. Luckily for him—or perhaps not so luckily—the judge had been a Marine. “Where you are going, you won’t have time for this nonsense,” he told McCormack. “You’ve got to grow up quickly, son.”

With a main character called Clancy and lots of dialogue, the book reads more like a novel than a memoir. In it, McCormack explores the extremes of his life, often using extreme and frowned-upon language. His references to people of color are mostly phrased in ways that would cause eyebrows to be raised in polite society.  He makes the point throughout the book that he is not a person who came from polite society, nor does he seek to occupy a place there.

Jewish women are invariably referred to as “Jew bitches” and African Americans are usually referred to by the “n” word. Those of us who occupied positions in the rear echelons in the military are referred to as “military fairies,” a phrase I had not previously heard. The New York Times is referred to as the “Jew York Times” and liberal ideas are called “left wing bullshit.”

PTSD is often discussed, usually as it relates to the behavior and failings of the author. He was also plagued with eczema for which he had expected to be forgiven military service. That did not happen and caused him much resentment.

john_world_war_ii_draftJohn Wayne gets discussed way beyond the usual mentions and the phrase “baby killers” is used more often than in any book I’ve read. Agent Orange is discussed, as is Bob Hope and the Vietnamese custom of using their feet to wipe their butts after defecation.

That’s another new one on me.

The book is not well proofread. “Land mines,” for example, appears as “land minds.”  According to McCormack, African Americans can’t swim and flak jackets are “flat” jackets.

It’s a strange world.

The author’s website is clancy21.com

—David Willson

Straining Forward by Michelle Layer Rahal

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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.

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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

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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

And the Redbird Sings by Phillip Dowsett

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Phillip Dowsett tells the reader in the Preface to his memoir, And the Redbird Sings: You are not Alone. You Are Loved. There is Hope. (338 pp., $14.95, paper’ $4.99, Kindle), that he does not want his words to hurt anyone and that he does not want to contribute to the pain that most of us are already in.  Dowsett describes himself an old, blown-up war veteran, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, and that this book was not easy for him to write.

While reading this book I had no notion that it had been easy to write or that Dowsett’s life had been easy to live. Far from it. He says he “was stuck in the darkness of my living nightmare for twelve years before a Veterans Outreach Center opened near my home.”  And that he’d survived “twenty-five years of frightening nightmares and suicidal depression.”

The painful memories of his childhood, of the Vietnam War, and of homelessness and an alcohol and drug-addicted life have been his to face and try to deal with. Dowsett, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, had served aboard a heavily armed Navy gunboat as a radioman in Vietnam and had been seriously wounded several times, ending up in Naval hospitals for weeks at a time.

Dowsett’s memoir takes place in 1967-68 when his unit, River Assault Squadron Nine, conducted search and destroy missions in the Mekong Delta south of Saigon. He was prepared for this service by an all-American boyhood that involved playing in creeks, fields, and woods where he lived the fantasies of being Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Jim Bowie.

Dowsett also grew up with seventeen years of a violent father and an insane, violent mother. When he returned home after serving in Vietnam, he learned there would be no parades, that he would not be celebrated as a hero, and that even though he’d fought valiantly, he returned to be treated as a criminal. He learned quickly not to trust the VA, and to be wary of antiwar protesters who chanted at him about killing babies.

He’d spent almost two years living aboard a small ship, LST 1148, but nobody was interested in hearing about this aspect of his service. He saw antiwar protesters as rich college kids who scorned him for having served in the Navy. He’d spent his time in Vietnam bathing in Agent Orange-laced river water, and he would soon reap the effects of the poison he and millions of other Vietnam War veterans were been exposed to.

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Dowsett eventually learned that nothing good comes from alcohol and drugs. He managed—with the help of those who loved him—to turn over a great number of leaves and makes something good of himself.

This is a powerful story and one well worth reading. I enjoyed it and it held my attention.

—David Willson