Blaze of Light by Marcus Brotherton

Every American should know the life story of former Green Beret—and Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient—Gary Beikirch. It’s an admirable life filled with honor, valor, service, and humility. And with severe physical and mental pain and anguish.

Gary Beikirch was born and raised in Rochester, New York. He struggled through a rocky childhood after his father deserted the family when he was in first grade. When he was twenty, Beikirch dropped out of college and joined the Army in August 1967. He volunteered for Special Forces, made it through the physically, emotionally, and intellectually vigorous SF training, and opted to become a medic.

Gary Beikirch arrived in Vietnam in July 1969. He wound up serving with a 5th Special Forces Group A Team in a remote Montagnard village called Dak Seang about a mile from the Laotian border in the jungles of the Central Highlands.

Beikirch found his calling tending to the medical needs of Montagnard men, women, and children. Like other Special Forces medics, he treated a myriad of health conditions, from pulling teeth to delivering babies, treating tropical diseases, and removing shrapnel wounds. He bonded with—and came to love—the Montagnard people, especially a 15-year-old boy named Deo, who more or less became his bodyguard.

On April 1, 1970, an NVA force numbering in the thousands launched a surprise human-wave attack on the camp. Caught off guard, the Green Berets and Montagnard fighters (and their families), suffered huge casualties. Beikirch and the other Green Berets sprang into action, defending the camp. Not long after the battle began, as he ran into the teeth of the assault to rescue a wounded Green Beret, a shrapnel burst knocked him unconscious. When he came to, Beikirch couldn’t walk—the metal had lodged near his spinal cord.

He shook off the injury and ordered Deo to carry him back to the perimeter to continue fighting the enemy and treat the wounded. Somehow—without the use of his legs—he helped rescue wounded Americans and Montagnards and treat them in the medic shed. During that time he was shot a second time, in the side. Again, the young Green Beret was treated and Deo took him back to the fighting. Beikirch took another bullet, this time in the stomach, but he refused entreaties to get back under cover. He continued to fight, even with Deo and two other men carrying him on a litter.

Then NVA rockets started falling. Deo jumped on top of Beikirch during a barrage and paid for that selfless act with his life. Somehow, Beikirch continued to fight until he collapsed and was medevaced out. The fighting would go on for nearly a month.

Next came months operations in hospitals in Vietnam and back in the U.S.A. He had to learn to walk again. When he recovered, Beikirch asked to be sent back to Vietnam. Instead, he spent his remaining time in the Army at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. When he took his honorable discharge, Gary Beikirch enrolled in college again. That’s when life got really rough.

“The war injured me physically,” he said in a TV interview in 2019, “but it was my homecoming that destroyed me.”

Being all but shunned and scorned by antiwar college students, he dropped out and for the next few years fought what seemed a losing battle with severe PTSD. He tried self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. He tried turning to the Bible. To little avail. Beikirch wound up living in a cave in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for nearly two years trying to come to terms with the carnage he’d experienced in Vietnam and survivor guilt—even after receiving the Medal of Honor in 1973 in a ceremony at the White House.

When Beikirch met his future wife Lolly in 1975, his life began to turn around. Her love and attention (and their embrace of Christianity) eased much of the psychic burdens he wrestled with. He graduated from White Mountain Seminary in New Hampshire, and two years later earned a BA in Psychology and Sociology from the University of New Hampshire. In 1981, he received an MS in Education Counseling specializing in adolescent psychology, trauma, and PTSD, from the State University of New York at Brockport.

Gary and Lolly Beikirch in 2019

But during those years there were setbacks and backsliding. Soon after Vietnam Veterans of America was founded in 1978, Gary Beikirch joined the fledgling organization and became one of VVA’s early leaders. He helped form Chapter 20 in his hometown of Rochester, and served as its first president from 1981-84. He was elected the first president of VVA’s New York State Council in 1982, and served in that position till 1984, and also did a 1983-85 term on the VVA National Board of Directors.

In 1981, Gary Beikirch—who was running Rochester’s pioneering Veterans Outreach Center and serving as a team counselor there—joined a small group of VVA leaders including then-president Bobby Muller that made a controversial trip to Vietnam to work on POW/MIA and other issues with the former enemy.

In the summer of 1988 Beikirch began working full time as a school counselor at Greece Arcadia Middle School in his hometown. That’s when he overcame the worst of his PTSD and became a loving husband and father—and a caring mentor to countless young teenagers. He spent nearly 25 years at that job. Since his retirement in 2013 Biekirch has traveled the country speaking to students, church groups, veterans, and others about overcoming adversity through faith and what he has called “finding love and being able to experience it” and “loving others more than myself.”

Marcus Brotherton, who specializes in writing inspirational books about military men, worked closely with Gary Beikirch to put together Blaze of Light: The Inspiring True Story of Green Beret Medic Gary Biekirch, Medal of Honor Recipient (Waterbrook, 261 pp. $26). Brotherton uses much reconstructed dialogue to tell Beikirch’s story in a style that calls to mind books aimed at young-adult readers. He stresses positives, but Brotherton does not shy away from describing the many low points in Beikirch’s life.

There is a strong emphasis on religion, which is fitting giving how important becoming a Christian had in bringing Beikirch out from the depths of emotional despair.

Brotherton mentions Vietnam Veterans of America only once in Blaze of Light, in the final chapter. He provides no information about the nation’s only congressionally chartered veterans service organization that concentrates on working for Vietnam War veterans and their families—other than writing that we are “a group.”

There’s not a word in the book about Gary Beikirch’s important role in VVA’s early years on the local, state, and national levels.

–Marc Leepson

Receiving the Medal of Honor at the White House in 1973

Waging the War Within by Tim Fortner with Elizabeth Ridley

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Waging the War Within: A Marine’s Memoir of Vietnam and PTSD (McFarland, 209 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle), by Tim Fortner with Elizabeth Ridley, pretty naturally divides into three parts. The first third of this relatively short book covers Fortner’s life before the Marines, then comes a recounting of his military experiences, mainly in Vietnam, and then a look at his post-war life up to today.

Fortner admits he was never concerned about grades in school but did, he says, “set new records for sexcapades in the back of a Chevy.” He writes that during his senior year of high school he had sex with one of his teachers over a four-month period, including at least once in the school building. He tried college but quickly dropped out.

With the draft breathing down his neck, he joined the Marines. It was late 1966 and Fortner was 18 years old. After serving stateside, he volunteered for Vietnam, arriving in-country in August of 1968.

Fortner was assigned to a CH-46D Sea Knight helicopter in Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 in the First Marine Air Wing based at Quang Tri Province in the far north of South Vietnam. He worked in the maintenance shop, and also flew as a gunner when not needed there. There are good descriptions of some of the missions he took part in, along with stories about a stolen Jeep, the accidental firing of a rocket on base, and the fragging of an NCO.

A bizarre episode involves Fortner taking his R&R in Hawaii, usually the place where married men met their wives. He asked to go there so he could spend time with his mother, who flew in from California. The story gets better when, Fortner says, they stealthily took a flight to San Francisco for a couple of days. More excitement: The plane he took back to Vietnam lost an engine, forcing it to return to Hawaii. Instead of staying in the airport as ordered during the delay, Fortner went back to the hotel to extend his visit with his mother.

On Okinawa, on the way home from Vietnam, Fortner took part in what he calls a “pretty unbelievable” massive food fight, then returned to San Francisco where he says he was spat on at the airport. After finishing his last few months in the Corps, he moved back home. One of his first jobs involved him digging around and removing a septic tank. After the job, disgusted with how his clothes smelled, he stripped naked and drove home. He had his mother spray him down with water while he scrubbed his body. She then threw him a towel.

After a failed relationship, a suicide attempt, and time in a “psych ward,” as Fortner puts it, went to the VA for help with hearing and back issues and was surprised to later be awarded a 100 percent service-connected disability rating for PTSD. Fortner has nothing good to say about his stepfathers, rear-echelon personnel in Vietnam, officers in general, and Jane Fonda.

Some of his stories push up to the edge of credulity, but I accept his description of the book as a “true” memoir. True or not, it’s not one that I’d recommend to my sons.

–Bill McCloud

Cooper: The Making of a Service Dog by Clyde Hoch

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Clyde Hoch spends much of his life helping veterans, particularly those with post-traumatic stress disorder. He sees using a service dog as one of the better ways to cope with PTSD. “Many times,” he says, “I’ve heard from veterans, ‘If it were not for my service dog, I wouldn’t be alive today.’” He knows whereof he speaks.

A Marine tank commander in the Vietnam War in 1968-69, Clyde Hoch was severely injured by a mine that destroyed his vehicle. After coming home, he found that he could not fit into society. Eventually, he learned that he had PTSD, as well as Traumatic Brain Injury. Much later—with encouragement from a therapist and guidance from dog instructors—he bought Cooper, a Doberman Pinscher puppy, and spent a year qualifying him as a service dog.

In his latest book, Cooper: The Making of a Service Dog (100 pp. $8.95, paper) Hoch presents a strong argument for the adage that “a dog is man’s best friend.” The book covers almost three years of their relationship and Cooper’s training. “You build a bond with your dog like no other on earth,” Hoch writes of his one-hundred pound service dog.

The book is interesting because it discusses reducing the effects of war-induced emotional problems in everyday terms. Cooper, Hoch tells us, provides controls that he lacks. Best of all, he softens Hoch’s temper. For example, when Hoch displays road rage, Cooper rests his head on his shoulder to defuse the situation. Cooper also provides extra eyes and ears, lessening Hoch’s reactions to night noises. Cooper also takes the edge off Hoch’s tendency to be hyper-vigilant when he is in crowded places.

“He knows your mood and you know his,” Hoch says. “When I get angry or frustrated, he knows it and comes to me without my telling him to.”

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Clyde Hoch in-country

Hoch repeatedly emphasizes the etiquette of service dog recognition. When wearing an identification vest, a service dog is off-limits to interactions with strangers, including petting. The dog knows this, but most strangers do not. Without the vest, the dog becomes a pet and acts accordingly.

Clyde Hoch performs volunteer work for veterans in many ways. He organized the Veterans Brotherhood, which takes homeless veterans off the street when they are at their lowest. He donates profits from this and his lengthy list of other books to veterans’ organizations and schools.

The long-time VVA member also is well known as a guest speaker in Eastern Pennsylvania where lives.

Clyde Hoch’s website is clydehoch.com

—Henry Zeybel

My War & Welcome to It by Tom Copeland

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Like most teenagers of the time, Tom Copeland had no burning desire to fight in the Vietnam War. But he was drafted into the Army and served for a year in Vietnam with the 1st First Infantry Division. His tour of duty in the war is the centerpiece of  My War and Welcome To It (Sunbury Press, 191 pp. $$19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), which is written in a voice ranging from youthful humor and wonderment to one of great fear of being killed. He prefaces this autobiography by saying: “I was aged beyond my years. I became an old man before my time.”

Copeland describes his life growing up in Southeastern New Mexico, mostly outdoors; getting drafted in August 1966; going through infantry AIT; operating from Lai Khe with a ground surveillance team with the Big Red One’s 2nd Battalion/2nd Regiment in 1967-68; and returning home and working his way up a corporate ladder. The last part was the most difficult.

He  describes military life largely by concentrating on the good and bad behavior of men of all ranks. Copeland highlights individualists such as a trainee who got away with impersonating the boot camp commander and drill sergeants, even in their presence.

He saw plenty of action, including fighting Viet Cong forces at Prek Loc II and Phu Loi, in the Ong Dong Jungle during Operation Paul Bunyan, and at Ong Thanh. Copeland writes in detail about the wounded and dead-and-maimed bodies in only one of those operations, Ong Thanh. That battle, he says, “marked a change in the way I saw the war and the value of human life.”

After the war, Copeland suffered decades of emotional stress involving his family, work, and schools without recognizing that he had post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2003, his nephew displayed PTSD symptoms following three deployments to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Copeland forced the young man to seek medical help. That’s when he realized he had the same emotional problems and went to the VA for treatment.

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Tom Copeland in country

In 2013, Tom Copeland went back to Vietnam to try to ameliorate the negative effects of combat that lingered within him. He and other Vietnam War veterans placed commemorative plaques and flowers at battle sites where friends had been killed.

The book’s concluding chapter is a deeply insightful distillation of the trauma serving in the Vietnam War inflicted on him. He closes that section—and the book—by letting us know that the war is still with him.

“Don’t think for a minute I have forgotten those things that took place years ago,” he writes, “They have just become easier to live with.”

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

Appalachian Free Spirit by Duke Talbott

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Irwin D. “Duke” Talbott says that his 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War amounted to a prolonged nightmare. He encountered increasingly inhumane and intolerable situations that separated him from normal behavior. Those traumatic experiences included seeing naked prisoners locked in bamboo cages cowering in the fetal position; consoling a witness to the murder of women and children at My Lai; and surviving sustained bombardments of LZ Bronco.

Talbott’s Vietnam War experiences are the centerpiece of his memoir, Appalachian Free Spirit: A Recovery Journey (Balboa Press, 266 pp. $35.95, hardcover; $17.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), which also includes his account of salvaging his life from PTSD and addictions. Talbott also includes letters he wrote to his parents from Vietnam and earlier from Somalia where he was a Peace Corps volunteer.

His stories about Somalia are entertaining and meaningful. Heading a school building project provided profound self-satisfaction. On the other hand, his exposure to war’s violence began during his Peace Corps days in Africa when he went to Yemen and found himself in the midst of several gun battles during a period of civil unrest.

Talbott sandwiches his Vietnam War stories between detailed accounts of his West Virginia upbringing and his college-oriented, post-war life. Describing his first “big gulp” of whisky in his mid-teens, he says: “My whole being glowed in the aftermath.” He also fondly recalls memories of Darvon. It was in Vietnam, he says, that he “first learned to mix alcohol, grass, and pills for maximum effect.”

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Duke Talbott

The Twelve Step Program was Talbott’s compass to finding emotional freedom, and he details every step he took. He explains that his escape from self-destruction followed a path available to everyone. He bases his message on logic and inspiration from God.

Our society overflows with people willing and capable of helping addicts, he says, and finding them is infinitely rewarding. He clearly convinced me that one’s strongest enemy in a battle for emotional independence is one’s own ego.

After earning a Ph.D. in history from West Virginia University, Duke Talbott taught at several colleges, including his alma mater, Marshall University in Huntingon, West Virginia, and West Virginia Weslyan. He is a Professor Emeritus of History at Glenville State College in West Virginia. His expertise focuses on Africa. From 2009-13 he served as the mayor of Elkins—West Virginia, of course.

—Henry Zeybel

The Boys of St. Joe’s ’65 in the Vietnam War by Dennis G. Pregent

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Posterity needs men like Dennis Pregent who look back and examine life to determine what they and people like them have accomplished. A Vietnam War veteran, Pregent wrote a memoir about his role in the war. Then, encouraged by his wife, he found and interviewed ten other war veterans with whom he had graduated from high school: seven soldiers, two Marines, and one sailor. They served from mid-1965 to late 1972. He tells their stories in The Boys of St. Joe’s ’65 in the Vietnam War (McFarland, 246 pp. $39.95, paper: $19.99, Kindle).

Pregent served in I Corps near Da Nang. On his first tour, he was a Marine supply clerk and MP who patrolled at night and set ambushes. “We never killed anyone,” he says. Five months into his second tour as a comptroller, Pregent volunteered for temporary duty with the 1st Marine Air Wing as a CH-46 Sea Knight gunner. The unit rescued the wounded, carried the dead from battlefields, inserted and extracted recon teams, and resupplied Marines under fire.

Grisly events connected to saving wounded civilians (especially children) and Marines deeply affected him, but that exposure to the war did not satisfy his curiosity. For the last three days of his helicopter duty, Pregent volunteered for night medevac missions. That short span provided him with unforgettable memories about the frailty of the human body. Thereafter, he “was relieved to be back in the rear” for the remainder of his tour, he says. Pregent does not preach; he simply reports what he saw and did.

Pregent’s book also includes his own his pre- and post-war life, and he uses the same format to tell his Vietnam War story as he does with the ten men he interviewed. They all grew up in Adams and North Adams, Massachusetts. It was a mid-twentieth-century Americana environment: Households had two parents. Most fathers had served in World War II and worked responsible blue-collar jobs. Women kept house and sometimes had jobs outside the home. Children obeyed their parents and teachers. Families honored the Catholic Church and the nation. Boys pursued healthy outdoor activities. At all levels, misbehavior stayed within acceptable boundaries.

The men who went to Vietnam also shared a remarkable commonality in their military service: mostly they enlisted; within six months they arrived in Vietnam; and they usually fought as infantrymen—mechanized, airborne, or whatever. Search and destroy was the order of the day, and that was what they did—repeatedly. But, despite the many similarities the men share, Pregent uncovered ten distinct personalities.

Their stories are filled with heroics and selflessness. One man was killed in action, one paralyzed for life, and another suffered only slightly less horrendous wounds. Each endured a year filled with combat ops, air assaults, and skirmishes—and postwar PTSD. They usually fought outnumbered. They humped for stretches of twenty-eight-days, with two rest days in between, a schedule that lasted month after month. Fifteen-hour workdays, seven days a week were the norm for support personnel.

To round out his view of the era, Pregent includes a chapter on Carol Bleau Boucher—a war protestor and ’65 St. Joe graduate. Although her grandfather and father served in World War I and II, Boucher opposed the Vietnam War. The combat deaths of a family friend, a classmate, and then her long-time boyfriend within a year triggered her to join protest marches, antiwar discussions, and other forms of demonstrations. At least, as Pregent tells her story, Boucher’s protests eventually helped to disenchant some town citizens with the war.

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St. Joe’s High, North Adams, Massachusetts

Each chapter includes well-chosen photographs that mostly came from private collections and perfectly align with the topic of the moment.

I have read other books that examine small groups of men from the same community. The Boys of St. Joe’s is the most interesting. One chapter subtitle, “Too Many Close Calls,” comes close to describing the life of everyone in the St. Joe clan.

Pregent portrays young men with unquestionable devotion to nation and family, a small part of a generation we probably never will see again. His subliminal message (intentional or not) made me smile: It’s a short step from obeying a nun to following a sergeant.

—Henry Zeybel

My Long Journey in Baltimore by Lawerence E. Mize

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Lawerence Mize enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1966, and did a tour of duty as a combat medic with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. He then served as a police officer in Baltimore for close to thirty years, retiring in 1999 as a sergeant.  In the early 1980s he was troubled by PTSD and dealt with that problem by writing the poetry collections Tortured Soul (1997) and Dead Men Calling (2002).  Both of those works are based on his experiences in Vietnam and helped him cope with the issues he was having with PTSD.

Mize’s latest collection, My Long Journey in Baltimore (Dorrance Publishing, 92 pp., $23, paper; $18, e book), contains eighty pages of poetry. The titles of the poems give away their subjects. “Cu Chi,” “Dead Men Calling,” “Screaming Eagle,” “Memories of Nam,” “My Gun,” and many more poems deal with his war, his family and his career in law enforcement.

 

Here are a typical few lines from “Screaming Eagle”:

Walk in the vills

Down beaten paths

Worm through the tunnels

I’m here to kick ass. 

I’m young and I’m strong

As hardcore as they come,

Humping in the Nam.

Keep Charlie on the run. 

Morphine syrettes, filling sandbags, big orange pills, PTSD, baby killers, cowards at home, rats fleeing to Canada, traitors should be shot in the head, napalm canisters—all of that rhetoric flavored the poetry with the politics of the time.

Read this book and weep. That’s the kind of book it is. I read it and wept myself and for myself.  Of course, these days it is a rare book that does not provoke me to tears because of the medication I’m taking—or the subjects of the books.

I recommend this book for anyone looking for poetry that captures the extreme language of the 1960s.

–David Willson

Fifty Years in a Foxhole By Charles Kniffen

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Fifty Years in a Foxhole (Sunbury Press, 266 pp. $19.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is an account of Charles Kniffen’s seven months in the Vietnam War with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in 1966.  It is also a mosaic of the years since the war and the author’s struggles with PTSD. Kniffen writes with a rich style that has very vivid descriptions.

Some examples: “The Chief and I lounged like lizards in our bunker, playing with rats, chewing pineapple, and relaxing in the silence of the moment. Any time nothing is happening is a good time.” and “Or he’d manage to stay out of harm’s way, which was a tall order in these parts. Harm was as abundant and slick as a weasel in a tub of duck necks.”

I found two of Kniffen’s Vietnam War stories particularly well done. The first is about an ambush with a newbie named Henderson. Kniffen describes the noises in the jungle at night and the fear that NVA sappers were getting ready to attack. The choice was whether to blow the ambush or be quiet and hide. The second story involves Operation Prairie Map during which the author was wounded three times and survived a long night waiting to be medevaced out the next day.

The book jumps around and is hard to follow at times. In each chapter Kniffen tells a Vietnam war story, then flashes forward to say something about an incident from his life after the war. The after-war accounts were especially hard to follow

Kniffen talks about his ex-wife Claire and his two kids, Jim and Ivy. His also sprinkles in accounts of many sexual adventures with women such as Penny, Cindy, and his current wife, Rhonda. All of that left me asking many questions about his life that were left unanswered. Such as what happened to his first wife, why was his son in jail, how did he meet Rhonda, what motivated him to get an education and how long did it take to recover from his wounds. The book would have been much easier to follow if it was written in chronological order.

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Charles Kniffen

I found Kniffen’s epilogue the most interesting part of the book. “It was a stupid war motivated by fear of the unknown and, as is so frequently the case, political chicanery,” he writes. “Veterans of recent wars are more than usually afflicted with PTSD because these wars have been entirely without sound cause or purpose even after the supposed ‘lessons’ of Vietnam regarding unwinnable and inane military forays abroad.”

These opinions could have added some excellent perspective to the main sections of the book. Overall, though, the writing is first class and there are interesting sections, even as some readers may find it difficult to follow.

–Mark S. Miller

Fighting Shadows in Vietnam by Michael P. Moynihan, Jr.

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The most interesting section of Fighting Shadows in Vietnam: A Combat Memoir (McFarland, 220 pp. $19.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) describes the U.S. Army’s 1970 invasion of Cambodia as author Michael P. Moynihan, Jr.—who was wounded as an RTO with the 1st Air Cavalry Division—experienced it.

Shortly after graduating from high school, Mickey Moynihan volunteered for the draft to continue his family’s tradition of serving in the military. His father had fought in the Pacific during World War II, and his brother had been a Marine in Nam during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Five-five and 130 pounds, 19-year-old Moynihan found the physicality of infantry life a challenge beyond expectations. Constantly on patrol, however, he grew accustomed to living in the jungle. He perfectly presents the rigors of infantry life in the Vietnam War with stories about a three-day sweep of Nui Ba Ra (White Virgin Mountain) in search of the enemy while struggling merely to reach the hilltop.

His view of the Cambodia invasion reflects additional struggles. Following what appeared to be last-minute plans, his and another 1st Cav company captured 326 tons of North Vietnamese weapons and supplies. They blew up more than they hauled away. As Moynihan describes the scene, chaos ruled every activity. After being wounded in Cambodia, Moynihan became a waiter in the commanding general’s mess at Phuoc Vinh.

Readers familiar with the Vietnam War might feel bothered by Moynihan’s recitation of information hashed over in innumerable other memoirs. For example, he explains C-rations, C-4 explosives, the P-38 can opener, Claymore mines, and every-day grunt duties.

At the same time, he evaluates relationships between soldiers in his own personalized terms. Moynihan’s insights center on what he learned about people through physically and mentally challenging events. He enjoyed the unity and fellowship that linked his fellow lower-ranking troops.

The death of friends, however, gave him powerful survivor-guilt feelings. In this regard, he experienced what I read as the onset of PTSD when he saw a dead comrade in Cambodia. His reaction: “I felt sick in a way I had never known before. It was an illness of both body and mind—deep sadness, a poisoning of the heart.”

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Moynihan

Moynihan righteously complains about officers who considered young infantrymen as interchangeable and expendable. He saw self-serving officers as enemies. As a waiter in the CG’s mess, he gained insight into the chasm that separates officers from each other and the true distance between them and enlisted men.

“War took from me the innocence of youth,” he says, “and led me to dark places. It shaped me into the man I am today.”

Moynihan exudes tremendous pride for his role in the Vietnam War, and does not hesitate to display it through his philosophical thoughts on humanity and warfare.

—Henry Zeybel

The Hump by Al Conetto            

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Vietnam War historians consider the fighting that took place the Ia Drang Valley on November 14-17, 1965, as the first major engagement between U.S. Army forces and the North Vietnamese Army, aka the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). The battle became immortalized in the book, We Were Soldiers Once… and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joe Galloway. The movie based on Gen. Moore and Galloway’s book further glorified the event.

Showing full respect toward the 1st Cavalry Division that fought in the Ia Drang, Al Conetto questions that battle’s precedence by citing Operation HUMP in which U.S. Army and PAVN/Viet Cong contingents clashed in War Zone D on Hill 65 nine days earlier—from November 5-9, 1965. Conetto describes the earlier encounter in The HUMP: The 1st Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry, in the First Major Battle of the Vietnam War (McFarland, 216 pp. $19.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle). Conetto contends that that engagement changed the nature of the Vietnam War from a hit-and-run guerrilla action to a contest between large-scale American and enemy main force units.

During Operation HUMP, Lt. Conetto led a rifle platoon. “This is my story,” he writes. “This is what I saw. This is what I heard. This is what I experienced, what I read and what I believe. This is my truth, but it is also” the men of his battalion’s “story.”

Conetto builds his case with many interviews from former comrades, grim photographs, the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) Staff Journal and the After-Action Report, a citation for Medic Lawrence Joel’s Medal of Honor, a Presidential Unit Citation, chapter notes, an extensive bibliography, and his own service record.

HUMP began with an air assault by U.S. and Australian troops on November 5. The first two days “passed with no contest other than minor brushes with enemy forces of no significance,” Conetto says. Intense fighting began on the morning of November 8 when a U.S. platoon met a much larger enemy force and suffered almost 100 percent casualties with “nerve shattering speed.”

He describes the fighting from the viewpoints of individual soldiers and shows that Hill 65 was a bloodbath on both sides. Those killed in action numbered 49 Americans, one Australian, and 403 PAVN. Five days later,fighting on a larger scale began in the Ia Drang Valley and, Conetto says, “America quickly forgot the HUMP.”

On a second tour in Vietnam, Conetto commanded a company before transferring to G2 as the briefing officer for a commanding general.

In The HUMP, Conetto sandwiches the story of Hill 65 between a history lesson he calls “The Road to War,” which also includes glimpses of his childhood and his post-war life. The latter section is arguably the book’s highlight because it details the destructiveness of Conetto’s PTSD and his slow and painful progress in learning to regulate—but never conquer—it. His recollections and conclusions about post-combat feelings and behavior revived several attitude issues of my own that I had thought were long gone.

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In the broadest terms, Conetto gives readers their money’s worth by providing two short books in one.

An excellent companion piece to The HUMP is retired Army Col. Keith M. Nightingale’s Just Another Day in Vietnam, which takes place in 1967. Comparing the two books’ episodes of combat shows how platoon-level tactics barely changed during the two years after Operation HUMP and the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley fighting supposedly altered the nature of the war.

—Henry Zeybel