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

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  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

Through Smoke-Teared Eyes by Johnny F. Pugh

Johnny Pugh was drafted into the Army when he lost his college deferment. He went on to serve in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry Division beginning in the sweltering heat of July 1966. It was just the first of many shocks for the young biracial New Mexican. Those shocks that took place during his twelve months in country took over his mind and body in ways Pugh never could have expected. He survived combat with only two Purple Hearts, but his soul was destroyed.

Through Smoke-Teared Eyes: The Vietnam War I Fought (iUniverse, 293 pp., $21.95, paper; $3.99, e book) is a wonderfully written narrative of Pugh’s twelve months as an infantryman. It is heart-breakingly honest as Pugh brings the reader into his hooch and lives and walks you with him as he goes through the horror of combat with his unit, Company A of the 2nd Battalion of the 27th Infantry Regiment.

The writing flows as Pugh leads the reader into the killing zones of Operation Attleboro. You cringe at the brutality of war, along with the insidious nonsense that follows it. Pugh tells of his exposure to the black market and other moral challenges he faced with his buddies. There is little humor and a fair amount of Chicano street language that is easy to follow, but what comes through above all is the honesty of the man as he coped with the ghosts he encountered.

Pugh began writing this book as his health declined. He went back to letters his family had saved from those days and the reader can see him take the words from paper and into the reality he faced. Pugh died in 2011 before finishing his book from the all-too-common ills of the Vietnam War: PTSD, Agent Orange, denied VA treatment, alcohol, drugs, and the hardships our nation put on the backs of its Vietnam War veterans.

The book is a testament to his sheer determination and will to write his story for others to see. Pugh’s third wife and young daughter took on the task of getting the book ready for publication—a labor of love.

The book is important for several reasons. First, it is a written window into just one of the millions of kids our nation’s leaders sent to war under false premises and with false promises. Johnny Pugh was strong enough to write his story. He could easily have been one of thousands who were unable to write it. It is a book that needs to be sent to every politician as they consider sending young people to kill and maim in the name of freedom.

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For some, the book will be a hard read because it exposes many unpleasant truths. The truth of officers, poorly trained, and foggy missions leading to the deaths of friends for no apparent reason. The truth of fear of dying, fear of losing friends, fear of betrayal by those you think are friends. The fear of cowardice or defining courage. These are all in question as one reads Pugh’s story.

Through it all, you see the mind of a young and innocent man grappling with the brutal reality of day-to-day living in the infantry in the Vietnam War.

In the end this is eulogy for Johnny Pugh all of his fellow infantrymen who served in the Vietnam War.

—Bud Alley

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