If there is someone who knows more about popular music and the Vietnam War than Doug Bradley does, please come to the head of the class. Bradley has immersed himself in what he and other troops listened to since he set foot in Vietnam in 1970. For years he taught a class at the University of Wisconsin called “The Vietnam Era: Music, Media, and Mayhem.”
What’s more, Bradley co-wrote, with Craig Werner, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War (2015), a compendium of all things Vietnam War-era music. “For anyone who wants to know about music and the Vietnam War, this is the book to read,” David Willson wrote in his VVA Veteran review of that book. Bradley and Werner “have given us a gift, a compendious book that looks at the music we rock-and-roll-generation Americans who served in the Vietnam War listened to.”
Doug Bradley’s latest book, Who’ll Stop the Rain: Respect, Remembrance and Reconciliation in Post-Vietnam America (Warriors Publishing Group, 258 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $14.95, paperback; $5.99, Kindle) picks up where the previous book left off—but also expands the subject broadly. The heart of Who’ll Stop the Rain is a detailed report on more than 100 book-and-music presentations around the country that Bradley—who was drafted into the Army in March 1970 and served for a year as an Army journalist at USRV headquarters in Long Binh—and Werner hosted following publication of their book.
What they found time after time at their presentations was that popular music bound together Baby Boomer Vietnam War veterans as well as those who did not serve—no matter what their political persuasions. “The music of the era,” Bradley writes, “can help ground us, get us out of the quagmire, by moving us away from [political] polarizations. Music truth is complex, an implicit recognition that no one voice can tell the whole story, that our public memory is inescapably plural.”
That became especially clear during the Q&A sessions following the presentations. His audiences, Bradley says, “didn’t do the usual griping or head shaking; instead, they listened, intently and respectfully, to what all sides had to say.” Nearly “every conversation eventually moved to somewhere in the middle, and, in the end to some type of communal healing, with every person who stood up and shared—veteran and non-veteran—feeling as if they had been heard.”
The issues that came up during the presentations ran the gamut of Vietnam War and postwar subjects. They included Agent Orange, PTSD, veterans’ homelessness, the VA’s Vet Centers, wannabes, Veterans’ Courts, The Wall and other Vietnam veterans memorials, and Vietnam War movies and books. Throughout the book Bradley intersperses first-person sections, told mainly by Vietnam War veterans, about those and other aspects of the war and veterans issues.
Along the way, Bradley takes care to highlight the postwar accomplishments of many Vietnam veterans, including writers and Vietnam veterans advocates. That group includes W.D. Ehrhart, Alfredo Vera, Karl Marlantes, Steve Piotrowski, Shad Meshad, Bob Fraser, John Ketwig, Kimo Williams, Chuck and Tom Hagel, Sue O’Neill, and Mary Reynolds Powell.
Their words are varied, powerful, and important. As is this book.
Robert Jewell’s memoir, Bleeding Spirits: A Combat Soldier’s Memoir of the Vietnam War (Sweetgrass, 189 pp. $19.58, paper), is an exceptional look at the effects of fighting in a war have on a combatant’s personality and behavior. Jewell’s directness when writing about the men he killed overwhelmed me for a short time. Then his attitude confirmed a self-evident truth: No apology is ever necessary for killing an enemy in war.
In this book Bob Jewell tells a deeply reflective and therapeutic story of his 416 days as a Vietnam War grunt with the Americal Division near Chu Lai. His reflexive talent for shooting enemy soldiers caused him consternation, which resulted in repeated personal re-evaluations. Despite self-punishing introspection, Jewell’s physical strength and mental acuity turned him into a consummate warrior.
In telling his story Jewell wastes no time with writing about his Army training. He takes the reader directly into combat and describes his first kill in minute detail—a North Vietnamese soldier who looked like a 15-year-old boy.
Draftee Jewell arrived in-country as a replacement at the onset of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Shortly before that, his company of 120 men was reduced to 17. He soon saw several killed and horribly maimed, he says, and “quickly morphed into a rage-filled savage.” Jewell describes this transition as “an automatic, almost normal change” that made him “lust for killing.” Grossly undermanned, his company nevertheless spent inordinate time in the field. One mission lasted 52 days.
Two of Jewell’s many battlefield experiences reached historic proportions. In the first, 10,000-15,000 North Vietnamese soldiers surrounded and captured Kham Duc in May 1968. In the second, his company walked into an overwhelming large NVA force and fought a night-long battle that devolved into “a firefight in an artillery barrage” with “gunfights at a range of four feet,” as Jewell puts it.
Wounded three times and hospitalized once during his 14-month tour, Jewell had dozens of other close calls. When facing what appeared to be imminent death, his mind all but shut down and recorded no memory of the event’s outcome. Those experiences created “fragments of mysterious free-floating images” that drifted in and out of his mind, he writes, “no more than mere ‘snapshot photos’ of faces or scenes providing me with no before-or-after context.” Those images lasted for decades.
What he experienced was too profound to ignore. The images created confusion that defied logic and reality, he says, and burdened him with post-traumatic stress. Despite living with PTSD, Bob Jewell enjoyed a distinguished thirty-year career as a teacher and counselor in Helena, Montana. In 2003, after a series of personal tragedies, he began a six-week inpatient program of “long, intense days and nights to reconcile critical secrets.”
Jewell’s analysis of his treatment for PTSD concludes that combat-induced trauma contains more questions than answers, and the restorative power of treatment has limitations. He accepts that many of his important experiences in the Vietnam War are lost to repressed memories.
“Rather than fight the memory,” he says, “I now try to accept is as a friendly reminder that I was one of the lucky ones to survive some of the worst combat shit possible.”
Bob Jewell in country, 1968
Bleeding Spirits contains 33 pages of Jewell’s letters that spoke truths to family members. In one, for example, he wrote:
“The gooks shot down a plane nearby, and we had to go to the rescue. We found the plane burning and exploding. The pilot was dead, cooked in fact, and we had to pull him out in pieces.”
Throughout the book, Jewell’s other stories are equally candid. They parallel the insanity of moments when, as he says, “Every rule of war, religion, and humanity was instantly obliterated. The non-rules of total chaos took over!!!”
He overlays this candidness with a thin coating of detachment that validates what he saw and did. I greatly admire him.
Robert E. Jewell died of cancer in 2017. His memoir is perfect testimony to warfare’s limitless destructiveness of body, mind, and spirit.
As Stephen Piotrowski makes clear in No Where Man: One Soldier’s Journey Home from Vietnam (450 pp. $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) being in combat for a year is emotionally and physically draining, and the experience of coming home can be no less traumatic and stressful. Piotrowski’s story is like that of countless young veterans who have returned home from a war and found it nearly impossible to let go of what had been an all-consuming time in their lives.
As I read about his struggles I thought that this is what many war veterans need to write, even if it’s just a personal journal, to externalize the emotions and get them out in the open to be dealt with, and ultimately put to rest.
The book starts during the author’s final days as an RTO with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam in 1970, and the beginnings of his alienation as he finds it difficult to decompress in the rear at his battalion’s base camp. From there, his emotions continually erupt as he transitions in little more than twenty-four hours from the war zone to a very, very different world back home.
Anyone coming home from war will recall many of the same feelings and experiences Piotrowski, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, describes as he reluctantly prepared to leave his combat buddies and return to a country where he no longer fit in. Adding to the confusion back home were family and friends who appeared to have little or no interest in what he had undergone or was now going through.
An RTO in the field in Vietnam
One of the most mindless questions he heard again and again—just as many of us have—was, “Did you kill anybody?”
Aside from a brother who had returned from combat the year before, there was practically no one to help him sort out his confusion and alienation. A car mechanic who had been in the Korean War said it was the same for him when he returned. What made it worse was the contemptuous attitude of many World War II veterans who dismissed Korea as a nothing war. That same attitude would be experienced by many of us coming home from Vietnam; hence the founding principle of Vietnam Veterans of America: Never Again Will One Generation of Veterans Abandon Another.
It’s difficult to believe that those who had known war would reject returning war veterans who needed their support. For the author nearly everything seemed so bewildering. Even everyday sounds and sights took on ominous meanings in his mind.
I read each page carefully to catch all his take-aways as confusing sensations arose from things happening to and around him. I kept recalling similar moments that I had when I came home from my war. I can still remember well my involuntary reaction when I was walking to college classes and heard the high-pitched noise of metal on metal made by worn-out brakes. The sound was nearly identical to the final seconds of incoming North Vietnamese artillery rounds fired at us day and night during the battle for Khe Sanh. Who on campus could possibly imagine what was going through my mind at that moment?
Piotrowski in country
This book doesn’t attempt to explain the Vietnam War or describe the battles that were fought. It’s an every-man’s account of one young soldier trying to come to grips with his war and then struggling to bring closure to it.
In the end, Stephen Piotrowski realized that the first giant step for him to leave the war behind was to take control of his life and not wait for others to make the decisions.
What the F*** Was That All About? (136 pp. A15 Publishing. $9.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the unfortunate title of a short novel by Tom Barber aimed at helping veterans deal with demons they sometimes battle for decades after their military service has ended. I really liked this book, but believe it would be better served with a different, equally creative title. This one is an attention-getter, but I fear it might cause some people to avoid the book.
Barber—who also is an artist specializing in fantasy and science fiction paintings—served as a U.S. Army medic during the Vietnam War.
The back cover tells us the story is going to be about a troubled veteran who is close to the edge of suicide until another vet shows him a better way. It also prepares us to deal with the concept of moral injury, in which a soul can be wounded when his or her basic understanding of right and wrong is blown away by war.
The main character, Eric, is a high-school art teacher in Boston who decides one day to join the Army because he is “searching for adventure” during the time of one of our most-recent wars. Looking back, he says he “turned out to be a half-decent warrior.” That phrase struck me because I think it’s how many of us regular guys feel after we’ve gone through Basic Training, advanced training, and a few months in a war zone–that we were “half-decent warriors.”
Eric receives a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Once his military time is over, it’s not long before he has picked up three drunk-and-disorderly charges. Despite that, he gets his old teaching job back. But then flashbacks of his combat experiences begin to kick in. Eric goes through ten more years of drinking during which he loses his job and is divorced by his wife.
He reads somewhere that “if you’ve never really thought about suicide, you haven’t lived a full life.” So Eric takes this to the next step and decides that if you think about taking yourself out your life would then be complete—as long as you don’t actually do it. Talk about a Catch-22. This thinking leads him to decide to drink a beer for breakfast and visit Mitchell’s Place, a one-room veterans center, for some possible counseling.
Eric eventually begins to bond with Mitchell and conversations ensue over matters such as why conflict is so much a part of human history, the tenets of Buddhism, and even the possible role of ancient astronauts. No matter what the subject matter, Barber’s dialogue always seems natural and unforced. But these discussions fail to resolve one of Eric’s worst recurring flashbacks, which involves a child.
Before long Eric struggles to quit drinking, begins keeping a journal, and starts delivering pizza. Then come relapses. Then art therapy and meditation. The struggle to be well continues, as does the desire to get there.
There are several illustrations by the author throughout the book and contact info in the back for Vet Centers throughout the U.S. This would be a great book to be placed in each one of those centers.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.