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.