Donut Dollies in Vietnam by Nancy Smoyer

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“I’d rather be heard than comforted,” Nancy Smoyer writes near the end of Donut Dollies in Vietnam: Baby-Blue Dresses & OD Green (Chopper Books, 250 pp., $15.00, paper). By that point in the book, Smoyer has fulfilled that goal in this memoir that looks at her time in South Vietnam during the war and its aftermath.

The core of Smoyer’s book describes the pride and dedication she developed toward servicemen as a Donut Dolly in Vietnam in 1967-68. “I still refer to it as the best year of my life,” she writes, “and the worst.”

Smoyer was one of 627 women in the Red Cross Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas program, which lasted from 1965-72. The largest number of women in-country at one time, she tells us, was 109 in 1969. All of them were college grads and volunteers. They inherited the nickname “Donut Dollies” from Red Cross workers who performed similar duties in Europe during World War II.

The women worked throughout South Vietnam. They took helicopter to the most forward positions. Their chores varied from serving 3:00 a.m. breakfasts to men girding for at-dawn assaults, to organizing C-ration picnics, to playing made-up games. Talking to the troops for any length of time, Smoyer says, “is the most satisfying part of the job. When we go to the field we just talk to the guys as they work.”

She was twenty-five years old. “We were there to boost the morale of the troops, plain and simple,” Smoyer explains. “Everything I did revolved around the men, and I don’t regret a minute of it.”

Being in-country and exposed to the same threats as the men in uniform, Donut Dollies encountered common war and post-war problems. After coming home Smoyer suffered PTSD, predicated on survival guilt, which was compounded by her brother’s death in action a few months after she returned to the United States.

On a visit to Vietnam in 1993, Smoyer says she overcame her PTSD by learning compassion for the Vietnamese—something that she had not allowed herself to feel before.

The second half of the book deals with post-war events. Many scenes involve emotional encounters at The Wall where Smoyer began serving as a volunteer guide shortly after its 1982 dedication. “Those days when emotions were raw, none of us knew how to act,” she says, “but we connected on such a deep and immediate level.”

Over the years, Smoyer extended her volunteer work to many other areas dealing with veterans. Serving in Vietnam gave her life its ultimate purpose.

111111111111111111111111111111111She closes the book with letters in tribute to her brother—a Marine lieutenant—from his teachers, coaches, and friends.

While telling her story, Smoyer makes references to the experiences of many other former Donut Dollies. She has maintained contact with them through email, letters, tapes, reunions, musings, and conversations.

Like Nancy Smoyer, they have a lasting commitment to helping veterans.

Smoyer is donating proceeds from the sale of her books to the Semper Fi Fund.

—Henry Zeybel

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The Odyssey of Echo Company by Doug Stanton

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Doug Stanton’s The Odyssey of Echo Company: The 1968 Tet Offensive and the Epic Battle of Echo Company to Survive the Vietnam War (Scribner, 337 pp. $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) centers on the author’s quest to help former infantryman Stan Parker answer the most pressing question of his life: “What happened to me in Vietnam?”

In an effort to deal with his post-war emotional problems, Parker sought to find meaning for himself and his fellow U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division soldiers who were killed and wounded during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Days after graduating from high school in 1966, Parker enlisted in the Army. He won jump wings and learned long-range reconnaissance skills. In December 1967, as a volunteer, he arrived in Vietnam, turned twenty, and was assigned to a recon platoon in Echo Company of the 1st Battalion in the 101st’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. The small unit, he says, was “supposed to be the eyes and ears of the battalion, to find the enemy, to probe, size up, and report to the battalion so that the line companies—the ‘line doggies,’ the other grunt soldiers—can come in and fight.”

The recon platoon operated near Cu Chi in the Iron Triangle. For six months, Parker says, “Nothing ever changes, and yet nothing ever is the same.” He went out on many patrols until he was wounded for the third time in May 1968.

Much of the book focuses on killing and remorse, killing and sorrow, and more killing—and pain. Friends and foe alike suffer. By recording grotesque incidents told to him by Parker and other Echo troops, Stanton (the author of the bestsellers In Harm’s Way and Horse Soldiers) captures the essence of Vietnam War combat.

With chilling, detailed accounts, Stanton shows the disintegration of the minds of men repeatedly exposed to injury and death. Anguish, grief, hate, and sorrow filled their days. Shredding other men with gunfire, they rued their task while knowing it was their salvation: kill or be killed. They recognized their actions as counter-intuitive behavior of man toward his fellow man.

Guilt created conflict in the minds of many Echo Company men. Despite their heroic actions, Parker and others questioned the reasons for the war. At the same time the men built a brotherhood, akin to being in “a new fraternity.” Still, those associations did not last beyond the war.

Based on many firefights described in the book, one could call Parker the consummate warrior. He had total intensity toward a mission. He ignored vulnerability and pain. Best of all, he reacted creatively to apparently unsolvable problems.

“War is really about elimination—eliminating, erasing, wasting, greasing, making nonexistent,” he says. “You kill the other guy, until there are more of you than there are of them.”

For several years, Parker’s post-war life was nearly as violent as his time in Vietnam. As a civilian, he reacted to physical threats with unreserved violence.

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Doug Stanton

Parker and Stanton returned to Vietnam in 2013, with Parker still filled with guilt and questions about his and his unit’s role in the war. They visit places where Parker was wounded. Surprisingly, they befriend a former enemy soldier who fought at one of the sites. That brief encounter created a bonding to help Parker find a modicum of relief from the PTSD that had pursued him after the war.

The book developed from a long acquaintanceship between Stan Parker and Doug Stanton. At its heart, it is Parker’s memoir of the start of his military career based on his own words, along with Stanton’s interviews with other Echo Company soldiers, letters from the time, and official reports and records.

The realistic writing style of The Odyssey of Echo Company flows easily and should appeal to military nonfiction fans.

The author’s website is www.dougstanton.com

—Henry Zeybel

Ali’s Bees By Bruce Olav Solheim

Bruce Solheim is a distinguished professor of history at Citrus College in Glendora, California.  He served six years in the U.S. Army as a jail guard and as a helicopter pilot. He founded the Veterans Program at Citrus College, and teaches Vietnam War-related history classes.

The three kids in Solheim’s children’s book, Ali’s Bees (CreateSpace, 142 pp., $9.89, paper; $2.99, Kindle)—Ali, Lupe and Jenks— learn how to cooperate on a science project. Ali wishes he could feel at home in Los Angeles with his beekeeper grandfather with whom he went to live after his parents were killed in a terrorist attack in Iraq.

Ali has PTSD related to that terrorist attack he survived, but his family did not, except for his grandfather. His grandfather has Ali work with bees as therapy for his PTSD. Ali works with Lupe, a classroom friend, and with Jenks, a bully. Jenks has problems of his own as his father is confined to a wheelchair because of wartime injuries. The horrors of war live on every page of this book.

Some of the five illustrations by Gabby Untermayerova of Jenks’ father in his wheelchair brought tears to my eyes. Full disclosure: Often these days I am in a wheelchair, too.

This book can entertain and benefit all ages of readers. It can also teach how to try to overcome the ill-effects of war, effects that are with us always and everywhere.

The book is positive and healing, but it is also realistic. It never becomes maudlin or descends into didacticism. It is beautifully written and on some pages borders on poetry.

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I loved the book and would use it in class if I were still teaching about the horrors of war.

Thanks to Bruce Solheim and Gabby Untermayerova for conspiring to produce this fine book dealing with the impact of war on the human heart.

—David Willson

 

Raeford’s MVP by Rick DeStafanis

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Raeford’s MVP (CreateSpace, 452 pp., 16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the third Vietnam War-themed novel by Rick DeStefanis, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1970-72.  We reviewed the previous books—Melody Hill and The Gomorrah Principle on these pages.

This book focuses on Billy Coker, who is 19 years old and erving in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam during the war. He left behind the love of his life, the chubby Bonnie Jo Parker, in Raeford, Mississippi. Bonnie happens to have an amazing voice and a pretty face, the way many big girls in small American towns do.  She gives him a good luck piece to wear. Spoiler alert: It does the trick.

When Billy arrives back home, he struggles with psychological problems and with connecting with his old friends. Some of his best friends make an effort to help him, a very good thing.

But the war becomes Billy’s life and he has a terrible problem shaking it off. The fog of battle gets a mention. So does John Wayne.  And Puff the Magic Dragon. Agent Orange is not ignored.

Billy finds a honkytonk that has an “old Son House tune on the jukebox.”  I would love to find that place. I’ve never encountered Son House on a jukebox.  Wilson Pickett sings “Land of a 1000 Dances,” and Jane Fonda gets kicked around years before she takes her trip to North Vietnam.

DeStefanis has written an honorable book that will hold most readers’ attention.

The author’s website is rickdestefanis.com

—David Willson

Rescued from Vietnam by Michael Hosking

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Michael Hosking’s Rescued from Vietnam: A Veteran’s Recovery from PTSD (Xlibris, 258 pp. $32.25, hardcover; $21.77, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is a friendly reminder that Americans did not singlehandedly fight the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in the Vietnam War. Hosking’s memoir is based on his Vietnam War 1967 tour of duty with the 7th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment.

Operating from Nui Dat as an infantryman, Hosking took part in many futile search and destroy missions that paralleled American operations. Friends were killed and wounded. He felt great concern for the upheavals and disrespect inflicted upon the civilian population.

The first half of the book deals with Hosking’s military service, including training. By citing a string of episodes about manly confrontations that morphed into friendships during the rigors of training, he convincingly shows how strangers can became brothers. These friendships fortified the men’s performance in combat.

In arguing against war, he made a point new to me: Australians had to be twenty years old before they were drafted into the military. He faults America for sending men as young as eighteen into battle, contending that two years constitutes “a big difference in emotional and physical maturity.” It makes the younger man significantly more vulnerable to psychological problems, Hosking says.

His writing style raises the book above the level of just another story about a soldier screwed up by war. Hosking’s voice is entertaining because he uses a lot of Aussie slang, with some words and phrases derived from Cockney. Although he includes a Glossary of Aussie Slang, he occasionally uses words not in the glossary, which requires a touch of interpretation by the reader. Nevertheless, reading him is far easier than listening to a Scotsman.

Hosking has a talent for blending stories from the past with the one he currently is telling. For example, when writing about events in Vietnam, he unobtrusively recalls pertinent moments from his youth. Similarly, when traveling around the world, he enhances what he sees by interjecting regional history from centuries earlier.

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Elizabeth & Michael Hosking

The second half of Rescued from Vietnam deals with Hosking’s chaotic return to civilian life when, he says, “I had forgotten how to think straight.” Initially, every relationship ended in turmoil.

He found temporary happiness as a stage performer, but then wandered aimlessly throughout Europe and Asia. Along the way, he studied the Bible and, in 1975, accepted Jesus, which made him “feel like [he] was engaged in life again.”

Hosking married, earned a degree in theology, and fathered three children. When his business career faltered in 1997, he found his true calling by going to Africa to work with orphans.

Michael Hosking’s willingness to reveal the pros and cons of his suffering and recovery from PTSD sets an example for everyone to follow. The lessons he learned still apply today.

The author’s website is rescuedfromvietnam.com

—Henry Zeybel

PTSD & Psalm Twenty-Three by Robert Scholten

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Robert Scholten’s Vietnam War experiences resurfaced in 2007 during six weeks of  VA therapy sessions. He has collected them in PTSD & Psalm Twenty-Three: Coming Up Out Of PTSD’s Trench (Westbow Press, 128 pp., $30.95, hardcover; $13.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle).

Scholten, who is a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, was troubled from minute one when he joined Charley Battery of the 4th Battalion, 60th Artillery attached to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam in September 1970. He immediately began counting down the days to the DEROS date on his long-timer calendar. He inscribed his personal mission on his boonie hat: “I’m a-going home – heaven or Chicago.”

Nicknamed “Preacher” because he constantly read his Bible, Scholten says he is “a praying man from a praying family.” His trust in God and his devotion to prayer and scriptural knowledge were central to his Vietnam War tour of duty.

Scholten came to learn that his emotional welfare was way down on his unit’s priority list, behind maintaining the Duster track vehicle, cleaning weapons, guarding the firebase, and placing crew members before self. He describes Charley Battery as “a tight-knit group who learned mutual trust and comradeship under extreme stress that would snap a civilian like a dry twig under a horse’s hoof.”

“Looking back forty-five years later, I have to admit that first night with my Unit had major impacts on my life,” he writes. During that first week Scholten couldn’t sleep, troubled by thoughts of his family praying for his safety and his own prayers centering on not having to “take a life.” Those thoughts and prayers “and Scripture readings started mingling with previous war movies and television shows” to keep him awake.

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Duster Gunner Robert Scholten completed his year in Vietnam thanking God that he had lost no members of his crew. PTSD was an unknown when he flew home.

Many years later, realizing he was “haunted” in the “PTSD trench,” Scholten writes, “I didn’t leave Vietnam alone, I brought my crew and Section members with me in my heart and soul. To this day I can see, taste, smell, feel, and hear the times we were in the Duster engaging the enemy.”

–Curt Nelson

One Step at a Time by Greg Burham

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In One Step at a Time: A Navy SEAL Vietnam Combat Veteran’s Journey Home: Including his Hike from Alaska to Mexico (Phoca Press, 214 pp., $85) we follow former Petty Officer Greg Burham from his discharge in 1972 as he decides to exchange combat boots for hiking boots.

Burham’s childhood set the direction for physical and mental tenacity, from marveling at a man who rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean to challenging himself with skill tests.  “I can say the seed was planted for me to take a long trip myself under my own power,” he writes. “Even as a very young person, doing physical or athletic things made me feel better about myself.”

Burham readily took on the “sink or swim” motto of intense Navy SEAL training and a subsequent seven-month tour of duty in the Vietnam War near Can Tho in the Mekong Delta beginning in late 1970. In 1972, Burham decided to leave the Navy after his four-year hitch. “Even as I was getting ready to muster out of service,” he says, “I still considered staying in and trying to get my degree at night.”

Burham faced unexpected barriers when he returned home to Kalispell, Montana. At the University of Montana he was confronted by another student who asked him how many kids he had killed, and who “thought it was terrible the government would give a baby killer money for college. I bit my tongue, but the words stung.”

In May 1974 he turned his thoughts to hiking from Alaska to Mexico into action. He postponed college, left his job, and sold his car. Burham’s boots hit the Alaskan tundra in July, launching a remarkable trek accentuated by natural beauty and the almost daily offers of rides (which he always declined), food or drink, hiking and camping advice, or just plain conversation with strangers he met on the trail.

There were times in which Burham enjoyed being alone with nature. “The sun was shining and the daisies were nodding in the breeze,” he wrote in his journal about one such occasion. “As much as I liked the company of the people I met along the way, I also enjoyed my solitude.”

Possibly an August item is the most significant entry in Burham’s log. He wrote: “My two month milestone marked a second event in my life. The next day, August 20, was six years since I had enlisted in the Navy. This was also officially my Discharge Day.” Alongside Gita Creek in Alberta, Canada, Burham reached life-altering decisions. He decided not to re-enlist in the Navy, and also reached an important emotional plateau. To wit: “Even though I came back to a country that was relentlessly negative to military veterans like me, on this day, I only felt a sense of satisfaction.”

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Burham trekking

 

While trekking, Burham’s diet varied from occasional home-cooked meals to small-town cafe fare, Dairy Queen ice cream, freeze-dried packs, and grocery store “pig-outs” including peanut butter, crackers, cupcakes, Grape-Nuts, powdered milk, and an arid turkey sandwich he consumed at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Climate surprises greeted the hiker many times. Approaching the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Burham wrote: “The weather changed every five minutes, from sun, to rain, to sleet, back to sun, and then rain again.” Then came one more physical challenge.

“It was a tiring 30 mile climb from the desert floor in Fredonia to the top of the Kaibab Plateau (at around 7,900 or 8,000 feet elevation), making for a long day.”

At his final step in Sonoyta, Mexico, he began a new life phase, starting a career as a youth counselor while dealing with his own PTSD. Married and the father of three, Burham, went to work for the VA, counseling veterans from World War II through the current war in Afghanistan, including Russian veterans, until his retirement in 2007.

—Curt Nelson