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

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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.

Pugh

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

Jellybeans in the Jungle by Bob Whittaker

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When Bob Whittaker was a student in the sixties, his sympathies were with the antiwar movement. He was working as a primary school teacher in western Queensland in Australia when he was drafted into the Aussie army in 1969.

In his memoir, Jellybeans in the Jungle: From Teacher to NASHO and Back (EIEIO, 165 pp., $32, AUD, hardcover; $7.50, AUD, e book), we learn the details of recruit training, after which Whittaker was assigned to the 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, which deployed to Vietnam in 1970.

Whittaker describes his service in Vietnam which included deadly encounters with the enemy as well as humdrum service in the rear where he worked as a projectionist—a job he’d learned as a civilian teacher on a similar Bell and Howell machine. We also learn a lot about R & R in Bangkok.

Whittaker writes about his re-entry problems after coming home to Australia. He encountered many of the same sorts of prejudices that Americans did when they returned home from the Vietnam War. He had no brass band waiting for him in Toowoomba.

Whittaker says that in the book he focuses mostly on the lighter aspects of his tour of duty. But he also describes incidents of friendly fire and includes a discussion of the effects of carpet bombing on the indigenous population, as well as details about Agent Orange and what it did to the people and environment in Vietnam—and what it did to him personally. He is convinced that one of his offspring was born dead due to his extreme exposure to the highly toxic defoliant.

“More than thirty-five years later, in the summer storm season at my home in Toowoomba, the sound of distant thunder reminds me of the rumbling sound of B-52s carpet bombing suspected North Vietnamese concentrations,” Whittaker writes.

Whittaker in the jungle

I was especially interested in the comments he makes about the ARVN being not good soldiers and that there were “some very good American units.” He goes on to say, though, that he didn’t “trust the Americans after witnessing a live-fire demo” during his first week in-country.

The jellybeans of the title (and featured on the cover) do appear in the book, but how they appear is too complicated to explain here. Buy this fine book and read more about jellybeans than anyone needs to know.

For ordering info, go to the book’s website, jellybeansinthejungle.blogspot.com

—David Willson

Brother Brother by Dan Duffy

In Brother Brother: A Memoir (May Day Publishers, 300 pp. $12.99, paper: $2.99, Kindle) Dan Duffy tries to reconnect with his older brother Rich who vanished in 1970.

Dan Duffy recreates his brother’s disappearance by taking the reader on a road trip across the United States. He ends the coast-to-coast journey by describing a rock concert he attended at the Atlantic City Racetrack (held two weeks prior to Woodstock, but just as wild) and an antiwar rally in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco before trying to resolve the mystery of Rich’s departure.

Dan Duffy says his story is “mostly true, part fiction” and written from memory. That’s why it might help to suspend disbelief when reading his book. Much of the story evolved from a journal that Rich Duffy wrote in 1970 while driving cross-country with his girlfriend, after which he disappeared. The journal provides a broad foundation for Dan Duffy’s imagination.

Rich’s spirit accompanies Dan on the trip. They “discuss” the rigors of life and listen to songs from the era to match the moods of their talks. At one point, Dan asks himself, “Was I really traveling with my missing brother or was I going crazy talking to his voice in my head?”

The book fits into two literary categories: road trip adventure and coming-of-age tale in which, through many flashbacks, a younger brother reflects on lessons passed down from an older sibling.

Dan Duffy

Rich Duffy served as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War and returned home to face PTSD. The accounts of his combat experiences do not reveal anything new about the war and have a secondhand tone. After the war, he lived a hippie lifestyle guided by a belief in God.

After tracing his brother’s tracks over five thousand miles from New Jersey to New Mexico by way of California, Dan Duffy says, “I wanted to be just like my older brother Rich. Although this changed over the years, I am still trying to understand the impact he had on my life.”

—Henry Zeybel

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

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Kristin Hannah has published a long list of well-received, best-selling novels, most with strong female characters. Her latest, The Great Alone (St. Martin’s Press, 448 pp. $28.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), is no exception. Two people, a mother and daughter, are at the center of the novel. They revolve around the main male character, who is one of the most dangerous and seriously damaged Vietnam veterans in modern popular American fiction.

He beats his wife; he beats his lovely, thirteen-year-old daughter. These were hard scenes to read for this Vietnam veteran, damaged to an extent by my time in the military and having been raised by a Marine Corps veteran of Iwo Jima.

The Allbright family becomes convinced—or at least Ernt, the damaged veteran, does—that moving to Alaska will be the way for him to deal with his demons. Or to leave them behind in an America that he no longer wants to be a part of—and that seems to want no part of him.

It’s said repeatedly in the novel that Vietnam changed Ernt or that it broke him. He needs to be fixed, but there is no program set up to fix him. He refuses to deal with the VA, even to try to get a disability check. He’s too proud and haughty for that. He received medals during his tour in Vietnam, but Hannah makes little of that.

Hippies and peace freaks have taken over America and Ernt is characterized as a “baby killer.”  In a speech early in the novel, he says:  “I just want… more, I guess. Not a job. A life. I want to walk down the street and not have to worry about being called a baby-killer.  I want…” Hannah does not give Ernt the ability to state what he wants or needs, except that he is convinced that Alaska will be the place for him to have freedom and peace of mind.

The Allbright family arrives in Alaska completely unprepared for coping with the situation they find themselves in, unskilled in all the ways they need to survive. They find danger at every turn: bears; cold, deep icy rivers; not much food; and even less money.

People try hard to help them, but Ernt is not the sort who does well with getting help, nor with asking for help. His way of dealing with frustration is to anoint the problem with alcohol. He self-medicates at the slightest provocation.

His wife Leni and daughter Cora begin to wonder if they will survive in Alaska with Ernt as part of their family. They struggle for years, but eventually choose an extreme solution to their problem.

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Kristin Hannah

I found the novel engrossing and in some parts so tense that I had to close the book and catch my breath before continuing to read. Ernt is a realistically drawn Vietnam War veteran, one very much like several I have known well.

He is a veteran I avoided becoming, but if my circumstances had been different during my tour, I could imagine becoming that sort of veteran. Even having worked a rear-echelon job failed to prepare me to re-enter America effortlessly and with any kind of grace or equanimity.

Read this book and see if you recognize yourself or a friend in the character of Ernt. It could very well be the case.

The author’s website is kristinhannah.com

—David Willson