Marc Levy’s The Best of Medic in the Green Time: Writings from the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath (Winter Street Press, 563 pp. $24, paper) is a kaleidoscopic book of stories written by Levy and others. Kaleidoscopically, these colorful stories burst out in all directions. They’re collected from a website that Levy, who served as a medic with the First Cavalry Division in the Vietnam War, started in 2007.
The stories, poems, essays, recollections, and reflections are divided into three sections: War, Poetry, and Postwar. There are more than seventy stories in all, three-fourths written by Levy.
Here is some of what we encounter in the opening section on the Vietnam War. A casualty of friendly fire, the first man Levy has to patch up. How to make morning GI coffee. Inflated body counts. Souvenirs taken from the dead. Medals awarded to appease grieving families. Coincidences that save lives. Men voluntarily returning to the war because they missed the adrenaline rush.
Several stories describe extreme combat at a personal level. A buddy dying in Levy’s arms. The attacking Viet Cong dressed only in loin cloths. Men giving themselves self-inflicted wounds to try to keep from returning to combat.
The poems are a mixed bag; some of the best are written by Levy. In “He Would Tell You,” for example, he writes:
Let me never tell you
Things you cannot know
Let me never tell you
Things that won’t let go.
“Portrait of a Young Girl at Dawn” ends with:
They haul her in.
Beneath the whirling blades
She is spinning, spinning
She is floating away.
“Dead Letter Day,” begins: “He sent the letter to the guy’s wife/The same day,/Leaving out the following:”
We then learn the truth of the man’s death. Things his widow must never know.
One of the best poems, by Tom Laaser, is “Things I Think About at 11:11 on November the 11th”. In it, a man is attending yet another program for vets in a high-school auditorium and he’s conflicted. He senses that he does not want to be a veteran,
But the second that god damn flag is unfurled
And that crappy high school band strikes up you
Give way to unyielding patriotism of the highest degree.
I bled for this
You want to scream.
I am a veteran. This is MY country. I earned this freedom.
The third part, “Postwar,” includes a small section on combat humor, as well as one on how to talk to college students about the war, and one on the symptoms and treatments of PTSD because, as Levy writes, “Whatever you did in war will always be with you.” An especially interesting section includes comments from dozens of veterans describing what they think when some well-meaning person says, “Thank you for your service.”
It’s a phrase Levy considers to be “petty.”
This is a great book because of the well-written variety of stories and topics Levy covers. It’s also great because of how it’s put together. There is no reason to read the more than seventy chapters in order. Dig in and skip around any way you choose.
The Eagle On My Arm: How the Wilderness and Birds of Prey Saved a Veteran’s Life (University Press of Kentucky, 218 pp. $26.95, hardcover and e book) by Dava Guerin and the late Terry Bivens is the story of the life of Patrick Bradley. And what a story it is.
Bradley, who is in his early 70s, is one of the founders of the Avian Veteran Alliance, a program that uses birds of prey as a form of therapy for military veterans and others coping with chronic physical and emotional trauma. This type of animal-assisted therapy often uses large birds that have been seriously injured, making them wounded warriors as well.
Bradley served in the Vietnam War as a Green Beret in a team whose main job was to infiltrate enemy lines for information-gathering purposes. The authors describe how his team experienced high casualty rates on its dangerous forays into North Vietnam. “Out of his original team of sixteen, only three would survive, and two of them would commit suicide within a few years.”
Bradley returned from Vietnam as an explosively angry young man. Several incidents nearly landed him in the stockade at Fort Leavenworth. His first post-military job involved counting bald eagles in the Canadian wilderness. For three years he worked alone, using his Army survival training and experience in Vietnam as he lived off the land. Only a few weeks after he started observing the eagles Patrick Bradley found his anger issues had dissipated.
He moved on, and spent a few years working odd jobs at wildlife centers and preserves, where he found himself drawn to hawks. Bradley noted that working with a wounded bird seemed to calm both him and the animal. His personal life didn’t improve, though, as he continued to experience occasional violent, PTSD-fueled outbursts. Each failed relationship would cause him to get closer to his birds as he tried to fight the demons he continued to face.
As Bradley eventually felt a sense of healing from his relationships with several large birds, he began working with a VA hospital and became one of the founders of the Avian Veteran Alliance in Florida. That program has helped helping thousands of veterans with PTSD and others who have been through major illnesses.
The authors wrap up their book with the following words: “To live one’s life on one’s own terms, to touch others through passion and perseverance, to be fearless of rejection and hopeful that our better angels will prevail: that is the story of Patrick Bradley’s life.”
It was great to read a story about a man who was filled with anger and fear upon his return from the war in Vietnam, but learned to harness his emotions and go on to help thousands come to terms with the darkest times in their lives.
Bison Books at the University Nebraska Press’ American Indian Lives series contains autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs of Native Americans selected for their anthropological and historical interest and literary merit. The latest addition to this treasure trove is Too Strong to Be Broken: The Life of Edward J. Driving Hawk by Edward J. Driving Hawk and Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve (Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, 200 pp. $27.95, hardcover and Kindle).
The authors—brother and sister—wrote the book five years ago when Edward Driving Hawk reached the age of 80. They tell the story of his life in three psychologically and physically demanding sections.
A Lakota Indiana born in South Dakota in 1935, two years after his sister’s birth, Edward Driving Hawk lived an outdoor boyhood with plenty of hunting, fishing, and trapping. Accepting Great Depression hardships and periodic segregation from white people, Edward fondly remembers close relationships with his parents and grandparents who taught him tribal traditions that guided his behavior. He primarily attended federal government schools until the age of seventeen, then enlisted in the Air Force.
Twenty years of military service filled the middle of his life. Trained as a Forward Observer, he saw action in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He loved guiding B29s and fighter-bombers from a front-line position against masses of North Korean troops—until they shot him through the leg.
Edward returned to the United States in 1955 and married Carmen Boyd, his high school sweetheart. They raised four sons and a daughter.
During the Cold War, he worked Distant Early Warning (DEW) lines at NORAD operations from Alaska to Ontario, Canada. He attained flying status and engaged in low-level EC-121 missions over Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis, and special flights over Panama, Hawaii, and Alaska.
His account of the 156 missions he flew in EC-121 surveillance aircraft during three six-month tours in Vietnam provided new information for me and made exceptionally interesting reading.
In referencing those years, Edward repeatedly says, “I drank but was still able to do my job.” Yet he also writes of “uncountable blackouts.”
He was not a special case. According to my recollections of the USAF in the fifties and sixties, drinking was the favorite pastime among military personnel. Too many simply did not know what else to do during off-duty hours, and officer, NCO, and airman clubs became second homes. After 14 years of alcoholism—and under the threat of being discharged from the Air Force— Edward Driving Hawk joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He’s been sober for more than 40 years.
Events of his post-military life back in South Dakota comprise the most dynamic section of his memoir. He attained the rank of Chief in the Roseland Sioux tribe and then chairman of the National Congress of American Indians—a united voice for all the tribes of the United States. He befriended senators; presidents befriended him.
He details his vigorous work on behalf of Indian causes, although too often with limited success. He ran afoul of the FBI, was undercut by his associates, and wound up serving eight months in federal prison. At the same time, Edward endured bouts of Post-traumatic stress disorder and developed cancer as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. After many operations, today he must use a wheelchair.
The value of this book is that it offers a broad view of American society from a member of a small minority. Edward and Virginia recount the good and bad aspects of an unusual life and he takes responsibility for his actions, including those that he most regrets. A dozen photographs and a Driving Hawk family tree enhance his narrative.
Psychologist Shauna Springer’s Warrior: How to Support Those Who Protect Us (Armin Lear Press, 308 pp. $15.95, paper; $10.99, Kindle), is a well-constructed offering that could be the syllabus for a college psychology course, as well as a how-to primer for those involved in the emotional support and care of veterans. It is a well-reasoned and well-presented review of, and argument for, a different way of addressing the needs of today’s veterans. Throughout, Springer stresses that what she advocates also applies to first responders and police—the people who protect the rest of us.
It’s a short book with 14 pages of excellent end-notes and a 24-page section called “Tools for Application,” in which Springer offers questions and discussion topics to be used in conjunction with each of the ten chapters.
Early in her book Springer talks about her classroom training as well as her on-the-job experiences down in the dirt with fighters, and her well-earned nickname, Doc Springer. She explains that trust is an important factor in treating and helping veterans. In many instances, she says, those who have been in wars have small windows of trust after returning home from wars.
Springer draws upon years of experience in private and institutional practice, a good measure of it with the Department of Veterans Affairs. One of her specialties is current treatment options and protocols for the conditions that potentially lead to veteran suicides. It’s an electric thread that she weaves throughout her book, in which Springer also writes about innovative treatments. Many of her chapters could stand alone, almost as pamphlets.
Springer writes about universal principles she has developed during her career. She does not use the word “hero.” Instead she advocates using the words “veteran,” “soldier,” “service member,” “first responder,” and “warfighter” to describe her patients, because that’s the way they see themselves.
This is a book that should be required reading for all veterans and those who work with them. The information in this booksneeds to be known by all who care.
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.