The Hardest Part by Bruce I. McDaniel

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Bruce McDaniel enlisted in the Army in September 1967 and spent a year as a medic with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam. He wrote about that experience in a 2016 memoir, Walk Through the Valley: The Spiritual Journey of a Vietnam War Medic, which we reviewed on these pages.

In  Homecoming Stories from the Vietnam War (Lulu.com, 64 pp., $8, paper) McDaniel uses those experiences to create a group of short stories that explore his feelings about the challenges of returning to America after his tour of duty. He did not anticipate the troubles he would encounter.

McDaniel’s service as a medic saving lives in the Vietnam War did not make him popular in the civilian world when he returned home.  Some of the stories he uses to explore what it is like to be back deal with a Vietnam veteran on leave who chooses to travel in his uniform because of the advantages he thought that would give him as a traveler.

The story I appreciated most was about a veteran who enrolls in college with his war wound dogging him, but not a wound that is readily identifiable. He lacks one eye, which was damaged by a tiny piece of shrapnel. He’s actually told by a fellow student that it served him right for being in Vietnam.

Nobody has told me that about my Agent Orange-connected disability, but the world has changed a lot since 1968. The story made me wonder, though, if the occasional person might have that thought. It wouldn’t surprise me.

These stories frequently provoked me to fits of thinking, which is what one hopes for from good fiction. There are far fewer than seventy-five pages is this little book, but it packs a punch.

In fact, it packs several punches, and I highly recommend it to all veterans. I believe the stories would be especially helpful to read and discussed by a group of veterans dealing with stubborn, painful issues that have refused to fly away into the clouds.

I appreciate that Bruce McDaniel used his memories and imagination to produce these powerful stories.

—David Willson

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How Stevie Nearly Lost the War by Marc Levy

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Marc Levy served as a medic in the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970. How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and other Postwar Stories (Winter Street Press, 154 pp. $12, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a small book of powerful short stories and essays that hits like a hand grenade ignited in a closet full of secrets.

Full disclosure: I was a stenographer in Vietnam, so I don’t really know exactly what happened out in the field. Imagining that grenade blast is as close as I wish to get to it.

The special power of language is immediately apparent in the book’s first two stories in which Marc Levy pulls no punches. These stories, in fact, are a punch in the gut.

Here, for example, are a few lines from the beginning of “The Thing They Will Always Carry”:

VA Shrink:  Were you in Vietnam?

Vietnam Vet:  Yes.

VA Shrink:  When were you there?

Vietnam Vet:  Last night.

Yes. He was there last night. I totally get that. I was a steno in Vietnam, and when I napped briefly this afternoon, I was back there. I was not typing or taking shorthand. I was interviewing a black guy in Long Binh Jail. Did I ever do that? Yes. But it was much scarier in my dream than it had been in real life—if that is what my tour of duty in Vietnam was.

In his book Levy describes a “safe rear job” in his story “Meeting the New Lieutenant.”  He writes of “clean clothes, showers, real beds, reinforced bunkers, fresh food.” All of that is true. Levy doesn’t mention that the water we showered with was saturated with Agent Orange. Just a small thing to overlook, but there it is.

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Marc Levy in Vietnam

Marc Levy’s great talent is his ability to reach the reader at a personal, intimate level with his poetic whispers and shouts. We are lucky he has chosen to take the time to communicate with us.

His book speaks to all who read it. Please do so.

You owe it to yourself and to your loved ones.

—David Willson

The author’s website is medicinthegreentime.com

Foreign Correspondent by Patricia L. Mosure and Stephen G. Patten

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Foreign Correspondent: A Journalist’s True Story by Patricia L. Mosure and Stephen G. Patten (Lee and Grant International, 401 pp., $17.95, paper) focuses on Patten’s experiences over a forty-year period. He served as a Captain in the Marine Corps from 1962-68, including a short tour (three weeks) in Vietnam in 1967. He then was a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, the Far East, and Central America. The authors also devote one chapter to the current war on terror.

Steve Patten and  co-author Mosure also recount their meeting a Catholic nun, Sister Linh, who was running an orphanage in South Vietnam. She told Patten that “if the Communists come, they will kill me.” In 1975, with the fall of South Vietnam imminent, Patten flew there to try and rescue Sister Lihn. The mission failed and he never saw her again.

That incident spurred Patten’s interest in the POW-MIA issue. Several chapters are devoted to discussing the 83,120 who remain missing from World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Cold War. and Gulf War. Especially poignant are the stories of five returned POWs: Angelo Donati (Laos), Ed DeMattos and Phil Nadler (World War II), and Paul Galanti (Vietnam).

The book gives a realistic view of what life as a foreign correspondent entails. The authors’ stories include accounts of South Vietnamese refugees (the boat people) fleeing communist rule, the Plain of Jars in Laos, Pope John Paul’s visit to South Korea, guerrillas in El Salvador,and interviews with Mother Teresa and India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

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Steve Patten

Several chapters are devoted to Patten’s struggle to clear his name after being fired in 1984 by CBS following allegations that he was a CIA agent. Patten worked briefly for NBC, but was fired again when the CIA rumors resurfaced.

The authors suggest the CIA rumor was planted by the Israelis to discredit him because of his critical reporting of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. The book follows Patten’s fight all the way to the CBS Board of Directors in 1990, but does not reveal if a settlement was reached.

I found this book very interesting and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in war reporting, POW/MIAs, and the history of our most recent wars.

—Mark S. Miller

 

The Jake Fischer Stories by Stewart Bird

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Stewart Bird, the author of The Jake Fischer Stories (Dog Ear Publishing, 176 pp., $12.97, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a novelist (Murder at the Yeshiva), a TV documentary writer/producer (The Wobblies, Coming Home, et al.), and a member of Vietnam Veterans of America.  I suspect his military history is similar to that of the stories’ protagonist, Jack Fischer.

Bird has produced a baker’s dozen of short stories of varying lengths with the protagonist Jake Fischer, as the title indicates.  Jake is drafted into the Army and ends up as a psychiatric social worker at the Michigan Army Hospital during the Vietnam War.

Some of the titles of the stories are:  “Basic,” “The  War at Home,” “Coming Home,” and “Chicago 68.” The stories reflect the titles. All are interesting and well-written. “Basic” takes place in the fall of 1965 at Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn and then moves to Fort Dix in New Jersey. “They took everyone with a heartbeat,” Bird writes.

The story “War at Home” is mostly about drugs. Bird refers to Robert S. MacNamara as “the systems analyst who planned and ran the Vietnam War:  The face of death.” He certainly captures my feelings about the man.

The reader gets references to LBJ and how many kid he killed today, as well as to Scarface, Full Metal Jacket, Ron Kovic, Bob Dylan, Catch-22, and President Nixon looking like a cattle rustler in a John Ford Western. There is a lot of wit and some humor in these serious literary stories. I enjoyed all of them.

I highly recommend this collection of short stories to anyone who wishes to read finely written short fiction about the Vietnam War era.

The author’s website is www.stewartbird.net/the_jake_fischer_stories_125234.htmu

—David Willson

Eating With Veterans by Michael Lund

Michael Lund served in the U. S. Army as a correspondent in Vietnam, 1970-71. He is the author of a memoir, Route 66 to Vietnam: A Draftee’s Story, and a book of short stories, How Not to Tell a War Story.  Lund’s latest book is Eating With Veterans (BeachHouse Books, 268 pp., $16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), a book of twenty serious short stories.

Lundh, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, holds a PhD in literature from Emory University, so I expected his stories to be literate and well-written. I was not disappointed.

Most of the characters in these fine stories are aging veterans, mostly of the Vietnam War. Often these veterans and their companions are eating, drinking, and talking. Occasionally a story will seem like a deliberate homage to Raymond Carver, for instance “The Soy Bean Field.”  I intend this as the highest of compliments.

Most of the stories communicate an atmosphere of social unease. Many take place, at least in part, in South Vietnam, and give us insights into the lives of soldiers who served there in communications. Some of the titles are: “The Rules of Engagement,” “Drugs Away,” “Blood Drive,” “The Death of Short-timer Sam,” and “Counterinsurgency. ”

Some of the stories that have non-military sounding titles are the ones that contain the most overt military scenes, for instance Lund’s Tet Offensive story, “Magician.”  We get a reference in that story to the school at Fort Benjamin Harrison, where the correspondent was trained—and where I was trained as a stenographer. I am always pleased when I read a book that deals with what the 80 to 90 percent of us did in Vietnam: not take part in combat. This is one of the best books yet that deals seriously with that aspect of our war.

Lund uses the phrase “rear echelon troops,” and the derogatory term “REMF” does not appear. It’s a term, by the way, that I never heard in Vietnam, but trip over endlessly in Vietnam War combat books, both novels and memoirs.

Lund does deal with some war-horse items such as Agent Orange, and he does have a story that mentions the oft-related tale of returning soldiers being spat upon and called baby killers. But he also includes  “Hadrian’s Wall,”  a rare story dealing with the Coast Guard’s role in the Vietnam War. Jimi Hendrix, one of my favorite Vietnam War era veterans, gets more than a mention—he gets an entire story, “Look Alike.”

Michael Lund

In “Camp Hoover” Lund captures an elusive feeling that I have tried to put into words, but failed to do so: how the past and the present can get intertwined and confused. It’s a great story and the saddest one in the book—perhaps one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read.

I highly recommend the stories in this book to all those drawn to serious writing about the Vietnam War and to seekers after the whole story—not just a narrow story told over and over again.

—David Willson

Night Flares by Robert M. Pacholik

Robert M. Pacholik’s Night Flares: Six Tales of the Vietnam War (Action-Adventure Press, $3.50, e book) is a work of fiction “based on eye-witness accounts of real events,” as the author puts it.

The great cover was designed by Emma Grisske. The book is dedicated to “the E-1s through E-5s of the American Army, the backbone and soul of the nation, and to the officer corps, who failed us.”  Hear hear.

Pacholik, a native of Chicago’s Southside, served two tours in Vietnam as an Army Field photographer and military journalist from 1968-69. These six stories, he says, “examine the micro-personal experiences of men in combat: the fear, the loss, the moments of overpowering events and how they struggled to cope with the inferno that was Vietnam for the common soldier, sailor, airman, marine or coast guardsmen who served there.”

The author tells us that in December 1969 in the San Francisco Airport, a woman of about twenty walked up to him in his brand-new Army uniform and spat in his face. She said not one word to him. That’s the reason Pacholik wrote this book, he says, because when “they tried to return home, veterans were met with a sense of loathing unheard of in our history.”

That’s true. No one, however, spat on me or at me. But I did experience that loathing from my family and their Greatest Generation friends when I tried to go home again.

The book’s Saigon stories take place about six months later than the Saigon I knew and roamed around in. They are set before, during, and after the 1968 Tet Offensive. This Saigon—on or near Tu Do Street—is much different than what I knew; it is tough, dangerous, and totally believable, a place a grunt or a clerk could easily die if he let down his guard or was unlucky

Pacholik (above) allows us to get to know, like, and root for a character, a short-timer, Ron, a Spec4. But Ron gets blown away for no good reason, and also gets name-called by a dumb-ass LT who gives Ron no credit for his bravery.

That’s the Vietnam War this author presents us: a hard, bloodthirsty war with no justice, where old drunk NCOs survive and a teenage draftee dies.

John Wayne gets a couple of mentions in these fine short stories, as does Country Joe and the Fish. Operation Ranch Hand and Agent Orange get the attention they deserve and the rear-echelon gets a whack or two. On the other hand, Jane Fonda is only alluded to as a “pampered, cynical, barely-starlet photographed on the gun carriage of a Russian Anti-aircraft battery giving …aid and comfort to those proud fighters…”

The six stories in this book are different from all the hundreds of other stories I have read that take place during the Vietnam War. Plus, they are well-written and often witty.

But this book contains much more than just six stories. There is an extensive “Prelude,” which explains the title and places the stories in context.  At the end is a long and cogent history of the Vietnam War.

The author is to be congratulated for his clear and well-organized thinking. His book deserves a place on the shelf with the half dozen classic collections of single-author Vietnam War short stories, which include John Mort’s Don’t Mean Nothin and Rob McGowan’s Nam: Things That Weren’t True.

Buy this one today and read it. I did and I raced through it, eager to get to the next page.

—David Willson

Loose Ends by Jim Zitzelsberger


Jim Zitzelsberger served as a Navy Seabee. The stories in his book, Loose Ends: Stories Started During the Vietnam War (Moki Lane, 210 pp., $19.95, paper: $9.99, Kindle), are mostly lighthearted, semi-autobiographical tales of Seabees in the Vietnam War.

Death, however, often intrudes.The hero, Henry James Barthochowski, nicknamed “Cow,” is a sort of stand-in for the author. He is stationed in Quang Tri. The book’s hero, like the author, did two tours in Vietnam before turning twenty-one.

This is that rare Vietnam War book of fiction that not only mentions General Westmoreland, but contains an entire story with the general as the main character—a story in which Westmoreland is making his exit from Vietnam after guiding the war since 1964.

Cow, our Seabee hero, is near the bottom of the military food chain. He realizes that his orders are to defeat the Viet Cong and stop the spread of communism, as the general points out to the troops, but he’s skeptical that “a difference was being made and the war was being won,” as Westmoreland wanted the troops to believe.

Cow’s enlistment begins in March 1966, under the Delayed Entry Program. He goes on active duty one week after graduating from Hilton High in Wisconsin.

The author assures us this book is a collection of fictional short stories. I believe him. In fiction is where the truth resides. And all of these short stories ring with truth.

The fictional main character is one of my favorite figures in the literature of the Vietnam War. He is mild, eternal, and as memorable as Yossarian in Catch-22. The stories in Loose Ends, in fact, teach us many of the same lessons about war that Catch-22 tried to teach us.

Americans seem to need these lessons taught over and over, and yet they still never seem to learn. I guess we are slow learners about the futility of war.

Loose Ends was an eye-opener. Until I read it, I knew little or nothing about the role of the Seabees in the Vietnam War. Now I know.

Every story brings home the daily life of a lowly enlisted Seabee in Quang Tri and Danang;  whether he is driving a truck, standing guard, welding a water tank, or doing any of the myriad crappy duties that the low-level Navy man must do. Many of them, of course, are chickenshit duties that put him in constant threat of conflict with lifers who are more an adversary than the VC or the NVA.

Much of the book involves “monkey business as only young men can make it.” Said monkey business is always fun to read about.

Henry James Barthochowski  will always live in my memory because the author brings him alive on every page. This Wisconsin farm boy in the Navy in Vietnam is ”a listener, observer, and anything but a cheerleader for military decorum.”  His observations lead him to conclude that “the theater of war is more the theater of the absurd.”

The story that makes this point best is the one in which Cow is showering and three pretty Vietnamese girls come in to clean the shower room. They giggle and pretend they don’t see him. Funny stuff. The same thing happened to me in Vietnam at Tan Son Nhut more than once.

Cow’s homecoming is also familiar. He comes back to his small town in Wisconsin and is castigated for his long hair, quickly grown when he returns to college. The local American Legion lets him know that they do not want him as a member as he had not been to a “real war.” Vietnam, to the members of the Greatest Generation, was merely a “conflict.” Guadalcanal was part of a “real” war.

We encounter Agent Orange, ham and lima beans, shit-burning details, and short-timers’ calendars. I was sad to learn that Navy guys did not have it as cushy as we Army guys always liked to believe they did.

They do have a commanding officer witty enough to use a recording of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get out of This Place,” for morning reveille. That beats anything in the Army I served in. But I would still rather do one tour in Vietnam with the Army than two with the Navy. I learned that much from this fine and funny book.

Read it, and you will learn plenty too, and have more than few laughs.

—David Willson