The Dreaming Circus by Jim Morris

The works of soldier-writer Jim Morris—who served three Army Special Forces Vietnam War tours of duty—have enraptured readers for decades. War Story, his Vietnam War memoir, and The Devil’s Secret Name, largely about his time as a combat correspondent for Soldier of Fortune magazine during the 1982 war in Lebanon, are but two examples.

With his latest book, The Dreaming Circus: Special Ops, LSD, and My Unlikely Path to Toltec Wisdom (Bear & Company, 288 pp. $20, paper; $13.99, Kindle), Morris proves to be an even more fascinating person than legend holds.

Morris feels bitter about the way the U.S. abandoned the Vietnamese people in 1975. He reveals just how bitter in the opening pages of The Dreaming Circus:

“When the U.S. bailed on the people it had sent me to save all that patriotism died. The U.S. toyed with those people’s lives for a decade and a half, and then casually abandoned them when the going got tough.”

Before he served in Vietnam, Morris patriotically supported the war. After being wounded four times, that patriotism evaporated when the U.S. failed to keep a promise to the beloved Montagnards with whom he fought. “When I retired from the Army, I had done all the right stuff,” he writes. “I had repeatedly put my life on the line [but was] abandoned by the people who sent me to do it. The basis on which I had built my life was destroyed.”

Back home, in late 1969, Morris’s consciousness was awakened after he read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid and became aware of Ken Kesey and his frolicking busload of hippies known as the Merry Pranksters. “One thing I noticed is how many in Kesey’s group were ex-GIs. Not just ex-GIs, but former combat arms officers,” Morris writes.

Jim Morris In Country

In one of his own forays into the world of LSD, the lives of Jim Morris, soldier, and Jim Morris, acid imbiber, seem to collide. In The Dreaming Circus, he writes about “walking into his soul.” That is precisely what he did in finding “the path to Toltec wisdom.”

The Toltecs, who flourished from the 10th to the 12th centuries, were the predecessors of the Aztecs. For Morris, their wisdom was channeled through two people he writes extensively about: mystical historian Carlos Castaneda, author of The Teachings of Don Juan, with whom Morris seems to have connected in a deeply spiritual sense, and author-shaman don Miguel Ruiz, whom he interviewed.

From their teachings, Morris learned “spells, prayers, and ceremonies are ways of focusing intent to create what you want. That means the world you experience is part of you, as much as the other way around. You are a wave in a vast ocean, but the ocean is you. Claim it all. See what you want to see. You have eternity to complete this task.”

The Dreaming Circus: Special Ops, LSD, and My Unlikely Path to Toltec Wisdom is a book that could well help readers do so.

–Marc Philip Yablonka

Marc Phillip Yablonka is a Burbank, California-based military journalist and author. His book Hot Mics and TV Lights: The American Forces Vietnam Network, will be published in 2023 by Double Dagger Books.

Once We Flew Vol. II by Joseph Michael Sepesy

Joseph Michael Sepesy’s Once We Flew, Volume II: Aftermath (Lulu.com, 306 pp. $24.95, paper; $10, Kindle) is the sequel to the author’s memoir detailing his experiences as a Huey helicopter pilot with the 1st Cav and the 1st Aviation Brigade flying some 2,200 combat hours during his three years in the Vietnam War. This volume focuses on the Sepesy’s life and times after coming home and leaving his Army service behind.

The book is uniquely constructed; the chapters are chronological and are titled as such. At the top and at the bottom of each chapter—before and after the copy—are epigraphs, a series of shorter paragraphs pushed to the margin. They’re informational items that expand on the words in the chapters and also relate to Sepesy’s post-military PTSD challenges. The format at first appears disjointed and cluttered, but as we read on, what Sepesy is doing becomes evident and the book reads well.

After coming home from the war, Sepesy became a special-education teacher in some of the rougher areas of his native Northeast Ohio. He takes the reader through his preparation for teaching, and details some of his classroom and administrative adventures. The epigraphs explain developments that will, in later years, prove to be symptoms and manifestations of his as-yet-undiagnosed PTSD.

Through the years, health issues developed directly related to injuries suffered in a crash landing in Vietnam. Sepesy describes his challenges and continually fills in bits of information with the epigraphs.

During is counseling sessions with VA therapists he was introduced to ballroom dancing.  As his PTSD became more evident and his medical issues more acute, ballroom dancing became very effective therapy. On the dance floor his pain falls away and his balance issues fade as he concentrates on the mechanics of the dance.

Some chapters are almost stream-of-consciousness narratives, another interesting, non-standard construct. A reader might profit from first reading Volume I as there are references in this book that would be clearer with the first book under your belt. Perhaps a short Glossary of military terminology would be good as well.

This is a good telling of one Vietnam War veteran’s efforts to rise above the PTSD gripping his psyche and his world.

Sepesy’s website is booksbyjmsepesy.com

–Tom Werzyn

Entwined with Vietnam by Theodore M. Hammett

For a guy who joined the U.S. Marine Corps because his father (a World War II Marine) threatened to disown him if he didn’t, Theodore M. Hammett has an interesting, if offbeat, tale to tell of of his 13 months as the 3rd Medical Battalion supply officer in 1968-69 in South Vietnam. That story makes up half of his memoir, Entwined with Vietnam: A Reluctant Marine’s Tour and Return (McFarland, 287 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). The second half is an account of Hammett’s second Vietnam “tour” as director of an HIV/AIDS project from 2008-12.

A 1967 Harvard-graduate ROTC Marine lieutenant, Hammett did not see combat; drank heavily (often blacking out); frequently ignored military discipline; and seriously disliked the Vietnamese people, the Corps, and the war itself.

But he loved the girl he left behind and saved their letters and tapes, which he uses as the foundation for his recollections in this memoir. He also relies on quotes from like-minded Vietnam War veterans—including Ron Kovic, Tim O’Brien, and Lew Puller—who were closer to the action.

Above all, as Hammett recreates his Vietnam War experience, he relies on the words and music from songs of the era, which he constantly listened to back in the day. In the Forward, fellow Marine W.D. Ehrhart perfectly sums up one aspect of the book: “The whole first half of this memoir is like strolling through the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.”

Hammett dissects himself without apology. He admits to ambivalent feelings centered on a “persistent difficulty” he had that ended in what he calls the “dual cowardice” of fearing to fight in the war and fearing to speak out against it.

Hammett is not immune, however, to understanding what surrounded him. He sees his share of wounded and dead men at Phu Bai and Quang Tri hospitals. Late in his tour, he transcends his “tedious and boring endless paperwork” by voluntarily driving into the field with truck convoys, flying in a damaged C-130, and taking a seat on a helicopter night close support mission. A chapter titled “Seeking Danger” suggests his willingness to confront the issues faced by Vietnam war grunts.

Hammett shaking hands with Gen. Leonard F. Chapman, Jr., the Commandant of the Marine Corps in Quang Tri in 1968. Photo by Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times

Hammett says that during his first tour he saw the Vietnamese “variously as the reason for [his] misery.” He also discusses other Vietnam War aspects, including separation from home, the politics of war, needless casualties, and weak leadership.

As a post-war civilian, Hammett mainly worked for Abt Associates, an organization designed to improve people’s lives worldwide. He specialized in AIDS/HIV prevention among drug users, which led to training sessions for the Chinese government and then training of Chinese and Vietnamese. With Dr. Doan Ngu as his first true Vietnamese colleague and unofficial mentor, Hammett grew captivated by the country of Vietnam.

The second half of Entwined with Vietnam resembles an upbeat tour guide’s look at the culture, landscape, and climate of Vietnam. Hammett’s diverse experiences enlightened me. They are well worth reading. At the same time, Hammett recognizes the weaknesses of the Vietnamese government.

He and his wife (the girl who waited for him during his first tour) lived in Hanoi for four years as he continued working to better humanity. Hammett emphasizes that the Vietnamese people today welcome Americans, noting that “more than three-quarters of the people in Vietnam were born since the America War ended in 1975.”

In essence, his second “tour” was in a very different nation than the one in which he took part in a war five decades ago.

—Henry Zeybel

The Deacon and the Shield by John E. Howard

The Deacon and the Shield (Austin Macauley Publishers, 174 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $11.95, paper; $4.50, e book) by John E. Howard, is a fictional story infused with religious testimony. Howard served a 1967-68 tour of duty in Vietnam with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade’s 1st Battalion/14th Artillery in the Americal Division in Chu Lai.

In an author’s note Howard writes of learning about the “horrific event” known as the My Lai Massacre in mid-March 1968. He suggests that what happened there led to a general sense of PTSD among U.S. troops in country. He also, intriguingly, suggests that PTSD may also be caused by the fact that after finishing their tours of active duty, Vietnam War veterans were still in the inactive reserves and could be called back to military service at any time.

The novel centers on twenty-two-year-old Eddy Riffle, who is married when he is drafted into the Army. When the guys in his unit learn he was a church deacon back home, that becomes his nickname. In his last combat action in Vietnam he feels that he was saved from death by an angel. After coming home from the war, he frequently has nightmares about which his wife says, “It seems that he just goes back to the jungles.”

Riffle’s family grows as he becomes a successful attorney. After being caught in a compromising situation with a co-worker, he loses his job, and becomes estranged from his family. His life spirals out of control as a new sense of failure and unworthiness combines with his PTSD. He regrets and fears all the things that might be said about him on the judgement day. To boost his income, he becomes a licensed, wise-cracking private detective.

The story goes on to include a physical fight with an angel who appears on horseback in which Riffle pits his “military training against his angel training,” as well as money laundering, undercover assignments, classic double-crosses, the antichrist, alluring women, and near-death experiences.

The Deacon and the Shield is difficult to classify. It’s not a fantasy because it’s based on a sense of spiritual reality. Basically, it’s a religious tract with a fictional story supported by many biblical verses.

The book might work for a men’s church group. Although it deals with the Vietnam War, its veterans, and PTSD, the main subject is the Deacon and his Christian faith.

–Bill McCloud

The Spirit to Soar by Jim Petersen

Jim Petersen’s The Spirit to Soar: Life Lessons and Values for a Victorious Life (Morgan James Publishing, 246 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) revolves around the themes of what sustains a person and allowing happiness to come from inside you.

Petersen, a retired Navy submarine officer who heads his own business coaching firm, tells the life story of retired USAF Lt. Col. Barry Bridger, a friend and colleague. The story begins when Bridger became an orphan at age six, and continued through a love-filled adoption, Bridger’s military service as a fighter pilot, his six years (1967-73) as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton, and his post-military career as a successful family man and businessman. It’s quite a story.

The 18 chapters are filled with wisdom, positive thinking, and anecdotes that illustrate the theme of success and self-directed, positive reactions to the events surrounding you daily life. Petersen’s recounting of Bridger’s life experiences contain a solid message. That includes the need for a spiritual grounding, even though there are no chapters devoted to that subject in the book nor is there any pulpit-thumping rhetoric.

Each chapter begins with a different topic and continues with Bridger bringing his message. Themes frequently overlap—including a few repetitions of an entire paragraph.  Reading much of Bridger’s comments feels like listening to a conversation or a reminiscence containing good information. If you let it, and are open to it, the positive message in this book will grow on you as you continue to read

This is a wonderfully positive book with a genuine hero as its subject and lives up to the subtitle—plus, it‘s readable and begging to be shared with others.

The book’s website is thespirittosoar.com

–Tom Werzyn

Pop a Smoke by Rick Gehweiler

I believe that crewing on a helicopter—especially piloting one—was one of the most dangerous and difficult assignments in the Vietnam War. Fifty years after the fact, Rick Gehweiler has mined his memory and confirmed my belief with Pop a Smoke: Memoir of a Marine Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 172 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). He and I also agree that medics and corpsmen had it just as rough as helicopter crews.

Fresh out of the University of North Carolina and influenced by an uncle (a three-star Navy admiral), Gehweiler enlisted in the Marine Corps. After going through OCS and pilot training he arrived in Phu Bai in 1968 and joined the “Ugly Angels” helicopter squadron HMM-362. They flew the old Sikorsky H-34s, which would be taken out of service the next year.

Gehweiler tells his story as he best remembers it, frequently making the point that many events are deeply etched into his mind forever. He uses the second half of Pop a Smoke to spell out combat events filled with danger and tragedy he took part in. As a lieutenant, he entered the war with barely a clue as to why. Frisky as college fraternity boys, he and other young LTs matured into men of destiny.

“We just were along for the ride,” Gehweiler says, “with no control over what happened. We never discussed the validity of what was going on.” Following their missions, they headed off to the O Club “to see how much we could drink. It was the only way we knew to decompress and try to relax. “

Losing close friends and classmates in combat made him realize that he had to fly “at razor edge’s efficiency.” And he did.

Rick Gehweiler flew 150 missions, and describes about a dozen of them that are doozies. He dazzled me with stories about an overloaded Sikorsky bouncing to get airborne surrounded by NVA troops; extremely hazardous recon inserts and extractions; the time his helicopter was shot down and his copilot killed; night rocket attacks on Phu Bai; and medevac rescues. I only wish he had shared the details of more missions.

Gehweiler displays a few fits of righteous pique, but fundamentally he cares about the welfare of others. At heart, he is a selfless and humble guy who has repressed accounts of his exploits out of modesty, as I see it. He does include humorous accounts of lieutenants outwitting their superiors, noting that his “whole tour seemed like a full season of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.”

Rick Gehweiler

Like other youthful troops, Rick Gehweiler came to realize how the post-traumatic stress disorder that still clouds his personality developed. As I interpret his work, he had difficulty in seeing the inevitable while swept up in combat and suffered the repercussions of combat trauma.

He ends the book by discussing his and others’ treatment for PTSD, “a disease,” he says, “we will always have.”

Gehweiler adds an epilogue that analyzes America’s decision to get involved in the war, its consequences, and its lessons. He emphasizes the pitfalls of poor decision making at high levels of government.   

Not surprisingly, he reflects the attitude of many Vietnam War veterans, myself included, when he says: “As bad as it could be some days, it was still the most challenging, exhilarating, and satisfying time in my life. As odd as it may sound, I still miss it, and would do it again in a heartbeat.”

—Henry Zeybel

No Strings Attached by Jimmy Nowoc

Jimmy Nowoc’s ingenious autobiography, No Strings Attached: My Life Growing Up With the Birth of Rock ‘N Roll (Page Publishing, 400 pp., $37.95), melds a lifelong love of music with his journey from Chicago to Clear Lake, Iowa, to Vietnam, Mexico, and back to Chicagoland, with points in between.

Nowoc begins with his formative memories, then toggles his story back and forth through the years leading to the present day. Deeply rooted within the narrative is a reverence for Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bobber (J.P. Richardson), the three rock ‘n roller artists who perished in a plane crash in an Iowa cornfield in February of 1959. Nowoc carries the reader on a journey that is nostalgic, emotional, and joyous.

In 2010 Nowoc bought a guitar at a charity auction. Never tuned or played, it became a repository of hundreds of autographs from rock music greats. As names were added, Nowoc removed the strings to allow more space for entries, a state of affairs that gives us the book’s book title.

Nowoc includes lots of details in the book about his two-year tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a radio relay specialist with the Army’s 25th Infantry Division. As he takes as through his post-war years, Nowoc writes about rock artists, groups, performances he attended, and songs, which, as I read them, helped me remember where I was, who I was with, and what was going on during those times.

He also writes about popular toys, TV shows, films, and world events. There also are lists of each year’s most popular artists and their songs—which alone is worth the price of admission. Nowoc also includes 54 pages of thumbnail biographies of the greatest rock and rollers.

This in an intriguing, well-written life story. You gotta read this one if you at all love Rock ‘n Roll.

–Tom Werzyn

Once We Flew., Volume I by Joseph Michael Sepesy

Once We Flew Volume I: The Memoir of a U.S. Army Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and a Life with PTSD, (Lulu.com, 674 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $39.95, paper; $10, Kindle), Joseph Sepesy’s memoir, is his sixth book. His first five were a series called Word Dances, that dealt with ballroom dancing. His next book will be titled Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.

Once We Flew is a different kind of memoir. The book’s main body is broken into six main parts. Combined, they contain 160 very short, chronologically ordered, sections. Each section tells a complete story. Many are riveting, bone-chilling tales of Vietnam War combat flying.

This is a long book—and I wish it were longer. While I had to put it down from time to time, I did so only reluctantly. It is a fascinating read.

From an early age, Joe Sepesy, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, wanted to fly helicopters. The U.S. Army presented him the opportunity to fulfill that desire. He was not a natural, though, and had to work long and hard to conquer the basics of flying. After a while, he learned to fly and became a master at combat flying.

During his first year in the Vietnam War with the First Cav’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion and the 1st Aviation Brigade and during two subsequent, voluntary six-month tours of duty, Sepesy accumulated a staggering total of 2,200 combat flight hours. While he displayed great amounts of skill and selfless courage, Sepesy never considered himself a combat hero—simply a man doing his job.

Being a very visible, high-value target and being shot at nearly every day, Sepesy did not dwell on death while in Vietnam, but was well aware of its nearness. Always keeping in mind, that, as he puts it, “complacency kills,” he became very methodical in addressing the dangers of flying in the warzone.

A man with Sepesy’s experiences is a prime candidate for developing post-traumatic disorder, and he writes a lot about it in this book. I found that to be a distraction. If PTSD is what you want to read about, I recommend Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.

I experienced a lot of suspenseful moments while reading Volume I. I liked Joe Sepesy’s honesty, his grit, and his writing style. After completing the book, I doubled back and reread much of the front matter.

I highly recommend Once We Flew: Volume I, which tells the life and times of a heroic American combat aviator.

Sepesey’s website is booksbyjmsepesy.com

–Bob Wartman

Vietnam Voices edited by Edward Caudill, William Minser, and Jim Stovall 

Vietnam Voices: Stories of Tennesseans Who Served in Vietnam, 1965-1975 (359 pp., $24.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is the third oral history volume produced by the Friends of the Blount County Library in East Tennessee. Volume 3 almost begs the reader to pick up the first two volumes to continue the story. This small book is a quick but fulfilling read.

Editors-Stovall, Minser, and Caudill have tried to contact as many local Vietnam War veterans as they can, then offer them the opportunity to become part of the project through interviews conducted using a same-questions format. That process makes for continuity for the reader and the participants.

Each of the volumes contains 12-15 interviews with veterans from all of the military branches and ranks, enlisted and officers alike, that are condensed into thumbnail versions of longer, in-person interviews. Each chapter contains verbatim answers to mostly identical questions with a bit of editing that provides a readable flow.

The book also includes reprints of drawings by soldiers who took part in the U.S. Army’s Combat Artists Program during the Vietnam War. Between 1966 and 1970 nine teams of artists moved throughout the four war zones recording what and who they saw.

Vietnam Voices is a short but personable book—an opportunity for each participant to contribute to the Vietnam War historical record of individual experiences, efforts, and accomplishments. A county library undertaking such a project speaks well of its support of hometown war veterans. It’s well worth the read.

The full audio interviews are archived on the library’s website. 

–Tom Werzyn

The Vietnam War 1956-75 by Andrew Wiest

Andrew Wiest’s The Vietnam War, 1956-1975 (Osprey, 144 pp. $20, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a great book. I recommend it to anyone seeking an overview of the Vietnam War and the era during which it took place. This concise very readable book was first published in 2002 and has been updated by the author. Reading it reminds the reader that the era was a trying time domestically in the United States as the struggle for social change reached a critical moment.  

Vietnam War veterans will be pleased to find that this book is an honest and accurate account of their war. However, we Vietnam veterans are a clear minority in today’s America, and the war is half a century behind us. Consequently, the desired readership should be the generations who have come after us and have no memories of the war.  

For them in particular I believe that Andrew Wiest—a history professor and the founding director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi—captures all the important factors of a complicated conflict and its impact throughout the world. Beyond the often brutal battles and the high number of casualties, the reader learns how costly, in the long term, the war was for Vietnam’s environment, its economy, and its people. The same factors also have had a crippling impact on Cambodia and Laos.   

Wiest is the author of two Vietnam War books, Vietnam’s Forgotten Army and The Boys of ’67. The Vietnam War includes a section on how returning American veterans suffered in many ways in a society indifferent—if not hostile—to their service, which further exacerbated problems once known as the Vietnam Syndrome. Interestingly, as the book mentions, this was also true for Australian Vietnam War veterans when they returned to their country where the war was very unpopular. 

Wiest explains why many Americans came to distrust their government as a consequence of the war when it became clear that from the beginning the American public had been misled and lied to. Additionally, Wiest shows how the conflict had a deeply negative impact on the U.S. military in the years after the war, particularly the U.S. Army. As many of us serving in the aftermath of the war experienced, the Army in the mid 1970s was broken and in need of significant repair.  

All of this and more is covered in this outstanding book; it is well worth reading and sharing with younger generations.

–John Cirafici