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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Our Vietnam Wars by William F. Brown

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Back in the sixties, Andy Warhol announced, “In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.” William F. Brown helps to fulfill that dictum with Our Vietnam Wars: As Told by 100 Veterans Who Served (Booknook, 344 pp. $14.49, paper; $4.99, Kindle).

The book contains three- or four-page biographies of one hundred men and women who served in Vietnam from 1955-75. The people in the book represent a cross-section of services and duties. Even a couple of Aussies made it into the mix, which is composed predominantly of former enlisted personnel. Presented chronologically, many of the stories and photographs reveal short looks at the big picture, which provide historical dimension along with details of each person’s time in-country.

Otherwise, the biographies focus on the duties of each veteran. Brown has nicely edited diatribes against war-time miseries such a burning shit and subsisting on C-rations. He emphasizes common hardships just enough to paint a scene.

With that format, Brown presents a history lesson for “our children and grandchildren” who “know so little about that place.”

“I don’t believe there was a single vet I interviewed who doesn’t think the war was a monstrous mistake,” he says, made by U.S. presidents and politicians.

Many of the interviewees now suffer from the debilitating effects of exposure to Agent Orange but most have received adequate medical treatment.

Contemplating a second volume of Our Vietnam Wars, Brown closes by saying: “If you are a Vietnam Vet and would like me to add your story to our narrative, send me an email at Billthursday1@gmail.com and I’ll be in touch.”

Brown has written nine mysteries and suspense thrillers, along with four screenplays prior to looking back on the Vietnam War.  He commanded a U.S. Army company in the Vietnam War.

His website is https://billbrownthrillernovels.com

—Henry Zeybel

John McCain: American Maverick by Elaine S. Povich

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Elaine S. Povich’s John McCain: American Maverick (Sterling, 208 pp, $24.95) is a coffee-table-like tome featuring large, glossy (and evocative) photographs on nearly every page. The photos are used to good effect to cover the many highlights of McCain’s notable life, including the five-and-a-half years he was held as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton.

Povich, a Washington, D.C. journalist who has covered the nation’s capital for UPI, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsday, wrote a conventional bio of McCain—John McCain: A Biography—in 2009. This go-round she mainly uses McCain’s own words, including more than a few pithy pull quotes, to accompany the bare-bones text and the great many photographs from throughout McCain’s eventful personal and political lives.

Ken Burns, Mr. Documentary, provides a Foreword that—like the book itself—is a paean to McCain’s heroism and service.

McCain is, “without doubt,” Burns writes, “a genuine American hero—complicated, brave, flawed, sacrificing, confounding, inspiring—and above all human. I have had the great privilege of spending time with him on many occasions over the last two-plus decades and each meeting has only reinforced my conviction about his unique and inspirational greatness.”

Povich agrees.

“Above it all,” in McCain’s life, she writes, there is “honor—the code by which he has always lived. The worst times of his life were when he felt that honor tarnished, yet they were rare. McCain tries to do what he feels is right. He doesn’t always succeed. But he surely has a hell of a time trying.

“If he is remembered for anything, McCain has said, he would like it to be that he ‘served his country. And I hope, we could add, honorably.’

“He has done so. And honorably.”

—Marc Leepson

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

The American War in Viet Nam by Susan Lyn Eastman

The author of The American War in Viet Nam: Cultural Memories at the Turn of the Century (University of Tennessee Press, 238 pp., $39.95), Susan Lyn Eastman, is not a Vietnam War veteran, nor any other kind of military veteran. She was raised in a small town in New Hampshire that was off the grid, attended a two-room school house, and her father is a Vietnam War veteran. Eastman is particularly interested in the treatment of veterans following the war. I suspect that relates to her father’s decision to get far away from modern post-war America.

In her book, Eastman, an English professor at Dalton State College in Georgia, examines a wide range of cultural productions. She discusses war memorials, poetry, and cinematic and fictional narratives. Eastman begins with a short Preface in which she recounts reading thirty names at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and giving in to tears when she did so. She says that the memorial does not account for the deaths of many others caused by the war, certainly not the more than one million Vietnamese dead.

Most interesting to me was Chapter 7, “Unfinished Remembrance: Beyond the United States and Vietnam—Jessica Hagedorn’s Dream Jungle and Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux.” I’d read a couple of Hagedorn’s books but not this one. I ordered the book, but decided to plod forward with this review.

The most useful aspect of this fine book was that it motivated me to do more reading about the Vietnam War. I was arrogant enough to imagine that I’d not missed the paramount books written about the war. So this book was a wake-up call for me.

The few black-and-white photos in the book were useful to the extent that they helped with the analysis of Vietnam War and veterans memorials. But they are muddy and not celebratory in any way, just useful to scholarly purposes.

Lyn Susan Eastman

The bibliography and the index are excellent. I spent much time pouring over them and then going to the references to see what I’d missed.  A book like this without an index and a bibliography is worse than useless, as all of us who have grappled with such messes will attest.

The author’s honesty about being the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran and how this affected her research and her point of view drove the book’s orientation and its power. Thanks to Susan Lyn Eastman for using her own life story to produce a useful and powerful interdisciplinary study that probes deeply where other books have only gone lightly.

–David Willson

Saddle Up by John C. Hedley

Loyalty to the men who fought alongside him in Vietnam’s Central Highlands during 1969-70 forms the core of John C. Hedley’s memoir, Saddle Up: The Story of a Red Scarf  (A15 Publishing, 286 pp.; $24.99, paper).

Operating out of Fire Support Base St. George near Pleiku, Hedley led Fox Force Reconnaissance Platoon of E Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry (the Golden Dragons) of the 4th Infantry Division. The platoon spent most of its time in the jungle and “made contact with the NVA or Viet Cong almost every time they left the firebase,” Hedley says.

Commissioned after graduation from West Point in 1968, Hedley found that running patrols and ambushes quickly taught him new decision-making skills. He challenged authority and did not hesitate to put his men’s welfare ahead of his career aspirations. And he led from the front when possible. Every meeting with the enemy taught him a lesson in survival.

He shows the depth of his concern for his men by recalling the challenges of three major encounters: a night-long battle in which sappers overran St. George; the pursuit of an NVA battalion; and the discovery of a massive NVA bunker.

Hedley did a lot of soul searching in Vietnam. He recognized his inadequacies when, two hours after receiving command of his platoon, he and his men were sent to protect a village ravaged by the NVA. A sink-or-swim situation, the assignment marked the first time that he fully understood his awesome responsibility for men’s lives in combat.

Hedley was pragmatic. His willingness to pry into his own psyche gives the book a leadership manual quality. He emphasizes the skills required for success in leading small units. In portraying the psychological and physical impact of the stress of battle before, during, and after contact, he emphasizes fear and how it can hinder a leader and his men.

Training had taught him that a leader could not show fear because it was contagious, and Hedley recalls his difficulty maintaining equilibrium following a fight early in his tour. “My hands started to shake, I couldn’t light a cigarette,” he writes. “I tried to hide the shaking and it took a while before it disappeared. There was no way I could take a much-needed drink from my canteen. I found that incredible amounts of adrenaline flow through your body when you are being shot at, and that ‘adrenaline drain’ afterward was a very uncomfortable feeling.”

His accounts of atrocities and other brutalities of war leave nothing to the imagination. What Hedley saw when Fox Force rushed to a village after it was hit by the NVA—and the efforts of his unit while defending St. George—borders on the unbelievable.

Parts of the book show the futility of America’s war effort under Vietnamization. The NVA and VC moved easily around the countryside, Hedley says, and they had support from all villagers in the area. Plus, “the night belonged to Charlie” because of his familiarity with the terrain.

The frequency with which Hedley’s men found enemy living areas, campsites, and even a hospital hidden behind a waterfall made me again rethink the grunts’ world of search-and-destroy. Why were they made to continue? The North already occupied the South. Nevertheless, Hedley’s platoon continued to count bodies, sometimes based on only bloody drag marks.

Relegated to a boring headquarters job toward the end of his tour, Hedley found relief by voluntarily rejoining his former battalion for the 1970 incursion into Cambodia. But that’s another story—or book, perhaps.

The “red scarf” in the title was worn “even in the field when on combat operations,” by men who proved their merit under fire in Fox Force, Hedley says. A few years earlier, a South Vietnamese commander, whose platoon wore the scarf, presented one to Fox Force for bravery during a combined op.

Starting in 2000, the symbolism of the bright red scarf motivated Fox Force veterans to reunite. What began as a yearly reunion evolved into frequent meetings. As a result, red scarf warriors have bonded tighter than ever before.

Hedley at a Red Scarf reunion

The book contains twenty-eight pages of then-and-now color photographs of soldiers and scenes from the war. Hedley closes with vignettes about events outside of Fox Force and “A Day in the Life…”, a chapter that summarizes how men lived in the field.

After twenty-four years of military service, John Hedley retired as a lieutenant colonel and then had a seventeen-year career with Raytheon Corporation.

His website is saddleup-redscarf.com

—Henry Zeybel

The Good of the Order by Gerard Shields

Gerard Shields’ The Good of the Order: America’s Last 80 Years Through they Eyes of One Tiny Veterans Club (Hilliard & Harris, 168 pp. $16.95, paper) could easily feel like a piece of nostalgia for a great neighborhood bar. But there’s so much more to this book—and to the old AMVETS club tucked into a tiny corner of a rust-covered, steel-town community in east Philadelphia that Shields and the late Joseph Vincent Manko (who founded the club) write about.

Indeed, the factories are gone. What remains are the veterans of three generations of war. And the men and women who care deeply about what happens to the kids and the poor and the neighborhood itself.

Returning home from World War II, the men and women of Kensington Memorial AMVETS Post 146 in East Philadelphia, helped—from their small corner—turn America into the greatest economic power on the planet.

There’s “Rouse” O’Brien, who could throw you out of the place so quickly it would make your head spin; legendary brawler Gus Hagan; Tommy “The Minute” Bell; Joe Dougherty, who brought a pig to the place on St. Patty’s Day and started a tradition; “Beans” Cannon; “Jocko” McGinley, whose closing-time announcements always brought a smile; “Butch” Dugan, the mayor; and John Sharkey, whose antics can’t be repeated in a family book review.

Shields talks about Vietnam War veterans returning home to find a lukewarm—if not worse—reception. But at the Philly AMVETS they were received with open arms. One veteran who had just returned home, for example, heard a knock on the door. It was a couple of guys from the club, inviting him to come on down and meet people. For him, and for many others, the club became a home away from home.

There’s also the story of Johnny Everly, a Vietnam veteran whose life was spared when the prayer card in his pocket caught a load of shrapnel. And a guy who says it always takes him two hours to leave the place because he has to say goodbye to everyone.

The book is based on recently discovered archives, photos, and newsletter stories dating to 1947. A veteran national newspaper reporter who grew up in the neighborhood, Shields loves the place and the people. He calls it a fortress and a life raft in rough times that mirrors what many veterans’ halls across the nation are facing.

“Anyone who grew up in a small American town with a tightly knit neighborhood and a club whose antics and anecdotes seemed larger than life will love this book,” said Bernard Elliker, a Korean War veteran.

The AMVETS Post 146 “personifies the highest accolade occasionally applied to such a recounting: Gee, it’s almost like being there,” Elliker said. “Its characters remain in my memory bank.”

It’s about attitude and kindness and booze and fun and patriotism and growing up tough. And kind. The club helps kids left homeless after a member’s house burns. It pays for the burial of a local family’s teenage son. And much more.

The club celebrated its 70th anniversary in November after struggling to keep its doors open. It continues to be a neighborhood force of unity. And, as always, it struggles to survive.

For the Good of the Order, we hope it remains.

—Michael Ludden

Michael Ludden is a former Orlando Sentinel Deputy Managing Editor. He’s the author of two detective novels, Alfredo’s Luck and Tate Drawdy, and a soon-to-be-released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue. 

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