Busted by W.D. Ehrhart

Busted: A Vietnam Veteran in Nixon’s America (McFarland, 173 pp. $19.99, paper), originally published in 1995, is a reissue of the third volume of W.D. Ehrhart’s three-part memoirs. That is good news, since Bill Ehrhart is one of the most significant American poets of the war in Vietnam, and it’s important to keep all of his works in print.

The first books of the series are Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir (1983) and Passing Time: Memoir of a Vietnam Veteran Against the War (1989). Ehrhart also has written many books of poetry and essays dealing with his Vietnam War service—and with war in general.

While you might think it’s best to have read the first two books in a series prior to reading the third, in Busted Ehrhart fills in all the backstory you need. The book begins just a few days after the end of the previous one. It’s not divided into chapters or broken up in any way. It just starts and goes in pretty much of a stream-of-consciousness style.

After completing his Marine Corps service and graduating from college, Bill Ehrhart took a job as a seaman on an oil tanker. He was busted by the Coast Guard for possession of pot, was fired, and faced federal charges unless he agreed to give up his seaman’s card, which he had no plans to do. In the book Ehrhart describes what he was thinking then and comments on the House Judiciary Committee’s hearings on the impeachment of Richard Nixon.

Ehrhart says his first night at boot camp on Parris Island was “the most terrifying experience of my life,” due to the harassment of the drill instructors. It didn’t help that a DI told him he was “going to die on this island.” That’s a lot to handle for a seventeen year old.

Then came orders for Vietnam. “What I found in Vietnam bore no resemblance to what I had been led to expect by Lyndon Johnson and Time magazine and my high-school history teachers,” Ehrhart writes (he would later become a high-school history teacher himself.). Because of his Vietnam War service, he says, “I had become something evil, but I did not know what it was or how it happened or why.”

Bill Ehrhart back in the day

He later joined the antiwar movement, then decided to go to sea in an attempt to escape the political and social chaos in the U.S.A. That’s how he ended up in his cabin in port at Long Beach, California, when his door banged open.

“I was scared shitless” are the first four words in the book. He later told his mom, “I’ve been smoking dope ever since Con Thien.” Then said, “So marijuana is illegal, but it’s okay to drop napalm on gooks.”

From time to time, Ehrhart—who received the Vietnam Veterans of America Excellence in the Arts Award in 2008—writes about Vietnam War atrocities and his visits from the hallucinatory ghosts of men killed in combat. The book ends with the conclusion of his trial.

Bill Ehrhart thinks like a poet and writes like one. And what he has to say is important. That’s why all of his books no longer in print should also be re-issued.

–Bill McCloud

Agent Orange Roundup by Sandy Scull & Brent MacKinnon

Agent Orange Roundup: Living with a Foot in Two Worlds (Bookstand Publishing, 210 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), by Sandy Scull and Brent MacKinnon, is a unique, poetic condemnation of the massive use of defoliants and herbicides by the United States during the war in Vietnam. It is also an educational resource to help people learn more about the development, use, and devastating effects of Agent Orange. Along with poetry, the book contains artwork, stories, and essays.

Scull and MacKinnon served with the Marines during the war; they first met in 1988. They both have received Stage 4 cancer diagnoses that they believe are associated with being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

The first part of the book consists of poems by Scull, including this couplet:

“We return to you with a souvenir

 Of present and future Death”

He goes on to describes AO as “the round we didn’t hear, and it is killing us.”

He says that today, “I like my steak tartar/shrapnel-cut and raw –” and refers to war as a “big bang without the theory.”

Here’s more:

“When memory of war joins a poem, it’s more

than a blood trail, it has a voice and is free

to move with and punctuate its own rhythm.

Those imprinted lines of sacrifice now curve.”

Scull writes that he arrived in Vietnam with a “dread of what would come.” Here’s what he says about the American military’s policy of war by body count:

“This number game had faces.

My face. And mothers. My mother.”

At one point, he’s running to catch a plane leaving Khe Sanh, “wondering how many/rotting Marines want into my jungle boots leaving.” He also questions “How much blood can this soil absorb?”

We learn from Scull that when you smash your M-16 against a tree out of grief for five men lost to rifle jams, it comes apart this way: “The plastic butt stock shattered first, then the hand guard, the trigger and rear sight.”

MacKinnon begins his part of the book by declaring: “These poems and prose are by two combat Marines sentenced to slow death by the country who sent us in harm’s way.”

One of his poems mentions those who are “soon to die,” “already dead,” and “almost dead.”

He cries out to the U.S. government: “I don’t want money. Just say you did It/Say you killed me with Agent Orange/say you did it.”

Scull and MacKinnon (Lt. Scull and Cpl. Mac) bring the reader right into the poem-writing process with a line like, “You say, cut this last stanza –” and a title such as, “These Are Not Your Poems!”

There are poems here that deal with receiving cancer treatments and living with cancer. Scull sums things up beautifully when he says: “Though the subject matter of these poems may seem like a downer, my hope is that the human spirit of love and connection bleeds through.”

Overall, this is a strong collection of material written by two war veterans who have made a pact with their readers that they are going to go out fighting.

–Bill McCloud

Agent Orange: An Insidious Legacy by Raymond H. Gustafson

Raymond Gustofson’s Agent Orange: An Insidious Legacy (148 pp. $14.99, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a short book with just 138 pages of text, but it contains a big message. Virtually every Vietnam War veteran is aware of the enormous amount of of toxic herbicides the U.S. military rained down upon South Vietnam—and, by default, upon U.S. and allied troops on the ground. “Deny the enemy sanctuary” was the mantra of Operation Ranch Hand, the spraying mission that went on from 1962-71. Agent Orange was the main—but not the only—chemical agent involved.

Gustafson writes about growing up and his decision to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17 right after high school. Coming from a family that traced its military service back through to the Civil War, it seemed like the right and logical thing to do. Service was in his bloodline.

He goes on to describe his time in-country beginning early in 1966 with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines in the 3rd Marine Division, including getting wounded, medevaced, being put back together, returning to the war, and then extending his tour for seven months. Throughout, Gustafson includes details about AO, including how it was manufactured and dispersed, its long and short-term effects on humans, and how the Department of Veterans Affairs has handled research and benefits.

After his discharge, Roy Gustafson, like many other Vietnam veterans, buried his war deeply inside himself. He did not talk about his experiences in Vietnam until he confronted serious medical issues related to AO exposure, along with post-traumatic stress issues.

The book is not confrontational, but informational. There is no excoriation of the VA that other books about AO contain. Gustafson does describe VA administrative missteps, but does not dwell on them. He backs up what he writes with excellent references throughout the book and in his bibliography.

Over all, Agent Orange: An Insidious Legacy is a heartfelt effort and a good beginning point for readers to learn the basics of this important issue, especially the serious health issues for Vietnam War veterans and their children and grandchildren.

–Tom Werzyn

Take Me Home Huey by Steve Maloney and Clare Nolan

At nearly ten-by-twelve inches in size, Take Me Home Huey: Honoring American Heroes Through Art (Take Me Home Huey Publishing, 216 pp. $45) by Steve Maloney and Clare Nolan offers a new historical dimension of the American War in Vietnam. The book explains why and how Steve Maloney took a wrecked and abandoned UH-1H Huey helicopter (#174) and turned it into a unique piece of art to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the conflict: a symbol that celebrates brotherhood, dedication, and self-sacrifice among American service personnel..

Co-author Clare Nolan’s expertise in high-stakes drama storytelling greatly enhances the book’s military value. She has written documentaries and created multimedia productions about war and space for National Geographic and Discovery television channels.

Maloney’s artistic career involves repurposing found objects—especially things originally designed to move. Recognition of his artwork began in 2001 with exhibitions in museums, galleries, and traveling shows, following a successful business career. He had served as a member of the 156th Signal Battalion of the Army National Guard in Michigan from 1963-69. This background, coupled with a fascination with helicopters, focused Maloney on his commemorative goal.

Take Me Home Huey vividly recollects Maloney’s quest for the “perfect canvas” for his project. To start the search, he interviewed American Vietnam War veterans. He tells us what they taught him in two chapters that detail wartime helicopter missions, with an emphasis on the shoot down of Huey #174 in 1969. He cleverly charts the aircraft’s 30 years of service that ended two decades before he found its frame in a scrapyard in Arizona in 2014.

The book comes alive in many ways. Opening its huge pages to double-truck photographs of Hueys and of soldiers in danger and pain made me feel as if I were gliding through a time warp into the past. The dynamic images gave me rushes of nervous appreciation for crewmen and grunts whose survival depended on helicopters.

In equally detailed chapters Maloney explains how he enlisted help from many veterans and well-wishers to find Huey #174 and the parts he needed for its reconstruction. He repeatedly reconfigured the design of his paint job to match veterans’ memories. Thirty-six pages of double-spread photographs show the Huey from different angles. Drawings, slogans, and lists cover the airframe to symbolize and grunts’ dreams and needs from long ago.

When paraded before the public, the Huey #174 has reunited men who had not seen each other for decades. New feelings and truths arise and old feelings are reborn. The flood of emotional impact generated by the helicopter motivated the authors to also discuss PTSD and art therapy as a way to help combat the emotional trauma of war. At every opportunity, they champion veterans’ welfare and sense of community.

Huey #174 spent two years traveling to 29 venues in 11 states from November 2015 to November 2017. By then, the project also included original music and songs, poems, films, and a PBS documentary. At least a million people viewed it in person.

In 2019, Huey #174 became a permanent part of the collection of the Palm Springs Air Museum in California.

The Huey’s website is takemehomehuey.org/sculpture

—Henry Zeybel

Nine Pairs of Boots in Vietnam by Stephen R. and Rosie Williams

Stephen and Rosie Williams’ Nine Pairs of Boots in Vietnam: Steps to Healing Every Veteran Needs to Know (Author Academy Elite, 180 pp. $25, hardcover; $15, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is an account of Steve Williams’ 12 months of service in the Vietnam War and his 50 years of mental combat struggling with the effects of PTSD.

Steve Williams (AKA “Sgt. Willie”) is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who returned home to face the lonely mental battles brought on by things he saw and did in combat. His wife Rosie, an author, waited patiently for him to say, “It is time to address my PTSD.” So with his personal recall and her military wife’s perspective of the effects of secondary PTSD, the two worked together to write Nine Pairs of Boots in Vietnam.

Steve Williams does a great job taking me through his early years struggling with a lack of self-confidence that was later attributed to dyslexia. Next came his fear and distress with being drafted not into Army, sent to infantry AIT, and assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. He strongly felt he would die in Vietnam.

Steve then details some of his combat actions, a few of which seemed to be swayed by divine intervention. Then his return to The World where—like many Vietnam veterans—he was rejected, shamed, and scorned by those he had fought for, even by veterans of earlier eras.

He then transitions to the years after his return when he got married, raised three sons, received a Master’s degree, and retired from a good career. Steve and Rosie Williams now spend much of their time ministering to veterans of all ages. I found this to be a very interesting and sometimes exciting story.

This book is written for those with PTSD, and also for families and friends of those with PTSD. If you’re looking for a bible-based, Christian solution for PTSD, this is the book to read. If you’re looking for a secular solution for PTSD, this could still be the book to read. 

Steve and Rosie Williams

While the authors quote more than thirty Bible verses in the book, they make references to more than twenty secular PTSD help groups. They also include a lot of basic medical and practical information about PTSD and secondary PTSD.

Even though I do not share all of Steve and Rosie Williams’ religious beliefs, I recommend this book. I found Nine Pairs of Boots in Vietnam to be very easy to read, enjoyable, uplifting, and educational. It is well indexed, too, with a very good appendix, an After Action Review. and several photos.

The authors’ website is www.rosiejwilliams.com

–Bob Wartman

Battle Green Vietnam by Elise Lemire

Elise Lemire’s Battle Green Vietnam: The 1971 March on Concord, Lexington, and Boston (University of Pennsylvania Press, 248 pp. $45, hardcover; $35.99, Kindle) is a detailed look at a relatively little-known antiwar protest held over Memorial Day weekend in 1971 by members of the New England Chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Lemire, a Literature Professor at Purchase College at the State University of New York, conducted more than a hundred interviews with veterans and civilians who took part in the event or were opposed to it, and did a vast amount of research into archival materials. She has done a great job pulling all of that material together and tells a very interesting, readable story.

The protesting veterans considered the importance of place and performance for this demonstration to both focus, and magnify, what they were trying to say. They carried out their peaceful protest on Revolutionary War battlefields in Massachusetts enacting guerilla-theater war atrocities with toy rifles terrorizing innocent “civilians.”

The antiwar veterans believed that traditional ways of affecting change would not bring about the end of the war fast enough and so they needed to make a bold statement to try to make that happen. They walked almost a hundred miles to make the public more aware of their reasons for calling for an immediate end to the war.

Elise Lemire

The marchers wore jungle fatigues and carried toy M-16 rifles. They used battlefields where the Revolutionary War began: Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill. They chose to do Paul Revere’s famous ride, as mythologized by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in reverse, marching from Concord to Boston.

The idea was to suggest that the U.S. needed to reverse its course in the Vietnam War. They saw this as a patriotic act to warn the American people about what their government was up to in Southeast Asia. Along the way the veterans drew crowds, made speeches, engaged in acts of civil disobedience—and were charged with trespassing,

Lemire also provided a good, concise history of VVAW, and also explains how the U.S. became involved in the Vietnam War, the role the New England colonies played in the Revolutionary War, and the meaning of using obelisks to represent war dead.

Lemire brings the story of this three-day-long demonstration to brilliant Technicolor life. It’s a story that well deserves that treatment.

The book’s website is battlegreenvietnam.com

–Bill McCloud

Floater by Martin Robert Grossman

Floater (Koehler Books, 246 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is former Green Beret Martin Robert Grossman’s third action-thriller featuring Jerry Andrews, a retired police detective who was a Special Forces sergeant in Vietnam during the war.

The idea driving this novel is conveyed in the dedication, which is to the men and women of our armed forces who fight and sometimes die to protect our freedom, “even in the face of protest.” The dedication goes on to say that antiwar demonstrations by hippies and other war protesters “crushed the morale of the American soldier!” And that “the idle rich and famous played the most demoralizing role.” So, in this story, which takes place 20 years after the communist takeover of South Vietnam, justice against what Grossman calls “turncoats and traitors” is “dispensed by those betrayed–REAL JUSTICE!”

Several characters feel they were betrayed while at war and again after returning home to an ungrateful nation, and they have not been able to terms with that. They “quickly found that civilian life for a Vietnam vet was a nightmare,” Grossman writes. The men—Claymore, Meat Cleaver, Short Arm, Super Mex, Terminator, and others—are drawn into a plan to take out a “who’s who of war protestors.”

One of their main targets is the movie star Brandy Forester. She began as a child of privilege and wealth, becoming an acclaimed actress who always seemed to be in the shadow of her more famous father. She then began protesting the war and, in 1972 traveled to North Vietnam where she “sat for photographs with the enemy.” She’s described as having a “small chest,” in contrast to Army nurses with their “big racks.” The men don’t want to just kill her; they aim to send her straight to hell.

A rival group may be going after the same targets, including Sen. John Kershaw, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and served in Vietnam on a brown-water Navy patrol boat. Grossman writes that after intentionally wounding himself in order to get a Purple Heart, Kershaw then denigrated American troops when he testified before a congressional committee. Grossman says “he became hated by all soldiers” who were fighting for their country and their lives.

The leader of the group of enraged vets lives on a large ranch in Arizona and feels increasingly isolated from a world he thinks has rejected him. His goal is to put together a new A-Team, drawing men from VA clinics. He thinks of them as his “band of merry men.” Meanwhile, former detective Jerry Andrews volunteers to help law-enforcement with the cases.

I suggest reading this novel about murdering prominent people who protested the war as a fantasy. If that sounds like your thing, the story is well written and moves fast.

–Bill McCloud 

Who Will Go by Terry Buckler

There have been more than a dozen books about the November 1970 U.S. Special Operations raid on the Son Tay POW camp outside of Hanoi in North Vietnam. The latest is Terry Buckler’s Who Will Go: Into the Son Tay POW Camp (360 pp. $39.90, hardcover; $28.90, paper; $8.99, Kindle), which came out last November to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that famed mission.

Buckler, who was an Army Special Forces E-5 radio operator, offers a unique account of the training that went into the raid, as well as the raid itself. He wasn’t an officer who helped plan the operation. His perspective as an involved NCO—and the youngest man who took part in the mission—makes for an interesting story.

In this book, Buckler, with the help of Cliff Westbrook, takes us through his military training and describes volunteering at Fort Bragg for a secret mission that could prove to be “moderately dangerous,” as it was described. Buckler was selected to be included on the raid because he was aggressive enough to ask what was going on, and wanted to be included. 

Buckler describes the three intensive months of training that the Green Berets went through at Eglin AFB in Florida in areas that had been used as training sites for other classified missions. Of the 500-odd who men volunteered for the mission, about a hundred took part in the actual raid, including the USAF personnel who supported the 56 men on the ground.

Terry Buckler

The prison camp was reconstructed in the Florida wilderness from intel photos and information gleaned from myriad sources. Buckler presents a view of the training—some of which included live fire—that could only come from a man-on-the-ground, and he tells his story well.

He and Westbrook interviewed scores of raid participants, and have fleshed out the story from many angles. We hear from guys who got their hands dirty, as well as those who sat on the platform at the briefings.

The book contains 190 pages of appendices, along with photos, charts, maps, lists of personnel and material, and a list of equipment carried by each man into the field.

The planning, execution, assessment of the Son Tay Raid will continue to be studied by military planners. Terry Buckler’s book adds to the trove of useful information about it and is very well worth the read.

The book’s website is thesontayraid.com

—Tom Werzyn

The Birdhouse Man by Rick DeStefanis

In Rick DeStefanis’ novel, The Birdhouse Man: A Vietnam War Veteran’s Story (360 pp. $23.95, hardcover; $12.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), an older veteran tell his Vietnam War story to a student working on a college project. DeStefanis served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1970-72. The book is the latest novel in his Vietnam War Series.

In it, widower Sam Walker is selling his handmade birdhouses at a campus arts and crafts festival when he meets a student, Claire Cunningham, who tells him the military insignia on his cap is the same one her grandfather had worn. Her grandfather had recently died before he could help her with her senior thesis, which was going to be based mainly on his Vietnam War experiences. Sam seldom talked about the war, except when he had taught it at the college, and he never told anyone about his personal experiences. Still, he decides to help Clair finish the thesis, even though she wants the unfiltered truth of what he did, saw, and thought.

Sam tells her he had enlisted ahead of the draft, volunteered for OCS, then went to Airborne and Ranger School. He landed in Vietnam in late 1967 and noted that everything “outside the barbed wire appeared to be a land of poverty and filth.” He goes on to say that the Vietnamese countryside was “litter, naked children, rivers, and palm trees—sort of like paradise gone to hell.” He was amazed to see a “house made of beer cans.”

Sam eventually tells the young woman of combat so intense and close-up that his rifle was once pressed against the chest of an enemy soldier when he fired it. After a few sessions with her, his nightmares return. We then learn that Claire is trying to connect with her father who served in the Army in Iraq and is on the streets somewhere suffering from PTSD. As Sam continues his story and answers her questions, he decides to help Claire find her father.

In a way the main plot is a fantasy in which a grumpy old veteran finally decides to talk about the war, but only to a young female college student who is very attractive and, as Sam says, my “kind of woman.” While on the road searching for her father the two frequently share a hotel room. One morning they eat breakfast in the room with her wrapped only in a blanket. And, to round out the fantasy, Claire hangs on every word of Sam’s story.

On the other hand, everything turns out to be on the up and up, which seems plausible. Claire loved her grandfather and sees much of him in Sam.

I was impressed with how Rick DeStefanis spun out the various threads of this story in such a way that I never once thought things might come unraveled. He has created a great story of war and the human relationships that come together because of it.

His website is rickdestefanis.com

–Bill McCloud

Flashbacks by R. Dean Jerde and Tom Pisapia

Disappointingly, R. Dean Jerde appears or is quoted only sparingly in his own book, Flashbacks: A Vietnam Soldier’s Story 50 Years Later (Luminaire Press, 260 pp. $14.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle). His war story—as a member of a searchlight battalion during his December ’67-to-January ‘69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War—could have been a much more interesting one if he had put more of himself into his own book. Jerde and his co-author Tom Pisapia, instead, have providing a lot of well-known information about Agent Orange, PTSD, the VA’s mistreatment of Vietnam War veterans, and the negative reception we received upon returning to the U.S. from the war.

As indicated by the book’s title, Pisapia put Flashbacks together after a series of conversations, meetings, and interviews he had with his old friend Jerde and his brother over the span of about a year. During those sessions Jerde’s recollections, by his own admission, amounted to a series of mostly unrelated flashbacks to his time in Vietnam. 

Upon returning to the states after his tour of duty, Dean Jerde married, began a family, and immersed himself deeply into his chosen occupation as a carpenter. He buried his wartime experiences, not speaking about them, even to his wife, for fifty years. Not until his retirement with time on his hands and the advent of the conversations and meetings with his brother and with Tom Pisapi, did some of the stories and experiences come out, along with symptoms of his long-carried PTSD.

As can be the case with self-published books, Flashbacks could have used a fact checker and more editing as it contains more than a few spelling, syntax, and punctuation errors.

Flashbacks, in short, is a book that needs more story and a bit of polish.

Pisapia’s website is tompisapia.net

–Tom Werzyn