Don’t Thank Me for My Service by S. Brian Willson

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Don’t Thank Me for My Service: My Viet Nam Awakening to the Long History of US Lies (Clarity Press, 412 pp. $29.95 paperback; $15.99, Kindle) is a difficult book to classify. The subtitle indicates that it is a memoir. But it turns out that this is more like a textbook—and one that perhaps should be required reading for a college or graduate school course on the Vietnam War.

Brian Willson commanded an Air Force combat security unit at Phan Rang Air Base in Vietnam. After coming home from the war, Willson went to law school and ended up as a peace advocate, taking on the criminal justice system and the foreign policies of the U.S. In a terrible accident during a protest, Willson lost both legs while attempting to block a train carrying weapons to Central America in 1987. The accident—which Willson writes about in his 2011 book, Blood on the Tracks—did not deter him. His new book is clearly the work of a man who is passionate about justice, and who puts in the hard work of research.

Willson, however, has crammed too much material into this book. There really are two books in one. The opening pages and the last chapter contain his personal stories, with an especially interesting recounting of his first day in country. The first eight chapters are a history book, a Howard Zinn-like perspective with lots and lots of footnotes.

This history covers a wide range of topics, from a review of the theft of the land of America’s indigenous inhabitants to Cold War hysteria, and just about everything in-between. There is a history of the fighting in Vietnam, a history of the social justice fights in America, and much more. It is exhausting.

One wishes that Willson could have broken this up into two—or even three—different books. And that he was a better writer.

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Willson

But don’t let that scare you away from this book. Don’t Thank Me for My Service is a historical resource with an important perspective.  Brian Willson comes down hard on American imperialism. His facts and his arguments need to be heard and need to be known.

My recommendation: Put this on your bookshelf, and look at it from time to time.

Brian Willson’s website is brianwillson.com

—Bill Fogarty

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Walking Point by Robert Kunkel

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As many war veterans have done before him, Robert Kunkel has created a memoir based on short stories he wrote to try to free his mind of haunting memories that caused post-traumatic stress disorder. Along with his own serious physical wounds, Kunkel had several friends killed in action, which ingrained his brain cells with psychological scars for an eternity, he says.

“There are thousands of stories like mine, but each is very different because of perception and what was in the mind at the time of an encounter, whatever that encounter may have been,”  Kunkel notes in Walking Point: A Vietnam Memoir (Thunderbrook, 479 pp. $18.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle).

Bob Kunkel is a savvy guy. His recollections of infantry life are as informative as any Vietnam War memoir I have read. A stickler for detail, he presents an unfiltered view of what took place in his own mind and speculates about the thoughts of others. His descriptions of combat, suffering, and death leave little to the imagination. His stories describe meaningful encounters on and off the battlefield. Bad actors generally receive a comeuppance.

At the same time, many of Kunkel’s stories are humorous. He labels laughter as “a smokescreen to keep from crying.”

He primarily served with B Company, 5th/7th Cavalry in the 1st Cavalry Division, operating out of Camp Radcliff near An Khe. The men of his company were determinedly aggressive against the NVA and Viet Cong during Operations Irving and Thayer in Binh Dinh Province in September and October 1966. The Americans relocated hamlet populations, burned hooches, destroyed food sources, and pursued the enemy with a take-no-prisoners policy. Kunkel reveals both heroics and atrocities performed by his company.

Drafted into the Army earlier that year at the relatively advanced age of twenty-two, Kunkel frequently assumed the role of platoon spokesman by differentiating between what had to be done and what was illogical. He counterbalanced a borderline wise-ass attitude by volunteering for dangerous tasks such as walking point and clearing underground bunkers as a tunnel rat. He was devoted to his fellow soldiers.

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Bob Kunkel

In his first large-scale battle, Kunkel suffered wounds to his head, back, and buttocks. Evacuated to Japan, he spent three painful months convalescing and then willingly returned to the field. Eventually the company commander recognized Kunkel’s inability to carry a full pack due to muscle damage and moved him to guard duty—a job that turned out to be more dynamic than expected.

For several years after returning to civilian life, Kunkel struggled to establish a purpose for his existence. Eventually, he found a “marriage and career made for him,” he explains.

Kunkel spent eighteen years writing Walking Point. He started it in 1999 after retiring from a thirty-three year law-enforcement career. Jean Doran Matua—who owns, publishes, and edits the Tri-County News in Minnesota—helped him with editing and designing the book.

The author’s website is walkingpoint.us

—Henry Zeybel

 

335th Assault Helicopter Company by Vance Gammons and Dominic Fino

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Vance Gammons and Dominic Fino’s 335th Assault Helicopter Company: What We Did after the Vietnam War. (Deeds Publishing, 296 pp., $19.95, paper) is an interesting look at the post-Vietnam War lives of the members of the Cowboy Company, a stand-alone Air Assault Helicopter company created in September 1966 to work with a variety of infantry units.

The unit, a company of lift ships and their personnel, fitted the needs of the Army in Vietnam to provide the flexibility for ground troops who did not possess their own transportation onto the battlefield.  As such, the 335th provided service to the leg units of the 173rd Airborne Brigade from 1965 until its stand down in November 1971.

The book is a compilation of the post-war biographies of the men who served with the unit. Knowing the pilots and crew members’ propensity for quick, accurate verbal communications, the book surprises with some lengthy personal biographies, along with some extremely brief ones that let the reader fill in the spaces between comments.

Some of the men went on to lead rich and colorful lives. Some of the biographical sketches show the pain and heartaches that others bore during their time in the war.

What comes through clearly in all of them is the brotherly bonds created by the camaraderie of their time as Assault Helicopter men. The pride of their service is evident in all the stories.

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A particularly heartbreaking biography submitted by the widow of Ed Eget tells of a lifetime of hard work punctuated by lingering health problems related to his service in Vietnam. It is easy to see the effects of combat on each person in every story—including Agent Orange and PTSD.

Dominic Fino, one of the co-authors, tells of his struggles with bits of sarcastic humor and honesty.

The book shows Vietnam War veterans as we returned home, put on civilian clothes, and went about making productive lives. It also shows the resiliency of the American citizen soldier who faced extreme danger in war, yet overcame that to grow into substantial contributing members of society.

–Bud Alley

A former First Cavalry Division LT, Bud Alley is the author of The Ghosts of the Green Grass, which looks at the fighting at LZ Albany during the 1965 Vietnam War Battle of the Ia Drang Valley

 

An American Town and the Vietnam War by Tony Pavia and Matt Pavia

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Stamford, the anchor of Connecticut’s Gold Coast, is the “American Town” of Tony Pavia and Matt Pavia’s An American Town and the Vietnam War (McFarland, 273 pp., $39.95, paper).

Tony Pavia—a retired American history teacher and the former principal of Stamford High School—and his son Matt, who teaches American Studies and English at Darien High School in Connecticut, began work on the book in the summer of 2015. They spent countless hours over the next three years conducting research and interviewing Stamford’s Vietnam War veterans and the families of those who did not come home from Vietnam.

In addition to profiling the town’s war veterans, the authors also include information about the changes that occurred in the town from 1964-75. In doing so, they show  what the veterans missed and what they came home to after their deployments in the war zone.

This is a well-researched, well-constructed, and well-edited narrative that relies heavily on the local newspaper, the Stamford Advocate, as well on as those wide-ranging, face-to-face interviews. The result is a series of readable and fact-filled profiles of the twenty-nine men who died in the war, as well as what appears to be verbatim transcriptions of interviews with the men and women who returned home.

Each of the latter includes a short paragraph on the veteran’s post-war life. Some are quite compelling.

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Having lived in the Hartford, Connecticut, area for several years, the book was a pleasant return to those times and places for this reader.

An American Town is a good read and a commendable effort—a demonstrable labor of love for a home town and its Vietnam War veterans, some who soldier on today. And some who rest in peace.

The book’s website is anamericantownatwar.wordpress.com

—Tom Werzyn

Hope in the Shadows of War by Thomas Paul Reilly

Thomas Paul Reilly is an award-winning columnist and the author of many books. He often advocates for causes important to military veterans.

His latest novel, Hope in the Shadows of War (Koehler Books, 278 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle), has a few short scenes that take place in Vietnam during the war, but primarily the book deals with the life of Vietnam War veteran Timothy Patrick O’Rourke who is struggling in 1973 America to find his way after a tough tour of combat duty.

He has a seriously damaged leg that has left him with a pronounced limp. This leaves Timothy open to be called “gimp” and “Chester” after the limping Gunsmoke character.

Much of the book takes place prior to Christmas. Timothy works at a Christmas tree stand where he struggles to do the heavy lifting. He does his part, but little slack is cut for him. Some attempt is made to make Timothy an “everyveteran” struggling with “alienation, hyper-vigilance, substance abuse, relationship problems, guilt, flashbacks, nightmares, and depression.”

Timothy is not a whiner, but is reluctant to share his troubles with his girlfriend Cheryl, who wants him to do so. Manliness issues prevent Timothy from coming clean with her about his money problems and other related issues.

People at the VA seem often to drag their feet about helping veterans, and people in general seem to not want to hire anyone who served in the Vietnam War. Timothy gets put on notice at the hospital where he works part time for seeming to be interested in talking with union organizers, which adds to the stress he has to deal with on a daily basis.

Little is made of Timothy’s military experience as a helicopter pilot, but much is made of his return to civilian life being marred by indifference or hostility on the part of former friends. Timothy supports his mother with a hodgepodge of part-time jobs, and fights to pursue his dream of getting a college degree.

Timothy does have a lot of support from friends and from his incredibly loyal girlfriend, and some luck which comes his way. I was glad that all his luck was not bad, because I was rooting for him as most readers will find themselves doing.

I recommend this novel highly.

The author’s website is tomreillyblog.com

—David Willson

Bourbon & Bullets by John C. Tramazzo

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It’s hardly news that military men and women have been known to enjoy a stiff drink. “American service members carried whiskey into battle from Valley Forge to Gettysburg, Manila, and Da Nang,” John C. Tramazzo writes in Bourbon & Bullets: True Stories of Whiskey, War, and Military Service (Potomac Books/University of Nebraska Press, 296 pp. $29.95, hardcover and Kindle). It “bolstered their courage, calmed their nerves, and treated their maladies.”

Less well known is the significant role that this country’s veterans have played in whiskey production. That’s the subject of Tramazzo’s entertaining book, which is packed with fascinating details.

During the 1960s, many young people “rejected everything their parents stood for, including their alcoholic beverage of choice,” Tramazzo—a U.S. Army captain who has served in Afghanistan—notes. “Bourbon nearly disappeared from the American drinking scene. However, overseas sales helped keep bourbon afloat, thanks in particular to sales on military bases.”

Tramazzo, who runs the bourbonscout.com website, recounts a story the famed Vietnam War correspondent Joe Galloway told about riding in a helicopter during the siege of Plei Mei Special Forces Camp. “When the Huey landed, a sergeant major ran up to Galloway along with an angry field grade officer. [Galloway said,] ‘The dialogue goes something like this: Who the hell are you? A reporter. Son, I need everything in the goddamn world from food and ammo to water, medevac, [and] reinforcements, and I wouldn’t mind a bottle of Jim Beam. But what I do not need is a goddamn reporter!’”

That was in 1965, the year the Army drafted Bob Stillnovich, who later led a platoon in the Thirty-Fifth Infantry Regiment and served nearly eighteen months in what Tramazzo calls “the most dangerous jungles of South Vietnam.” Afterward, Stillnovich pursued several lines of work, eventually co-founding the award-winning Golden Distillery (now part of Old Line in Baltimore).

Another entrepreneurial Vietnam War veteran, Thomas E. Bulleit, Jr., was a Navy corpsman attached to a Marine battalion north of the Da Nang Airbase in 1968. During the battle of Khe San, Bulleit asked himself: “How can men come to this?” Nineteen years later, a successful lawyer, he established a bourbon company, now part of London-based Diageo. In 2016, Bulleit bourbons won gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

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Hootch party in Vietnam with Jim Beam & friends

Amid this celebration of booze, Tramazzo sounds a cautionary note: “[W]hile whiskey has comforted and intrigued me and played an important role in the American military community, one cannot ignore that it has been, and always will be, destructive when abused. No group understands that reality more than veterans of war do.”

He says he was “proud to discover” that a World War I veteran, Bill Wilson, co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935.

–Angus Paul

 

 

 

The Other Side of Rock and War by Billy Terrell and Rich Podolsky

As the reader begins to be drawn into Billy Terrell’s The Other Side of Rock and War: One Man’s Battle to Save His Life, His Career, His Country, and the Orphans He Left Behind (National Foundation of Patriotism, 234 pp., $18.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) it feels as if the book is simply a transcription of a long stream-of-consciousness interview with co-author Rich Podolsky. There are repeated references to the same occurrence, the same people, and the same author’s reaction—often within the same few paragraphs.

On the positive side, we get to accompany Terrell through a hardscrabble upbringing in and around Philadelphia and Newark and Asbury Park, New Jersey. He introduces us to a decidedly and interestingly dysfunctional group of family members, as well to a less than optimal childhood. He also nominally covers his family’s entry into this country and their progression to the time frame of the story.

Born William Torsiello, Billy Terrell shares with us his early sense of isolation from friendships, in and outside his family, and his turn to music and comedy as a means to counter those feelings. His developing music career was cut short by an invitation from his local draft board during the Vietnam War.

Torsiello wound up in Vietnam in Tuy Hoa, near Phan Rang, as a member of an Army Quartermaster Unit.  A few chapters take us through his deployment. He also tells of his involvement with local orphanage, working with other GIs working to assuage some of the misfortunes that befell civilians in the Vietnam War.

On his return to the States, William Torsiello became Billy Terrell, a man who went through a long roller coaster of successes and failure in the music business. His up-and-down life also was punctuated with alcohol abuse, failed marriages, and health challenges.

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Billy Terrell

Throughout the book, Terrell describes interactions with greats and near-greats in the popular music and stand-up comedy scenes from the fifties to the eighties. Terrell has a remarkable discography. He wrote, sang, and produced much music from 1965-2017, and later worked as a successful stand-up comedian.

At the end of the book Terrell takes us with him on a 2013 visit back to the Mang Lang Orphanage at Tuy Hoa, and notes the closure it brought for him as he provided funds to help assure the institution’s future.

Billy Terrell’s story is at once one of self-promotion and of measurable success—a good outcome from bad circumstances.

–Tom Werzyn