My War & Welcome to It by Tom Copeland

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Like most teenagers of the time, Tom Copeland had no burning desire to fight in the Vietnam War. But he was drafted into the Army and served for a year in Vietnam with the 1st First Infantry Division. His tour of duty in the war is the centerpiece of  My War and Welcome To It (Sunbury Press, 191 pp. $$19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), which is written in a voice ranging from youthful humor and wonderment to one of great fear of being killed. He prefaces this autobiography by saying: “I was aged beyond my years. I became an old man before my time.”

Copeland describes his life growing up in Southeastern New Mexico, mostly outdoors; getting drafted in August 1966; going through infantry AIT; operating from Lai Khe with a ground surveillance team with the Big Red One’s 2nd Battalion/2nd Regiment in 1967-68; and returning home and working his way up a corporate ladder. The last part was the most difficult.

He  describes military life largely by concentrating on the good and bad behavior of men of all ranks. Copeland highlights individualists such as a trainee who got away with impersonating the boot camp commander and drill sergeants, even in their presence.

He saw plenty of action, including fighting Viet Cong forces at Prek Loc II and Phu Loi, in the Ong Dong Jungle during Operation Paul Bunyan, and at Ong Thanh. Copeland writes in detail about the wounded and dead-and-maimed bodies in only one of those operations, Ong Thanh. That battle, he says, “marked a change in the way I saw the war and the value of human life.”

After the war, Copeland suffered decades of emotional stress involving his family, work, and schools without recognizing that he had post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2003, his nephew displayed PTSD symptoms following three deployments to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Copeland forced the young man to seek medical help. That’s when he realized he had the same emotional problems and went to the VA for treatment.

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Tom Copeland in country

In 2013, Tom Copeland went back to Vietnam to try to ameliorate the negative effects of combat that lingered within him. He and other Vietnam War veterans placed commemorative plaques and flowers at battle sites where friends had been killed.

The book’s concluding chapter is a deeply insightful distillation of the trauma serving in the Vietnam War inflicted on him. He closes that section—and the book—by letting us know that the war is still with him.

“Don’t think for a minute I have forgotten those things that took place years ago,” he writes, “They have just become easier to live with.”

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

Appalachian Free Spirit by Duke Talbott

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Irwin D. “Duke” Talbott says that his 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War amounted to a prolonged nightmare. He encountered increasingly inhumane and intolerable situations that separated him from normal behavior. Those traumatic experiences included seeing naked prisoners locked in bamboo cages cowering in the fetal position; consoling a witness to the murder of women and children at My Lai; and surviving sustained bombardments of LZ Bronco.

Talbott’s Vietnam War experiences are the centerpiece of his memoir, Appalachian Free Spirit: A Recovery Journey (Balboa Press, 266 pp. $35.95, hardcover; $17.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), which also includes his account of salvaging his life from PTSD and addictions. Talbott also includes letters he wrote to his parents from Vietnam and earlier from Somalia where he was a Peace Corps volunteer.

His stories about Somalia are entertaining and meaningful. Heading a school building project provided profound self-satisfaction. On the other hand, his exposure to war’s violence began during his Peace Corps days in Africa when he went to Yemen and found himself in the midst of several gun battles during a period of civil unrest.

Talbott sandwiches his Vietnam War stories between detailed accounts of his West Virginia upbringing and his college-oriented, post-war life. Describing his first “big gulp” of whisky in his mid-teens, he says: “My whole being glowed in the aftermath.” He also fondly recalls memories of Darvon. It was in Vietnam, he says, that he “first learned to mix alcohol, grass, and pills for maximum effect.”

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Duke Talbott

The Twelve Step Program was Talbott’s compass to finding emotional freedom, and he details every step he took. He explains that his escape from self-destruction followed a path available to everyone. He bases his message on logic and inspiration from God.

Our society overflows with people willing and capable of helping addicts, he says, and finding them is infinitely rewarding. He clearly convinced me that one’s strongest enemy in a battle for emotional independence is one’s own ego.

After earning a Ph.D. in history from West Virginia University, Duke Talbott taught at several colleges, including his alma mater, Marshall University in Huntingon, West Virginia, and West Virginia Weslyan. He is a Professor Emeritus of History at Glenville State College in West Virginia. His expertise focuses on Africa. From 2009-13 he served as the mayor of Elkins—West Virginia, of course.

—Henry Zeybel

The Boys of St. Joe’s ’65 in the Vietnam War by Dennis G. Pregent

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Posterity needs men like Dennis Pregent who look back and examine life to determine what they and people like them have accomplished. A Vietnam War veteran, Pregent wrote a memoir about his role in the war. Then, encouraged by his wife, he found and interviewed ten other war veterans with whom he had graduated from high school: seven soldiers, two Marines, and one sailor. They served from mid-1965 to late 1972. He tells their stories in The Boys of St. Joe’s ’65 in the Vietnam War (McFarland, 246 pp. $39.95, paper: $19.99, Kindle).

Pregent served in I Corps near Da Nang. On his first tour, he was a Marine supply clerk and MP who patrolled at night and set ambushes. “We never killed anyone,” he says. Five months into his second tour as a comptroller, Pregent volunteered for temporary duty with the 1st Marine Air Wing as a CH-46 Sea Knight gunner. The unit rescued the wounded, carried the dead from battlefields, inserted and extracted recon teams, and resupplied Marines under fire.

Grisly events connected to saving wounded civilians (especially children) and Marines deeply affected him, but that exposure to the war did not satisfy his curiosity. For the last three days of his helicopter duty, Pregent volunteered for night medevac missions. That short span provided him with unforgettable memories about the frailty of the human body. Thereafter, he “was relieved to be back in the rear” for the remainder of his tour, he says. Pregent does not preach; he simply reports what he saw and did.

Pregent’s book also includes his own his pre- and post-war life, and he uses the same format to tell his Vietnam War story as he does with the ten men he interviewed. They all grew up in Adams and North Adams, Massachusetts. It was a mid-twentieth-century Americana environment: Households had two parents. Most fathers had served in World War II and worked responsible blue-collar jobs. Women kept house and sometimes had jobs outside the home. Children obeyed their parents and teachers. Families honored the Catholic Church and the nation. Boys pursued healthy outdoor activities. At all levels, misbehavior stayed within acceptable boundaries.

The men who went to Vietnam also shared a remarkable commonality in their military service: mostly they enlisted; within six months they arrived in Vietnam; and they usually fought as infantrymen—mechanized, airborne, or whatever. Search and destroy was the order of the day, and that was what they did—repeatedly. But, despite the many similarities the men share, Pregent uncovered ten distinct personalities.

Their stories are filled with heroics and selflessness. One man was killed in action, one paralyzed for life, and another suffered only slightly less horrendous wounds. Each endured a year filled with combat ops, air assaults, and skirmishes—and postwar PTSD. They usually fought outnumbered. They humped for stretches of twenty-eight-days, with two rest days in between, a schedule that lasted month after month. Fifteen-hour workdays, seven days a week were the norm for support personnel.

To round out his view of the era, Pregent includes a chapter on Carol Bleau Boucher—a war protestor and ’65 St. Joe graduate. Although her grandfather and father served in World War I and II, Boucher opposed the Vietnam War. The combat deaths of a family friend, a classmate, and then her long-time boyfriend within a year triggered her to join protest marches, antiwar discussions, and other forms of demonstrations. At least, as Pregent tells her story, Boucher’s protests eventually helped to disenchant some town citizens with the war.

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St. Joe’s High, North Adams, Massachusetts

Each chapter includes well-chosen photographs that mostly came from private collections and perfectly align with the topic of the moment.

I have read other books that examine small groups of men from the same community. The Boys of St. Joe’s is the most interesting. One chapter subtitle, “Too Many Close Calls,” comes close to describing the life of everyone in the St. Joe clan.

Pregent portrays young men with unquestionable devotion to nation and family, a small part of a generation we probably never will see again. His subliminal message (intentional or not) made me smile: It’s a short step from obeying a nun to following a sergeant.

—Henry Zeybel

My Long Journey in Baltimore by Lawerence E. Mize

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Lawerence Mize enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1966, and did a tour of duty as a combat medic with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. He then served as a police officer in Baltimore for close to thirty years, retiring in 1999 as a sergeant.  In the early 1980s he was troubled by PTSD and dealt with that problem by writing the poetry collections Tortured Soul (1997) and Dead Men Calling (2002).  Both of those works are based on his experiences in Vietnam and helped him cope with the issues he was having with PTSD.

Mize’s latest collection, My Long Journey in Baltimore (Dorrance Publishing, 92 pp., $23, paper; $18, e book), contains eighty pages of poetry. The titles of the poems give away their subjects. “Cu Chi,” “Dead Men Calling,” “Screaming Eagle,” “Memories of Nam,” “My Gun,” and many more poems deal with his war, his family and his career in law enforcement.

 

Here are a typical few lines from “Screaming Eagle”:

Walk in the vills

Down beaten paths

Worm through the tunnels

I’m here to kick ass. 

I’m young and I’m strong

As hardcore as they come,

Humping in the Nam.

Keep Charlie on the run. 

Morphine syrettes, filling sandbags, big orange pills, PTSD, baby killers, cowards at home, rats fleeing to Canada, traitors should be shot in the head, napalm canisters—all of that rhetoric flavored the poetry with the politics of the time.

Read this book and weep. That’s the kind of book it is. I read it and wept myself and for myself.  Of course, these days it is a rare book that does not provoke me to tears because of the medication I’m taking—or the subjects of the books.

I recommend this book for anyone looking for poetry that captures the extreme language of the 1960s.

–David Willson

Vietnam Reconsidered by John Ketwig

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John Ketwig’s 1985 book and a hard rain fell…: a GI’s True Story of the War in Vietnam stands among the top American Vietnam War memoirs. And that’s saying something as that conflict’s literary canon contains dozens of memoirs that are among best writing on war—any war.

Ketwig’s sprawling, ambitious new book, Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter (Trine Day, 480 pp., $24.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is his attempt, as he puts it, “to say more about the war and modern-day militarism in America.” And say more Ketwig does in this lengthy book that contains what he calls “a mosaic of historic fragments,” along with his analysis of that history and the lessons he takes from the American war in Vietnam and other U.S. “military adventures.” Ketwig also includes first-person accounts of his life before, during, and after serving in the Vietnam War, an experience, he says that “devastated my heart and soul.”

Ketwig—who joined the Army in December 1966 with the draft breathing down his nineteen-year-old neck—deserves credit for some compelling writing and some well-executed parts of the book. The long history part, however, which includes many statistics, is presented with little attribution and without footnotes or end notes. Why? Because, Ketwig says, “most readers ignore them and they impede the joys of reading.” He does include a very long bibliography—nine pages of books, some of which he recommends, but none of which are annotated. So this is not the book to go to for a fact-checked history of the Vietnam War or the Vietnam War era.

Some of the facts he presents, in fact, do not check out. For example, Ketwig states as fact that there have been “200,000 suicides” by Vietnam veterans since the war. In reality, there are no reliable statistics on suicide in the U.S., much less on Vietnam War veteran suicides. Those who have looked into the subject trace extremely high suicide figures (such as 200,000) that people cite to a thoroughly debunked myth that sprung up in the early 1980s that more Vietnam veterans had killed themselves after the war than were killed in the war.

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John Ketwig

Another example: In Ketwig’s short section on R&R he says that American troops “were allowed a five-day R&R… once a year.” There may have been a once-a-year rule, but it was regularly broken. And some of the R&R destinations, such as Sydney and Honolulu, were for seven days. He also writes that GIs “disembarking from the R&R center” were “immediately accosted by a huge throng of ‘agents’ or pimps…”

That may have happened to Ketwig and others of his acquaintance, but for thousands of others nothing remotely like that occurred.

At its heart, Vietnam Reconsidered is a smart, well-read, highly political Vietnam War veteran’s interpretation of that still-controversial war, replete with John Ketwig’s strong antiwar opinions and some strong writing.

—Marc Leepson

The Hump by Al Conetto            

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Vietnam War historians consider the fighting that took place the Ia Drang Valley on November 14-17, 1965, as the first major engagement between U.S. Army forces and the North Vietnamese Army, aka the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). The battle became immortalized in the book, We Were Soldiers Once… and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joe Galloway. The movie based on Gen. Moore and Galloway’s book further glorified the event.

Showing full respect toward the 1st Cavalry Division that fought in the Ia Drang, Al Conetto questions that battle’s precedence by citing Operation HUMP in which U.S. Army and PAVN/Viet Cong contingents clashed in War Zone D on Hill 65 nine days earlier—from November 5-9, 1965. Conetto describes the earlier encounter in The HUMP: The 1st Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry, in the First Major Battle of the Vietnam War (McFarland, 216 pp. $19.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle). Conetto contends that that engagement changed the nature of the Vietnam War from a hit-and-run guerrilla action to a contest between large-scale American and enemy main force units.

During Operation HUMP, Lt. Conetto led a rifle platoon. “This is my story,” he writes. “This is what I saw. This is what I heard. This is what I experienced, what I read and what I believe. This is my truth, but it is also” the men of his battalion’s “story.”

Conetto builds his case with many interviews from former comrades, grim photographs, the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) Staff Journal and the After-Action Report, a citation for Medic Lawrence Joel’s Medal of Honor, a Presidential Unit Citation, chapter notes, an extensive bibliography, and his own service record.

HUMP began with an air assault by U.S. and Australian troops on November 5. The first two days “passed with no contest other than minor brushes with enemy forces of no significance,” Conetto says. Intense fighting began on the morning of November 8 when a U.S. platoon met a much larger enemy force and suffered almost 100 percent casualties with “nerve shattering speed.”

He describes the fighting from the viewpoints of individual soldiers and shows that Hill 65 was a bloodbath on both sides. Those killed in action numbered 49 Americans, one Australian, and 403 PAVN. Five days later,fighting on a larger scale began in the Ia Drang Valley and, Conetto says, “America quickly forgot the HUMP.”

On a second tour in Vietnam, Conetto commanded a company before transferring to G2 as the briefing officer for a commanding general.

In The HUMP, Conetto sandwiches the story of Hill 65 between a history lesson he calls “The Road to War,” which also includes glimpses of his childhood and his post-war life. The latter section is arguably the book’s highlight because it details the destructiveness of Conetto’s PTSD and his slow and painful progress in learning to regulate—but never conquer—it. His recollections and conclusions about post-combat feelings and behavior revived several attitude issues of my own that I had thought were long gone.

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In the broadest terms, Conetto gives readers their money’s worth by providing two short books in one.

An excellent companion piece to The HUMP is retired Army Col. Keith M. Nightingale’s Just Another Day in Vietnam, which takes place in 1967. Comparing the two books’ episodes of combat shows how platoon-level tactics barely changed during the two years after Operation HUMP and the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley fighting supposedly altered the nature of the war.

—Henry Zeybel

Ghosts and Shadows by Phil Ball

Phil Ball’s memoir, Grunts and Shadows: A Marine in Vietnam, 1968-1969  (McFarland, 224 pp. $19.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) tells the story of a young and—by his own admission—somewhat naïve Marine. It would be a nice selection for a reader not familiar with the Vietnam War. It also might make a good reading assignment for a high school AP English class.

Phil Ball, who died after the book came out, wrote a nicely developed presentation of his experiences as a Marine grunt who served in I Corps, the northern-most area of South Vietnam. He arrived in-country during 1968 after the Tet Offensive, and focuses his story on his assignment to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, which began operating close to Khe Sanh.

Ball takes the reader from his first days as a brand-new recruit in San Diego, through boot camp at Pendleton, to shipping out to Vietnam. Then he covers his tour in-country, and follows that with a heartfelt chapter on his return to civilian life. In a conversational style—leavened with some well-remembered  (or well-reconstructed) dialogue—he tells his war and post-war stories.

The book reads well, with appropriate military and battlefield jargon that doesn’t weight down the narrative. Ball described his buddies without the addition of drama or unnecessary rhetoric.

Ball also recounts his adventures during a Tokyo R & R, which included meeting a young Japanese woman, blowing all his money, and over-staying his leave. The return to Vietnam (and his temporary incarceration) provides perhaps a been-there-done-that for some of us.

Ball also describewsome of the racial tensions he saw and lived with in Vietnam, the disbelief and disillusionment with his own command structure and personnel, as well as the daily, all-pervading undercurrent of fear and unease.

In his Epilogue, Ball recountes twenty-plus years of great and small challenges he faced after coming home from the war. That includes dealing with the VA on several levels. He describes his realization that his diagnosis of PTSD may have laid to rest many questions and concerns. This book is the result of a cathartic, story-telling effort to release those demons and fears.

This is a readable, well-edited book, now it its second edition.

–Tom Werzyn