Every Day is Extra by John Kerry

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One of the most emotional passages in former Sen. John Kerry’s memoir, Every Day is Extra (Simon & Schuster, 640 pp., $35, hardcover; $16.99, Kindle), comes when he recounts the attacks on his record as a Swift Boat commander in Vietnam during the 2004 presidential campaign. Not so much because it was an attack on him personally, but because “Swift Boating” has since become a term that political campaigns use as shorthand to describe the tactic of using smears and lies to attack a candidate’s character.

It is “horrific,” he writes, because it dishonors all those whose fought and died on South Vietnam’s rivers, casting their sacrifices as a lie.

Kerry faults himself for following the advice of his own campaign advisers to ignore the attacks as trivial and not to fight back forcefully. The irony is that the admiral who organized the campaign had written a glowing commendation for Kerry and his crew in 1969.

Kerry—who went on to become Secretary of State—acknowledges that many veterans hated the antiwar movement of which he became a part. “No parades, no thank you for their service.” What brought together Vietnam Veterans Against the War was that feeling of alienation. “I understand that undercurrent of resentment,” he writes, which in turn was also directed at veterans who opposed and demonstrated against the war.

Kerry’s statement about understanding such resentment characterizes much of the book’s tone. He is reflective, analytic, and measured. Indeed, many of his emotions seem understated.

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Lt. Kerry and shipmates, 1969

His best-known antiwar actions came when he joined other veterans depositing their medals on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and asking in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “How do you ask a man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man for a mistake?”

Nonetheless, Kerry had misgivings about leaving his medals on steps where politicians walked. He proposed instead that the medals be placed solemnly on a table covered by a white tablecloth and then be collected and returned to the Pentagon. Other VVAW leaders outvoted him.

Kerry became involved in VVAW after noticing an advertisement in Life magazine with “the image of a rifle with a fixed bayonet planted in the ground with a helmet hanging on top. It was a powerfully evocative symbol. It meant that there were a lot of guys out there who felt as I did.”

Many veterans at VVAW meetings had what is today commonly called PTSD and were “seriously messed up.” Some were in wheelchairs, missing eyes or limbs, or self-medicating.  Before VVAW became a force against the war—which occurred “without any singular moment of decision, without debate”—it sponsored Vietnam veteran support groups.

Like many organizations, VVAW struggled to get off the ground financially and internally. Kerry began pulling away from the disorganization. “Within VVAW there were suddenly too many different agendas competing for priority,” he writes, “some of them controversial.” There were differences over issues of class, drug use, tactics, opposition to the Vietnam War or all wars, as well as a contingent who believed America was “rotten to the core” and those who wanted to put the country “back together.”

Kerry’s activism turned to electoral politics, with the memoir describing his rise to leadership in the Senate and as Secretary of State. It includes his work with the late Sen. John McCain on the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs and its exhaustive search tracking down every rumor about live POWs who had been left behind. The senators even conducted a surreal inspection underneath Ho Chi Minh’s tomb in Hanoi—“walking around a mass of tubes, compressors and pumps” and opening doors to make sure there were no hidden tunnels or cells.

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Senators Kerry and McCain in 1985

At almost 600 pages of text, one wishes that an editor had trimmed the memoir more thoroughly. The first two chapters, “Childhood” and “Bright College Years,” recounting his lineage and his life and travels in Europe as the son of a Foreign Service office might be particular candidates, if only because they reinforce Kerry’s image of elitism, which occasionally dogged him in public life.

For all its length, the memoir is still worth reading. Chapters can be skipped or skimmed in order to focus on more engaging ones, such as the description of in-county Swift Boat operations.

The title Every Day is Extra is compelling and appropriate. It represents an attitude about life that “summarizes how a bunch of guys I served with in Vietnam felt about coming home alive.” It also honors those who did not—with a promise not to waste the gift of a single day in making a difference.

“There are worse things than losing an argument or even an election,” Kerry writes.

The Vietnam War shaped John Kerry’s view of the world and his mission in life. It is reflected on every page of the book.

–Bob Carolla

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Detour: Agent Orange by Dale M. Herder and Sam Smith

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For seven weeks, Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran Sam Smith could move only his left eyeball. His paralysis, a peripheral neuropathy disease called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, developed in twenty-four hours and likely was caused by his exposure to Agent Orange several years earlier while serving as an infantryman in Vietnam.

Smith describes his recovery from the disease in Detour: Agent Orange (Arena, 203 pp. $8.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), which he co-wrote with Dale M. Herter.

The two men have made extensive use of four hundred pages of notes recorded by Smith’s sisters—Linda, a lawyer, and Diane, who owned and ran a concrete plant with her husband. The women began recording events the moment they arrived at Smith’s bedside in an intensive care unit on Day One. Herder, a former naval officer (and Diane’s husband), monitored the notes in a ship’s log format for the first four months of his brother-in-law’s paralysis.

The phenomenal part of Smith’s ordeal was his ability to use his left eye—his only functioning body part. He communicated with his sisters by moving that eyeball left or right and up or down.

With his mind fully functioning, Sam Smith heard and saw everything that took place near him. Hospital staff members viewed him as a lost cause, however, and did not provide adequate treatment. Staying at his bedside 24/7 in shifts of 12-on/12-off, his sisters eventually obtained a writ of guardianship that gave them control of his medical care. For four months a ventilator, pacemaker, feeding tube, and tracheotomy tube provided the functions that his body was incapable of supplying.

After nearly two years in intensive care, acute care, and rehabilitation hospitals, Sam Smith still had a weakened body and lacked muscle control. He forced himself to become stronger and self-sufficient. His explanation of how he mastered the discipline required to use a wheelchair could stand by itself as a training manual.

He learned to walk and tend to his everyday needs. He got a driver’s license, earned a bachelor’s and part of a master’s degree, married, worked as an engineer for twenty-six years, became a grandfather, and retired.

Sam Smith describes his ordeal more like a reporter than as a victim. He seeks no pity. “Heartrending” is the perfect adjective to describe his life, yet he displays a sense of humor even after describing his direst moments.

From 1961-71, the U.S. military’s Operation Ranch Hand sprayed more than 20 million gallons of herbicides over Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos. Agent Orange, which contained dioxin—one of the most toxic chemical compounds ever synthesized—was the most commonly used herbicide.

Detour: Agent Orange gave me a deeper understanding of the dynamics of quadriplegics and other people with acute physical handicaps. They live heroic lives. Smith’s stoicism has influenced me to ignore most of the aches and pains of aging that I often feel.

Agent Orange crippled Sam Smith as surely as any kind of damage inflicted by arms. He survived his war injury because he and his sisters live in a world apart.

—Henry Zeybel

Post 8195 edited by Bobby White

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Twenty-three men recall “untold truths” in Post 8195: Black Soldiers Tell Their Vietnam Stories (Beckham, 228 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper) edited by Bobby White. Far beyond their confrontations with the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, the men still battle post-traumatic stress disorder.

These twenty-three men served in every branch of the service and performed the duties expected of them with lasting pride. A majority of them were infantrymen and remember horrific episodes from the thick of combat. Their gut-level candidness exceeds what is found in most Vietnam War books.

They focus on fears that nearly overpowered them. They emphasize challenges more than heroism, although they acted heroically in times of crisis. They often still show amazement for what they did and saw long ago. Even today, they dwell on how “Vietnam was a big hell spot,” as Ismael Rolle, Jr., put it. “We had no alternative but to fight and survive.”

Mostly draftees, the men express controlled anger regarding racism during their time in Vietnam. They recognized that a racial bias existed, but lived with it. Several became squad leaders.

Eulas Mitchell Jr. says, “I had a squad of fifteen men; all were black.” They performed with “perfection,” which “didn’t sit well with the powers.”

His unit was broken up. Then, Mitchell says, he “was given thirteen southern boys nobody wanted.” He turned them into a “good group” that simply “wanted a proven leader.”

The VFW Post in West Park, Florida, under the guidance of Bobby White, began a program to counsel veterans in multiple ways, especially those with PTSD. Called Stone of Hope, the program is an extension of one offered by the local Vet Center. White, retired from a thirty-two year career with the VA, organized a rehabilitation program that emphasized transcendental meditation, yoga, and chiropractic.534951_lno7y3kp

Post 8195 grew from this program and enhanced the men’s recovery from PTSD. Today, most of the men are in long-term marriages, have families and children, and enjoy retirement benefits earned from civilian careers.

The VFW post plays a major role in the lives of four hundred African Americans, White says,  providing them with both guidance and “the place” for adults to “hang out.”

—Henry Zeybel

  Other Dreams by Marc Levy

Former Vietnam War Army Medic Marc Levy’s Other Dreams (Telegraphos Press, 361 pp., $18, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is another amazing book from the author of Dreams, Vietnam and How Stevie Nearly Lost the War. I never figured that Levy would produce a dream record to top his first book in this series. But he has done it—in spades.

“You are about to read a rare and valuable gift to human understanding and to dream research,” G. William Dormhoff, the author of The Emergence of Dreaming, says of Levy’s new book.

This is an understatement. Levy has endured PTSD for most of the last fifty years. I can’t help but think of something my mom told me thousands of times when I was growing up. “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” If Marc Levy has done that here by writing about some 250 of his dreams, this lemonade is the best drink ever created from the swamp water of war.

The best friend any survivor of war can have is a dog, and Levy’s first book presented dogs in that loving context. This book, though, boggled my mind with dog references: dogs in general were encountered dozens of times, but also specific dogs—pit bulls, talking dogs, three-hundred-pound dogs, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Shepherd-setter mixes, Huskies, a big blue dog, Siberian Huskies, seal pups, a Degas dog, a huge shaggy dog, a Weimeraner, a black lab, and more.

The poet makes the statement at least once in a recorded dream, “I love dogs, too.”

My only complaint about the book is that it lacks Levy’s fabulous drawings. His word images compensate for this. But still…

Other Dreams benefits from slow, careful reading, like difficult modern poetry. Not since I read Saul Bellow’s Henderson, the Rain King, have I been so struck by the recurring motif of animals in a work of modern literature. Dogs, certainly, as mentioned above, but also cats, seals, a bull with no ears, hawks and eagles, ducks, cattle, horseshoe crabs, polar bears, foxes, butterflies, water bugs, swans, rabbits, mice, a beast man, kittens, goats, rats, ticks—and Jane Fonda.

On December 8, 2016, Levy tells us, he dreamed:

“I’m in a war zone with another person, possibly my brother, walking along a moonlit, snowy path. We pass a wide-open, snow-covered field. I say to the other person, ‘Hey buddy… hey buddy… just keep walking.’ I’m aware that at any moment we may be shot. Each time I say, ‘Hey, buddy…’ the other person tries to crowd me off the path. ‘Hey, buddy… Hey buddy,’ I say, pushing back, ‘Just keep walking.’”

This dream has elements of poetry, story, and song, and I feel fear in every line. Also, mystery and malice.

It was brave of Marc Levy to commit this dream to print, and I honor that bravery. Levy is always just one short dream away from being back in the jungles of Southeast Asia. I thank him for sharing the war he survived in that jungle. It is a scary place. 

Once you have read Marc Levy’s dream books, I recommend his classic volume of short stories, How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and Other Postwar Stories.

Stay tuned for his next work. I’ve been informed it is coming soon.

–David Willson

Virginity Lost in Vietnam by David Lange

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David Lange, the author of Virginity Lost in Vietnam (Act 3 Publishing, 460 pp., $34.25), has made a successful post-military career of wordsmithing. That fact is evidenced by his book’s dust-jacket accolades, comments, and author profile that  highlights his forty-year journalism career.

The book feels heavy on minutiae—both geographic and personal—of Lange’s early years in Ohio. He brings us meticulously from his birth to his arrival in-country, filling perhaps half the book. The same attention to detail continues throughout. The research is well done, and the book is great fodder for the hometown crowd, although is frequently a bit tedious for the casual reader.

Lange—a long-time member of Vietnam Veterans of America who has written widely about Vietnam War veterans’ issues—cites sources in the text for his frequent references, as well as for some quotes and additional material. This saves the reader the need to leaf back and forth to footnotes.

Lange’s experiences as a disbursement clerk with the Brown Water Navy in Vietnam in 1969-70 makes for interesting reading. He functioned in a necessary support role, getting troops paid. He filters his service story through the lens of current (2000-18) events and personalities, even more so than dealing with the folks who peopled the halls of power during his time in Vietnam. You could say this is an almost fifty-year-old story anchored in today’s headlines.

Dave Lange’s “virginity” on several levels is a theme throughout much of the book. And, yes, Lange loses it in Vietnam—on several levels.

This reviewer served in Vietnam a year earlier than Lange did. But he had me nodding affirmatively while reading some of his experiences, and he did a good job conveying the ambiance of his Vietnam War experience.

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Lange’s 1967 high school yearbook photo

Lange lets politics invade his stories too frequently, though, with unfortunate name-calling and invective. I expected better from a noted journalist.

Lange also writes about his deployments after coming home from Vietnam. This detracts somewhat from the book’s premise, but surely illustrates the formative aspects of his military service. In his post-military adventures Lange reboots Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with tales of hitchhiking here, there, and everywhere to visit and party with former shipmates. Liberal use of marijuana and alcohol lubricated those wanderings.

He completes this book with a rather detailed, German-rooted family history, as well as an extensive recitation of “WW II Winners and Losers” in the old-world geography his family called home.

Lange describes his Vietnam War story as a “coming of age memoir.” In that regard, he fulfills his mission.

His website is virginitylostinvietnam

—Tom Werzyn

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.”

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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

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