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

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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

 

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

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