The Good of the Order by Gerard Shields

Gerard Shields’ The Good of the Order: America’s Last 80 Years Through they Eyes of One Tiny Veterans Club (Hilliard & Harris, 168 pp. $16.95, paper) could easily feel like a piece of nostalgia for a great neighborhood bar. But there’s so much more to this book—and to the old AMVETS club tucked into a tiny corner of a rust-covered, steel-town community in east Philadelphia that Shields and the late Joseph Vincent Manko (who founded the club) write about.

Indeed, the factories are gone. What remains are the veterans of three generations of war. And the men and women who care deeply about what happens to the kids and the poor and the neighborhood itself.

Returning home from World War II, the men and women of Kensington Memorial AMVETS Post 146 in East Philadelphia, helped—from their small corner—turn America into the greatest economic power on the planet.

There’s “Rouse” O’Brien, who could throw you out of the place so quickly it would make your head spin; legendary brawler Gus Hagan; Tommy “The Minute” Bell; Joe Dougherty, who brought a pig to the place on St. Patty’s Day and started a tradition; “Beans” Cannon; “Jocko” McGinley, whose closing-time announcements always brought a smile; “Butch” Dugan, the mayor; and John Sharkey, whose antics can’t be repeated in a family book review.

Shields talks about Vietnam War veterans returning home to find a lukewarm—if not worse—reception. But at the Philly AMVETS they were received with open arms. One veteran who had just returned home, for example, heard a knock on the door. It was a couple of guys from the club, inviting him to come on down and meet people. For him, and for many others, the club became a home away from home.

There’s also the story of Johnny Everly, a Vietnam veteran whose life was spared when the prayer card in his pocket caught a load of shrapnel. And a guy who says it always takes him two hours to leave the place because he has to say goodbye to everyone.

The book is based on recently discovered archives, photos, and newsletter stories dating to 1947. A veteran national newspaper reporter who grew up in the neighborhood, Shields loves the place and the people. He calls it a fortress and a life raft in rough times that mirrors what many veterans’ halls across the nation are facing.

“Anyone who grew up in a small American town with a tightly knit neighborhood and a club whose antics and anecdotes seemed larger than life will love this book,” said Bernard Elliker, a Korean War veteran.

The AMVETS Post 146 “personifies the highest accolade occasionally applied to such a recounting: Gee, it’s almost like being there,” Elliker said. “Its characters remain in my memory bank.”

It’s about attitude and kindness and booze and fun and patriotism and growing up tough. And kind. The club helps kids left homeless after a member’s house burns. It pays for the burial of a local family’s teenage son. And much more.

The club celebrated its 70th anniversary in November after struggling to keep its doors open. It continues to be a neighborhood force of unity. And, as always, it struggles to survive.

For the Good of the Order, we hope it remains.

—Michael Ludden

Michael Ludden is a former Orlando Sentinel Deputy Managing Editor. He’s the author of two detective novels, Alfredo’s Luck and Tate Drawdy, and a soon-to-be-released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue. 

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Last Chance of a Crazy Virgin by Dennis Latham

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Dennis Latham’s novel, Last Chance of a Crazy Virgin (YS Gazelle, 200 pp., $16, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is fiction, almost embarrassingly so. Latham is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam. The book’s blurbs refer to constant laughter provoked in readers by the crazy antics of the characters in this novel. I didn’t have that problem.

The plot of the novel—first published in 2009—concerns the plight of John Elvin, who is twenty-four years old and still a virgin. He is determined to change that status, but he has no idea how to go about doing that. Not a clue. The virgin he meets, Lori Anderson, is eager to help Elvin with his plight, but her eagerness does not translate to anything much happening with any dispatch.

There is a crazy Vietnam veteran in this novel, John’s brother. He was wounded in the war so that his head resembles a butt, which seems funny to everyone but me.

This book has large print and wide margins and can be read in a jiffy, but it still seemed slow going to me. It takes place the summer of 1982, “before HIV made sex an extreme risk, back when condoms were called rubbers,” Latham writes.

It was a different, primitive time. No cell phones, home computers, or satellite TV. So, I guess the book works as a cultural artifact of a certain time and place in America. But I did not find it to be funny.

—David Willson

Reflections on the Vietnam War by Warren E. Hunt

Former Army draftee Warren E. Hunt’s Reflections on the Vietnam War: A Fifty-Year Journey (CreateSpace, 142 pp., $12.95, paper; .99, Kindle) records his views of military life. It’s based on a questionnaire he received from a high school history class project.

The questionnaire motivated Hunt to recall “how he joined the military, his duties in Vietnam, his impressions of the Vietnamese, his typical day, his frightening experiences, his leisure time, and his postwar adjustment to civilian life.” Hunt’s concentrated view from fifty years after he went to Vietnam gave new meaning to the war, he says, along with his role in it—and its influence on him.

These thoughts in the book’s forward and introduction made me eagerly anticipate a flow of Hunt’s profound thoughts about war and life in general.

Initially, my expectations were too high. Hunt starts by presenting a litany of info on the draft, training, travel to Nam, assignment to a unit (in his case, the Big Red One at Lai Khe as a radio teletype operator), and the unit’s history. He also provides time-worn history lessons about how the U.S. became involved in the war and compares American military tactics to those of the North Vietnamese Army.

At best, the beginning of this book is a primer for readers uninformed about the Vietnam War.

Approaching the midpoint of this “remembrance,” as he calls the book, Hunt shifts gears and talks about the drama of the war as he saw it during his July 1968 to July 1969 tour of duty. Although he did not experience face-to-face combat, Warren Hunt went through more than enough danger to hold my attention. His duty area stretched beyond Lai Khe to what he calls the “hellhole” of Quan Loi, five miles from the Cambodian border.

Hunt’s perspective is infused with naiveté enhanced by empathy and compassion. What he did and saw registered deeply. He tells interesting and informative stories about mortar and rocket attacks, the Nui Ba Den massacre, Lai Khe race riots, fragging and associated threats, drugs, and other incidents. He explains how each event influenced his attitude toward life.

Hunt closes with a heartfelt recollection of attending the 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., when he renewed friendships with men he had expected never to see again. The ceremonies made him more active in Vietnam Veterans of America and with projects to benefit veterans.

Warren Hunt

In this slim book, Hunt repeats what has been written before. But at the same time he reconstructs events that provide fresh looks at military life under combat conditions.

One could call Hunt’s work a prequel to Steve Atkinson’s one-thousand-page Liberating Strife: A Memoir of the Vietnam Years, which focuses on Big Red One desk duty at Lai Khe in 1969-70 and includes letters from a long-distance love.

Warren Hunt’s Reflections on the Vietnam War: A Fifty-Year Journey tells a better story.

The book’s Facebook page is facebook.com/rvw50

—Henry Zeybel

Brother Brother by Dan Duffy

In Brother Brother: A Memoir (May Day Publishers, 300 pp. $12.99, paper: $2.99, Kindle) Dan Duffy tries to reconnect with his older brother Rich who vanished in 1970.

Dan Duffy recreates his brother’s disappearance by taking the reader on a road trip across the United States. He ends the coast-to-coast journey by describing a rock concert he attended at the Atlantic City Racetrack (held two weeks prior to Woodstock, but just as wild) and an antiwar rally in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco before trying to resolve the mystery of Rich’s departure.

Dan Duffy says his story is “mostly true, part fiction” and written from memory. That’s why it might help to suspend disbelief when reading his book. Much of the story evolved from a journal that Rich Duffy wrote in 1970 while driving cross-country with his girlfriend, after which he disappeared. The journal provides a broad foundation for Dan Duffy’s imagination.

Rich’s spirit accompanies Dan on the trip. They “discuss” the rigors of life and listen to songs from the era to match the moods of their talks. At one point, Dan asks himself, “Was I really traveling with my missing brother or was I going crazy talking to his voice in my head?”

The book fits into two literary categories: road trip adventure and coming-of-age tale in which, through many flashbacks, a younger brother reflects on lessons passed down from an older sibling.

Dan Duffy

Rich Duffy served as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War and returned home to face PTSD. The accounts of his combat experiences do not reveal anything new about the war and have a secondhand tone. After the war, he lived a hippie lifestyle guided by a belief in God.

After tracing his brother’s tracks over five thousand miles from New Jersey to New Mexico by way of California, Dan Duffy says, “I wanted to be just like my older brother Rich. Although this changed over the years, I am still trying to understand the impact he had on my life.”

—Henry Zeybel

Nightmare by Robert E. Ford, Jr.

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Robert Ford served in Army Intelligence in the Vietnam War. He’s another in a long line of American boys who enlisted in the Army to avoid serving in the infantry. Ford figured that if he got drafted, carrying a rifle would have been his fate. He deployed to Vietnam in April 1969 and volunteered to extend his term to serve a second tour.  Ford’s novel, Nightmare (Dorrance, 178 pp. $15, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is based on his real-life experiences.

Nightmare is the story of Army Staff Sgt. Jack Butler, who undertakes a dangerous mission into Viet Cong-controlled territory. Aside from the enemy, he must put up with “an inexperienced ‘cherry’ lieutenant” who always knows best because he’s a lieutenant and everyone else is enlisted scum.

I’ve read other infantry novels featuring green lieutenants who have instincts to do everything wrong,  such as insisting on being saluted in “Indian Country,” even though that makes them a prime target, and crossing rice paddies because the land is open and looks totally harmless. This LT places himself and everyone else at risk, which leads to his men considering the option of fragging him.

The novel is barely half over and this stupid lieutenant gets cut in half just above the waist by “a previously unseen machine gun.” At that point all of the conflict drains out of the book with the LT dead and gone.

I missed him terribly. I wished he or a substitute would have returned to give the novel some piss and vinegar. Didn’t happen.

Later in the book, Ford, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, has returning veterans getting spat upon in San Francisco—not just once, but five times. Ham and motherfuckers get star billing in this little book and REMF’s get the usual attention.

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Robert Ford, Then & Now

The novel centers on a Quick Reaction Force unit. Gen. Westmoreland ordered each unit in III Corps to create, train, and maintain a QRF for the direct defense of the Saigon area.

“One such platoon of rear echelon, clerks and jerks, was headquartered in a compound in the Saigon suburb of Gia Dinh,” Ford says in the book’s Prologue.

The book moves right along and has a useful glossary. It’s good that there is a novel dealing with a QRF. It’s the first I’ve stumbled upon.

–David Willson

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

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Kristin Hannah has published a long list of well-received, best-selling novels, most with strong female characters. Her latest, The Great Alone (St. Martin’s Press, 448 pp. $28.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), is no exception. Two people, a mother and daughter, are at the center of the novel. They revolve around the main male character, who is one of the most dangerous and seriously damaged Vietnam veterans in modern popular American fiction.

He beats his wife; he beats his lovely, thirteen-year-old daughter. These were hard scenes to read for this Vietnam veteran, damaged to an extent by my time in the military and having been raised by a Marine Corps veteran of Iwo Jima.

The Allbright family becomes convinced—or at least Ernt, the damaged veteran, does—that moving to Alaska will be the way for him to deal with his demons. Or to leave them behind in an America that he no longer wants to be a part of—and that seems to want no part of him.

It’s said repeatedly in the novel that Vietnam changed Ernt or that it broke him. He needs to be fixed, but there is no program set up to fix him. He refuses to deal with the VA, even to try to get a disability check. He’s too proud and haughty for that. He received medals during his tour in Vietnam, but Hannah makes little of that.

Hippies and peace freaks have taken over America and Ernt is characterized as a “baby killer.”  In a speech early in the novel, he says:  “I just want… more, I guess. Not a job. A life. I want to walk down the street and not have to worry about being called a baby-killer.  I want…” Hannah does not give Ernt the ability to state what he wants or needs, except that he is convinced that Alaska will be the place for him to have freedom and peace of mind.

The Allbright family arrives in Alaska completely unprepared for coping with the situation they find themselves in, unskilled in all the ways they need to survive. They find danger at every turn: bears; cold, deep icy rivers; not much food; and even less money.

People try hard to help them, but Ernt is not the sort who does well with getting help, nor with asking for help. His way of dealing with frustration is to anoint the problem with alcohol. He self-medicates at the slightest provocation.

His wife Leni and daughter Cora begin to wonder if they will survive in Alaska with Ernt as part of their family. They struggle for years, but eventually choose an extreme solution to their problem.

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Kristin Hannah

I found the novel engrossing and in some parts so tense that I had to close the book and catch my breath before continuing to read. Ernt is a realistically drawn Vietnam War veteran, one very much like several I have known well.

He is a veteran I avoided becoming, but if my circumstances had been different during my tour, I could imagine becoming that sort of veteran. Even having worked a rear-echelon job failed to prepare me to re-enter America effortlessly and with any kind of grace or equanimity.

Read this book and see if you recognize yourself or a friend in the character of Ernt. It could very well be the case.

The author’s website is kristinhannah.com

—David Willson

Long Journeys Home by Michael D. Gambone

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Michael D. Gambone proposes that Americans should raise the status of Korean and Vietnam War veterans to the legendary height of those who fought in World War II. He makes that case in his latest book, Long Journeys Home: American Veterans of World War II, Korea, & Vietnam (Texas A&M University, 275 pp. $45.00, hardcover; $45.00, Kindle).

Gambone examines those who played a role in the three wars from multiple angles: class, race, gender, age, education, and region. Much of what he says is not new, but Gambone uses this information—such as how draftees were selected, the composition of forces, and post-war economic trends—to make his points persuasively.

He delves into the post-war lives of the three groups of veterans to show that Vietnam War veterans were not monsters as identified by many in Hollywood and the news media during that era. He also makes a case for boosting public appreciation for veterans of the so-called “forgotten war” in Korea.

 

Gambone, a history professor at Kutztown University, points out that many  novels, television shows, and movies laid the groundwork for countless authors, journalists, and film directors to build World War II veterans into the “Greatest Generation,” which won a “good war.” He notes, though, that those troops did not fight any harder, nor did not die in greater agony, than other combatants did throughout modern history. Nevertheless, the idea that World War II warriors saved the entire world from dictatorship placed a halo effect on them.

The public disliked and basically ignored the Korea War because it too soon renewed the fight against the Asian hordes, he suggests. In other words, public emotions overrode facts concerning combat to the detriment of American veterans from the wars in Vietnam and Korea.

Gambone strives to separate myth from fact and thereby reduce the impact of the nature of a war on the public’s perception of the value of its veterans. He contends that “armies cannot escape the societies from which they are drawn,” but he asks the public to accept veterans who deviated from the norm in crisis—rather than to condemn them.

Overall, Gambone shows that the quality of life beyond the battlefield deteriorated from World War II to Vietnam. Upon returning home, Vietnam War veterans experienced increasing difficulties with mental problems, job placement, racial issues, and educational opportunities.

At the same time, veterans from the three wars shared a commonality about the “basic nature of military service,” according to Gambone. To prove this point, he cites evidence that supports consistencies in patriotism, dealing with trauma, and assimilation into civilian life, along with much more.

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Michael Gambone

Gambone, the author of The Greatest Generation Comes Home: The Veteran in American Society (20015), served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1985-88. He spent 2006 in Iraq as an Army contractor.

I would have liked to see Gambone compare the veterans he writes about in Long Journeys Home to veterans from today’s all-volunteer military forces.

When describing the post-World War II period, Gambone says, “There was no shared burden to link the public with [the nation’s] military effort. Education, income, and race became important cleavage points with respect to service, sacrifice, and recognition.”

To which I say: “That’s still America today. Tell us how to change it.”

—Henry Zeybel