The Life and Times of a Survivor by Marie Sweeney Heath

The Life and Times of a Survivor: Before, During, and after Vietnam (Christian Faith Publishing, 40 pp., $12.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is Marie Sweeney Heath’s self-described “brief autobiography” of her life before, during, and after she served in the Vietnam War. Short chapters describe how she survived nursing school, Army Basic Training, the war, and life after coming home.

The author’s father served in the Army in the South Pacific during World War II. After a few years as a firefighter in Boston, he rejoined the army at the start of the Korean War. This time he would stay in for twenty-eight 28 years.

After graduating from high school Marie Sweeney entered nursing school, then went into the Army Student Nurse Program. Following Basic Training, she worked for a short while at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., before receiving orders for Vietnam. She told her family she wanted “to go where I can do the most good for my country and where I can provide medical care for those who need it.”

She landed in Saigon in early 1966. Being assigned to a base camp in Qui Nhon she volunteered to serve for six weeks in a small tent hospital in An Khe. Getting back to Qui Nhon she ended up marrying Bob Sweeney, an Army officer stationed there. For their honeymoon the couple went to Okinawa for a week.

During the war Marie Sweeney found it helpful to use “inappropriate humor” as a way of dealing with the daily stress. She says you couldn’t survive if you couldn’t laugh. It’s a technique she continues to use today.

Part of her time was spent helping treat Vietnamese patients in a leprosarium. Returning to the United States, she worked in obstetrics while stationed with her husband at Fort Ord. The couple resigned their commissions in September 1967, moving to Wisconsin then to Missouri and Virginia.

Her on-going story of survival has her dealing with the loss of a son and the death of her husband. She would be widowed for more than twenty-five years before remarrying in 2017.

Marie Sweeney Heath’s personality comes through in reading her book. Clearly she would be fun to talk to and you feel she has a lot more stories she could tell.

Having served as a nurse in Vietnam puts her in a group that every Vietnam veteran I’ve known places at the top of the list of people they love, honor, and respect the most.

Two dozen photos are crammed into this brief book.

–Bill McCloud

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A Life in Dark Places by Paul J. Giannone

Paul Giannone’s memoir, A Life in Dark Places (Torchflame Books, 296 pp., $19.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle), recounts some of the most compelling humanitarian issues that have faced the world in public health in forty countries. They took places in war-torn countries such as Vietnam, Sudan, Iran, Pakistan, Cambodia. and Rwanda.

Giannone—who joined the U.S. Army and served two tours in Vietnam in 1969-71 as a Public Health Adviser—says that his book is a “wake-up call” to all of us. He shows how wars cause suffering and sorrow to innocent people who are often affected years later. He talks about starving, diseased, and mutilated refugees, boat people, and those forced to clear mine fields from long-ago wars.

I found several accounts in the book very moving:

  • The gypsy boy who was discriminated against in Serbia because the gypsies supported the Serbs not the Kosovors
  • The village in Cambodia made up of many widows since their husbands had been killed during and after the Vietnam War
  • Giannone’s return to Vietnam in 2002 to visit old refugee camps and places where he was stationed

Giannone also points out the many public-health failings of the U.S. government. To better understand his perspective, readers should note that Giannone filed a successful reverse discrimination lawsuit against CARE and also a whistle blower suit against the Centers for Disease Control, where he was a Deputy Division Director for Global Disease Detection and Emergency Response. His last assignment before retiring was in Vietnam where he worked with CDC Country Office and the Vietnamese Ministry of Health to develop an Emergency Operation Center and System as part of President Obama’s Global Health Initiative.

This book is a must read for anyone considering a career in public health services.

Paul Giannone’s website is paulgiannone.com

–Mark S. Miller

Vietnam Veterans Unbroken by Jacqueline Murray Loring

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In 2010, working in conjunction with a Vietnam War veterans group in Hyannis, Massachusetts, Jacqueline Murray Loring began studying the resiliency of Vietnam vets and their assimilation into the American social structure after coming home.

Loring, a poet and writer of stage plays, movie scripts, and articles, labels herself a “non-military writer.” She wholeheartedly acknowledges the support she received from the group’s Director of Counseling, Jack Bonino.

With Bonino’s help, she compiled interviews and writings from seventeen Vietnam War veterans (including her husband) to broaden her understanding of how they overcame the trauma of exposure to combat. Seven of her subjects served in the Marine Corps; eight in the Army; and two in the Navy.

Loring’s research culminated with her new  book, Vietnam Veterans Unbroken: Conversations on Trauma and Resiliency (McFarland, 212 pp. $29.95, paper).

This book resembles other Vietnam War memoirs that provide the life stories of a group of veterans who enlisted or were drafted from the same region and returned there following their military service. However, rather than providing complete memoirs one after another, Loring separates each person’s experiences into four parts that she then collects into the following groupings:

  • Growing Up in America and Arriving in Vietnam
  • Coping with Coming Home
  • Post-Traumatic Stress
  • Resiliency and Outreach

That structure helps the reader distinguish similarities and differences among the interviewees at four critical junctures in each of their lives.

The veterans—one woman and sixteen men—provided information in a questionnaire that is not included in the book. Their most common problem was the inability to speak about their war experiences. In general, civilians were not interested in stories of what the returnees had done overseas; likewise, most returnees did not want to talk about their experiences, which compounded their emotional problems.

The veterans describe their common feelings in everyday life: anxiety, depression and hopelessness, sleeplessness, anger and rage, nightmares and flashbacks, and suicidal thoughts or attempts. They talk about dealing with emotions that intensified low-level confrontations at home, in the work place, and in therapy. The depth and duration of their therapy to treat PTSD far surpassed what I had imagined.

Loring presents the facts and allows readers to reach their own conclusions about psychological outcomes. I concluded that the returnees’ major need was social acceptance and a method to unravel their innermost feelings, a task for which they received virtually no support.

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Jacqueline Murray Loring

That might sound like self-evident truth, but more than anything else, Loring’s book reconfirms how long it took for doctors and counselors to recognize the long-term psychological damage inflicted by the Vietnam War. Fortunately, these veterans found the resilience to construct at least a semblance of normal existences.

Although Loring’s work focuses on Vietnam War veterans, her findings will help those who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As one of the Marines interviewed for the book put it: “The young kids coming home today are facing the same quandary.”

Overall, the book is cathartic. It includes no battle scenes. It mainly displays the resiliency of a small group of veterans who paid a steep psychological toll for serving their country.

The book’s page on the author’s website is jacquelinemurrayloring.com

—Henry Zeybel

10 Cents and a Silver Star by Bruce D. Johnson

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I’ve been waiting many years to read a novel of the Vietnam War and its lasting impact that is as enjoyable as Bruce D. Johnson’s 10 Cents and a Silver Star… A Sardonic Saga of PTSD  (Edit Ink, 386 pp., $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle )

Johnson begins his book with the main character, also named Bruce Johnson, pretty casually receiving a Silver Star. It’s 1969 and he is awarded the medal for actions he took while fighting in South Vietnam’s III Corps with Army’s the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Specialist Johnson gets no comfort from the medal, believing it to be the result of some “bureaucratic blunder.” He’s pretty sure it was actually intended for his best friend, Bill Hastings, who died in Johnson’s arms while they were engaged in combat.

In that way, his sense of survivor’s guilt becomes even more complicated by receiving a medal he is sure was meant for his buddy. Johnson’s actions during the firefight may have been worthy of a Silver Star, but he was so stoned at the time that he has no idea and certainly doesn’t think so.

Johnson considers the Vietnam War to be “the insane asylum of this planet,” and notes that actions taken by American troops in Vietnamese villages sometimes made those soldiers appear to be “the Peace Corps in reverse.”

The story is told by someone who apparently has determined that life is merely time filled with one absurd incident after another. Johnson is sent to a Fire Support Base for just one day but a misunderstanding keeps him there for six weeks. That’s long enough for his original unit to consider him missing and for his parents to be notified.

Or maybe they weren’t. You can’t be sure if all the things that are supposedly happening in the book are actually happening. It leads you to constantly wonder what is real in this fictional world and what isn’t. So this is not a book you just read, but one you’re forced to engage with, which isn’t a bad thing.

After his year in Vietnam, with the war basically over “except for the shooting,” Johnson returns home to Chicago. He has that Silver Starl which he’s been told will get him a cup of coffee anywhere—if he also has a dime.

It turns out, though, that the medal serves as almost a good-luck charm. It opens up many doors and provides many opportunities that would not have been available to him otherwise. Yet he constantly struggles with the realization that the medal really isn’t his, and belongs to his best friend who paid the ultimate price for it.

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Bruce Johnson

Johnson decides to locate the parents of Bill Hastings and present the medal to them.

 

This novel is written in a hilarious fashion. It’s not often that I laugh out loud when I read something, yet I did several times while reading this book. It’s filled with jokes that keep coming at you in machine-gun style, probably averaging three a page, and at least eighty percent of them work.

They work because—as funny as they are—you are constantly reminded of what the source of the humor is. It’s an attempt to deal with (and make sense of) a world and an existence that is often cold, cruel, and senseless.

Bill McCloud

Edison 64 by Richard Sand

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Sixty-four students from Thomas Alva Edison High School in North Philadelphia died in the Vietnam War—the largest number from any high school in the nation. Richard Sand—historian, novelist, attorney, and college professor—commemorates these men in Edison 64: A Tragedy in Vietnam and at Home (Righter’s Mill Press, 248 pp. $22.95, paper).

Each man’s photograph fills a page in the book. Nearly seventy percent of them had volunteered for duty. They lost their lives between 1965 and 1971. Forty-seven died before they were eligible to vote.

Based on interviews with the men’s families, Sand has put together seven short biographies. He also interviewed twenty Edison graduates who survived the war. Most of the survivors have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or from cancer due to exposure to Agent Orange and other toxic defoliants.

All of the young men thought and behaved similarly. President Kennedy’s speeches influenced many of them to serve their country. Their parents were loving and concerned for their futures. In general, the young men came from large families who lived in row houses in North Philly. They worked part-time jobs to help their parents financially; avoided contact with the neighborhood gangs; and took part in sports, including fencing, at Edison.

In the book Sand also recognizes other people who made sacrifices in the war. He cites women military veterans who served in Vietnam and lauds the eight who lost their lives there. He also appreciates the “inestimable value” of Red Cross Donut Dollies.

He analyzes the plight of war veterans in dealing with PTSD and the “incomprehensible delays” they faced when trying to get help from the VA in the sixties and seventies.

Sand’s study of North Philly reveals a scenario familiar to men fresh from high school facing the challenge of finding a career in the sixties. He portrays years of high unemployment and low salaries among civilian workers, as opposed to a guaranteed paycheck from the military, coupled with fulfilling a sense of dedication to the nation. For many young men, the decision to serve was not a difficult one.

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Overall, Edison 64 records the lives of lower-middle-class Americans as much as it recalls their involvement in the war. Mostly, their post-war successes have exceeded those of their parents, which was the social expectation of the time.

An Edison dropout who received three Bronze Stars succinctly summed up his life: “I’m married and have four children. By far, they are the awards I’m most proud of.”

The book’s website edison64.org

—Henry Zeybel

 

Tan Tru by Larry Brooks

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Larry Brooks was a big guy, about six feet, two inches tall, so it was no surprise that when he got his unit in the Army’s 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam in February 1968 he was chose to carry the big machine gun. Brooks could carry it like a lunch bucket, by the handle.

Although Larry Brooks was a high school dropout, his memoir, Tan Tru (238 pp., $9.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle), does not read like it. It is a well-organized, well-written book, with short chapters with pithy titles such as “Basic Training at Fort Ord,” “Tigerland,” “Orders for Vietnam,” “The Ninth Division,” “Busted,” and “Home Again.” Each title covers the subject of its chapter and no chapter goes on too long.

I haven’t actually read a million books about what life was like for a man drafted into a 9th Division infantry unit, but it seems to me that I have. But this book held my attention and was fun to read—despite my familiarity with the material.

When a newly assigned lieutenant shouts, “Let’s go in there like infantrymen!” Brooks says that he’s not in an Audie Murphy movie, and what the hell was Lt. Campbell trying to do to us? The next thing the reader knows Campbell is down and an urgent dust-off needed. Campbell loses a leg due to this wound and is done with his tour of duty.

This familiar material is handled in a fresh way. The language is not fresh and new, but certainly it is fair for the author to use terms such as “major cluster fuck.” Some of the cluster fucks Brooks experienced in the war came about as the result of Robert S. McNamara’s Project 100,000. That program set up lower physical and mental standards for the military that allowed individuals who would have been rejected to be drafted.

Bob Hope is not mentioned until late in the book as Christmas 1968 approaches. The issue of Vietnam veterans being castigated as “baby killers” does not come up until the book is almost over, but the mention fits the narrative timetable.

Being demonized as baby killers upset the author as he was trying to readjust to life back home after the war. My reaction is that life is hard and then you die. That’s my philosophizing from my current position as a Vietnam War veteran dying from Agent Orange-caused cancer.

Being a war criminal loser is the least of my worries.  But I admit that I do brood about it late at night.

—David Willson

A Marine’s Daughter by Al Hague

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Jon Milo has a recurring dream whose meaning he cannot fathom. In Al Hague’s novel, A Marine’s Daughter: Semper Fi (Gatekeeper Press, 314 pp., $24.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle), Milo is tormented with the fragmented memory of a bloody Vietnam War fight outside the wire at a remote camp.

Milo recalls only portions of what happened that night. He remembers leading a couple of squads of Marines toward a village rumored to be threatened by Charlie. He splits up his team, only to see the first squad pinned down in the middle of a rice paddy by a savage ambush. Milo sends out the rest of the men in a flanking maneuver, then decides to take the pressure off by charging into the enemy fire with his M-60 on his hip.

When he wakes up later, injured and on board a hospital ship, Milo has no idea what happened. Did his men survive? Was the mission a disaster? And, ultimately, did he let his men down?

Flash forward to a gray-haired Milo whose health has begun to fail. He has yet to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, for fear he’ll recognize the names of the men he led out on that mission.

Hague’s most effective story-telling device is toggling between scenes of war with a young Milo and present day, when Milo’s now-adult daughter is working secretly to arrange a reunion of her father’s old team. Some of the men have been searching for him for decades. And they have a surprise in store.

Hague weaves in a personal story as well. Milo is afraid he’s dying. Daughter Sara is afraid she is failing to live. Both are struggling to find meaning in their lives. In Milo’s case, it is a bit of aging, and perhaps Agent Orange shares part of the blame.

He was offended by the antiwar protests that erupted stateside. He wonders if he will ever be able to forgive his country for the way he and his men have been treated. But Milo will take a chance on a new life, as will Sara.

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Al Hague and Brady

When his old comrades show up, Milo learns that he broke the back of the VC assault with that M-60 charge. The men have put together statements and documentation to petition for recognition for Milo, who will be awarded a Silver Star for saving the squad.

Hague served in Vietnam in 1965-66 as a Marine NCO. His prose can be clunky, but he’s created characters we care about.

The author’s website is amarinesdaughter.com

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales from the Morgue