Ron Brandon’s A Smoldering Wick: A Vietnam Vet Chronicles His Life from Hell to Redemption (CreateSpace, 206 pp. $8.20, paper) is an unmitigated exposure of Brandon’s dark side, the ugly things he did, and his transformation into a good person.
The book opens with Brandon’s childhood, which was loving, yet sometimes violent. He calls his family and home “dysfunction junction.” Although he spent a lot of time at church and reading the Bible, Brandon, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, says he learned very little about life when he was growing up.
In May 1965 he joined the Marine Corps as a way to get away from home—and from civilian life in general. Brandon says he was naïve and immature and a pathetic candidate for any military branch, much less the U.S. Marine Corps. In December 1966 he shipped out to Vietnam and was assigned as a rifleman in the 3rd Marine Division in Quang Tri Provence. He was immediately sent to Razorback Ridge, near the Rock Pile south of the DMZ. A lot of combat ensued. Most of his fighting was done in that area, including at Cam Lo, Con Thien, along Highway 9, Dong Ha, and Khe Sanh.
He describes his tour of duty in 35 short sections, each detailing many combat engagements. He gives an up-close-and-personal picture of the fear, sorrow, and anger that he experienced in the war. He unabashedly describes some of the crazy and stupid things he did, although later in the book Brandon apologizes for much of it.
On Brandon’s return to the world, he was unable to adjust. He gambled, drank, did drugs, and turned to crime. He spent a lot of time behind bars, including a dozen years in prison. He continually struggled with the demons inside his head fueled by PTSD. He did a lot of praying, but mostly to no avail.
Finally Brandon’s life made a turn for the better and he stopped his illicit activities and settled down. Today, with his wife, he runs Unchained Prison Ministry, in which works incarcerated veterans and others in local and state prisons.
Brandon grew up believing in the power of prayer. While my religious beliefs differ from his, I was able to read his book without judging or naysaying. I recommend it. It was painful at times to read, but overall is an enlightening life story.
In Bury Him: A Memoir of the Viet Nam War (Love the West Publications, 348 pp., $19.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) Doug Chamberlain, a former U.S. Marine Corps Captain, has penned a well-written and engaging look at his time in the Corps, concentrating on his 1967-68 tour of duty commanding Echo Company, in the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in the 1st Marine Division in South Vietnam.
Chamberlain, who grew up in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska, writes about his rural childhood and upbringing, which was agrarian and lonesome, a theme he follows throughout the book. He joined the Marines to avoid the draft, he says, and writes about his basic and advanced training with little fanfare.
He also talks about of the “agony” of deciding finally to write this book, and the support of friends who helped him in that undertaking. His return to The World was unheralded, even by family and friends. He describes his ensuing PTSD and its continuing effect on his life and careers.
The book’s title becomes apparent about half way through when Chamberlain writes about what happened when his unit came across the decomposing body of a fellow Marine and he called for a Medevac chopper to recover the remains. Someone at headquarters refused to authorize that, then told him: “Bury Him. Don’t Rock The Boat. This Is An Order.” The patrol did bury the remains, with the regret and horror that came with breaking the “leave no man behind” military credo.
Chamberlain goes on to write about the turmoil, both physical and psychological, that he and his fellow Marines faced after they tried to recover the remains of the Marine they were ordered to bury, including dealing with a decision to bomb the area to obliterate the remains. The man’s family had to endure two funerals—one for the initially recovered left leg, and the other for the rest of the remains. Chamberlain lived with that deceit and dishonor for more than 40 years before he chanced upon an investigator who helped him discover the details that went into writing this book.
On its face, Bury Him is one man’s story of redemption and closure—and a well written one at that. More deeply, it’s the story of Doug Chamberlain exposing a deeply flawed command layer that pervaded the entire Vietnam War.
“It doesn’t take long to ‘saddle up,’” Bruce Bastien writes in his memoir, 13 Months: In the Bush, In Vietnam, In 1968 (iUniverse, 121 pp. $43.98, hardcover; $32.63, paper: 99 cents, Kindle), “when you’ve been sleeping on the ground in your clothes, wearing your boots, and all your gear has been packed tight waiting right next to you. So we got up and strapped on the backpacks, weapons and ammo, and everything else we owned. Off we went down the road.”
With a style that ranges from sobering to haunting, Bastien recounts his 1968-69 tour as a Marine mortarman with Kilo Company of the Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment in Quảng Nam Province, just southwest of Danang. He was one of countless Marines fighting during mini-Tet against the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong in the months following the January-February 1968 Tet Offensive.
Bastien describes compelling, sometimes poetic, scenes of men in action and at rest. He illustrates each with modest detail and invites the reader to visualize the rest. Especially striking is his recollection of the effects of going without water in a combat environment in 100-degree heat. He writes of exhaustion, misery and fear, as well as hallucinations. During one, he watched as—unable to endure the weight of his backpack anymore—his arms fell off.
Through the spring and summer of 1968, Bastien’s unit fought its way across Go Noi, an island in the Thu Bồn River. Heavily fortified by the NVA, rife with enemy bunkers and tunnels, Go Noi was the scene of three U.S. military operations.
Reflecting on the first, Operation Allen Brook, Bastein conveys the bleak challenges faced by every man there:
“From then on, we swept, searched, and destroyed. We looked to contact the enemy, and when it was made, we engaged, fought, and called in artillery or air strikes until they were killed or retreated—and then we pressed on and did it all over again. We covered the same territory again and again. This might go on for weeks. We did not know. In fact, we didn’t know what later that day would bring, let alone how long this would last.”
With no way of knowing, Bastien and his buddies did what men in war have done forever: They watched out for each other and they endured. Many of his buddies’ stories are shared here, which is to Bastien’s credit. His book is proof of his commitment to preserve his recollections and those of his fellow Marines after the website they had made for their unit came to an end.
The many stories Bastien gives us and actual book itself deserve praise. Larger in size than most books, the text is well laid out, with good spacing between letters and lines. There are also many photos. The images are large, in color, and starkly show how young these men were. The pictures also testify that, despite the brutal conditions in which the Marines lived and fought, they were still capable of good cheer—and could still feel hope.
Although Gregory Doering’s HONOR & Indignity: An Unheroic Memoir (216 pp. $11.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is, as he puts it, an “unheroic” book, I can say with no uncertainty after reading it that Doering is anything but unheroic.
In December 1967, after finishing USMC boot camp, the Marine Corps decided his MOS would be 3531, motor vehicle operator. Doering had mixed feelings about that, but at the same time was elated that he was not going to be a rifleman. He arrived in Vietnam in April 1968, was sent to the 9th Marines at Camp Carroll, then was quickly moved 20 miles north to the Ca Lu Combat Base in Quang Tri Province where he was put to work driving an M274, a small light-weapons carrier vehicle known as a Mechanical Mule.
Within a month, the Marine Corps saw fit to change his job again and he filled an open position as an ammo humper in a mortar team and began seeing serious combat action. After several months of fighting along the southern edge of the DMZ, he was sent back to the rear. Arriving in Quang Tri with “the distant blank stare,” he was assigned to a headquarters Motor Transport unit.
This is where HONOR & Indignity turns dark. With abundant supplies of alcohol and drugs, Doering’s morale crumbled and his mental health deteriorated. All he cared about was getting out of Vietnam. On his return to The World, he was sent to the mental health ward at Camp Pendleton. As Doering describes what happened there, his book gets even darker.
With his mother’s persistence and help from the Red Cross, he was transferred to a VA Medical Center closer to home in Washington State. After being finally diagnosed with severe PTSD and getting discharged, he sought treatment and after several years began living a normal life.
His initial ignorance and shortcomings were common to newbies in combat zones. But unlike many who hide these embarrassing moments, Doering writes about then in great detail in his memoir. His honesty and candor are at sad, yet refreshing.
Greg Doering is, in my mind, a real hero. Not just for his performance under fire, but for this brave and selfless presentation of his life. You will be hard-pressed to find a more completely detailed and honest war memoir.
HONOR & Indignity is very well written, but raw language and depictions of combat might offend some readers. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book.
William M. Murphy served as rifleman with the 9th and 27th Marine regiments in 1969-70 in the Vietnam War. In his Vietnam War memoir Not for God and Country (Koehler Books, 286 pp., $26.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper), he accomplishes three significant literary feats.
First, the many battlefield stories Murphy describes confirm the thesis inherent in the book’s title by emphasizing that he and his fellow Marines were fighting “to protect the life of the nineteen-year-old grunt next to us, and he was returning the favor.” In doing so, Murphy strongly illuminates the feelings of his comrades, who came to believe the war “did not have to happen.”
Riflemen fighting a war together form a strange brotherhood, Murphy says. Men who in the real world would not have been friends become friends. Grating attitudes and personalities are overlooked. Men who would never have been beer-drinking buddies back home bond. In the jungles of Vietnam they would die for one another. It was that simple, Murphy says.
Second, Murphy examines Operation Allen Brook, an all-but-ignored sustained Marine attack on North Vietnamese Army reinforced bunkers on Go Noi Island south of Da Nang that lasted from May to August of 1968. He details the horrors of a stalemated battle replete with accumulating dead bodies. He withholds nothing in describing the effects of weapons on flesh and bone. Late in the operation, the Marines resorted to a near-suicidal frontal assault against heavily defended fortifications. The U.S. government downplayed Allen Brook in fear of a public outcry because of the high number of American casualties.
Murphy also vividly recalls his unit’s frequent engagements during Operation Dewey Canyon six months after Allen Brook, “wandering the mountains and seeking out the enemy.” His fascinating recollections center on the exploits of four Marine Medal of Honor recipients—three of whom were young enlisted men recognized posthumously.
Recalling his Marine Corps career from enlistment to separation constitutes Murphy’s third notable literary achievement. Basically, he provides a primer about an enlisted man’s military life in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
He describes the ins and outs of political influence on the military, on duty selection, training, deployment, and repercussions associated with returning to civilian life. He compares those who fought in the Vietnam War with today’s troops and the conditions under which they operated. The book is an excellent starting point for young people seeking knowledge about military service.
Not for God and Country closes with sections that break down Vietnam War casualties by deaths per year, followed by KIA data: age, home state, race, pay grade, branch of service, and country of occurrence. It also includes MIA information and the numbers of allied nations’ KIAs.
Bill Murphy served one enlistment. Afterward, for thirty-five years, he excelled in an environmental law career, and has written six guidebooks about touring the Great Lakes region. His website is williammurphyauthor.com/books
Warfare engraves unforgettable memories in the minds of its participants, a fact convincingly confirmed by the Vietnam War veterans whose stories are told in Echoes of Our War: Vietnam Veterans Reflect 50 Years Later (BookCrafters, 286 pp. $29.95, paper), which was put together by Retired Marine Col. Robert L. Fischer. Some memories are as vivid as the events were a half century ago.
In reacting to witnessing a wartime atrocity committed against Vietnamese civilians in 1968, for example, former Navy Corpsman Dennis E. Sedlack says: “I experience gut-wrenching terror. I am so angry, and I have horrific rage at God, my government, and life in general. My feeling is I want to kill everyone in sight. The desire to kill all or to flee has never gone away. To this day, when life closes in and gets too heavy, that same urge still shows up.”
Sedlack provides a dynamic study in sheer terror and exposure to carnage. He records what he saw and did in Vietnam with astounding honesty, particularly the fear and anger. His battlefield stories and thoughts rank among the most revelatory I have read in reviewing more than 300 books about the Vietnam War. He sets the standard for the recollections of nine Marines—eight one-time grunts and one F-4 Phantom jock—in Echoes of Our War.
Paralleling Sedlack, the other veterans offer life-altering accounts of their war experiences. PFC Bill Purcell describes 13 days of “seemingly hopeless” combat in Hue City during the Tet Offensive before wounds took him out of action. His description of building-to-building fighting is a masterpiece of observation and recall.
Reporting battles on the eastern edge of Hue, Corp. Grady Birdsong complements Purcell. Birdsong served an extended 20-month tour starting in February 1968. He is the foremost contributor to the book. Along with his experiences, he provides a footnoted analysis of the entire war, including a short history of how the U.S. became involved going back to 1880.
Recollecting his 26 days in Hue, Corp. Gary Eichler gives a different view of door-to-door and room-to-room fighting. He finished his year by patrolling the area near Khe Sanh. His writing reflects a mood of “What the fuck am I doing here?”
Sgt. Tom Jacobs, also in-country for Tet ‘68, recreates just about the ugliest ambush that a company has ever experienced. He survived untouched, but four months later a mortar round explosion took him out of the war with a 100 percent disability wound.
Lt. Bob Averill and MSgt. John Decker also add their version of the war’s history to their personal accounts. Averill succeeded as a company commander by relentlessly using massive firepower. He then led a Combined Action Company and developed an overwhelming sense of responsibility toward the Vietnamese that continues to this day. Decker served two tours separated by seven months spent recuperating from the effects of wounds. He chops through fields of government, media, and military mistakes as if harvesting history. His thinking is original and his writing style flows with an entertaining voice.
Capt. Dan Guenther, Lt. C.R. Cusack, and Lance Cpl. Mike Frazier write the book’s shortest chapters with differing perspectives of the war. Guenther discusses the logistics of his 19 months in Amphibious Tractor operations. Cusack tells a couple of flying stories focused on other people. Frazier walked point on at least forty patrols before a wound ended his tour. He sticks to facts and tells it like it was.
Dedication to the U.S. Marine Corps is a dominant theme of the book. Men who fought at Hue express fault the U.S. Army’s lack of cooperation in procuring food, water, and ammo and its undisciplined approach to combat. Most of the veterans sling accusations of incompetent decision making at American presidents. They label politicians as “consummate cowards” and inefficient administrators as “pogues.” One says Gen. William Westmoreland was “a pompous showboat and fool.”
The book is the brainchild of Bob Fischer. The ten writers were selected from more than 160 Denver-area veterans from all wars, members of “Cooper’s Troopers,” a group founded by Fischer, “China Marine” Ed Cooper, and Iwo Jima veteran Al Jennings that meets monthly. Co-editors Guenther, Birdsong, and Mark Hardcastle finalized the manuscript.
Fischer and his crew gave the writers a list of questions dealing with combat assignments, their thoughts on past controversies, the value and morality of the war, examples of its impact on an individual, racial problems, regrets, and lingering personal issues such as PTSD.
Photographs, maps, and a large glossary round out this informative collection of timeless memories.
Busted: A Vietnam Veteran in Nixon’s America (McFarland, 173 pp. $19.99, paper), originally published in 1995, is a reissue of the third volume of W.D. Ehrhart’s three-part memoirs. That is good news, since Bill Ehrhart is one of the most significant American poets of the war in Vietnam, and it’s important to keep all of his works in print.
The first books of the series are Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir (1983) and Passing Time: Memoir of a Vietnam Veteran Against the War (1989). Ehrhart also has written many books of poetry and essays dealing with his Vietnam War service—and with war in general.
While you might think it’s best to have read the first two books in a series prior to reading the third, in Busted Ehrhart fills in all the backstory you need. The book begins just a few days after the end of the previous one. It’s not divided into chapters or broken up in any way. It just starts and goes in pretty much of a stream-of-consciousness style.
After completing his Marine Corps service and graduating from college, Bill Ehrhart took a job as a seaman on an oil tanker. He was busted by the Coast Guard for possession of pot, was fired, and faced federal charges unless he agreed to give up his seaman’s card, which he had no plans to do. In the book Ehrhart describes what he was thinking then and comments on the House Judiciary Committee’s hearings on the impeachment of Richard Nixon.
Ehrhart says his first night at boot camp on Parris Island was “the most terrifying experience of my life,” due to the harassment of the drill instructors. It didn’t help that a DI told him he was “going to die on this island.” That’s a lot to handle for a seventeen year old.
Then came orders for Vietnam. “What I found in Vietnam bore no resemblance to what I had been led to expect by Lyndon Johnson and Time magazine and my high-school history teachers,” Ehrhart writes (he would later become a high-school history teacher himself.). Because of his Vietnam War service, he says, “I had become something evil, but I did not know what it was or how it happened or why.”
He later joined the antiwar movement, then decided to go to sea in an attempt to escape the political and social chaos in the U.S.A. That’s how he ended up in his cabin in port at Long Beach, California, when his door banged open.
“I was scared shitless” are the first four words in the book. He later told his mom, “I’ve been smoking dope ever since Con Thien.” Then said, “So marijuana is illegal, but it’s okay to drop napalm on gooks.”
From time to time, Ehrhart—who received the Vietnam Veterans of America Excellence in the Arts Award in 2008—writes about Vietnam War atrocities and his visits from the hallucinatory ghosts of men killed in combat. The book ends with the conclusion of his trial.
Bill Ehrhart thinks like a poet and writes like one. And what he has to say is important. That’s why all of his books no longer in print should also be re-issued.
Richard Foster’s Kilo 3: The True Story of a Marine Rifleman’s Tour from the Intense Fighting in Vietnam to the Superficial Pageantry of Washington, D.C. (Outskirts Press, 298 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $33.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a well-told memoir focusing on a couple of years in the life of a teen-aged Marine—years filled with hellish combat.
This is one of those memoirs that does not deal with the author’s life before or after his military service. It starts off with a nighttime ambush patrol in the Vietnam War, and then stays focused mainly on a period of just a few months.
Foster joined the Marines at 17. He had been a rebellious teenager growing up in Henrietta, Texas, near the Oklahoma border, when he sensed he was being called to serve his country by fighting in the Vietnam War. After completing boot camp, he spent six months at sea because the Marine Corps didn’t send men to Vietnam until they were eighteen. Before going to the war, when home on leave, fellow Marines told him: “You can go home all you want, but you can never be at home again. Your childhood is over.”
Once in Vietnam, one of the first things Foster heard was someone say, “Ain’t no heroes here, just survivors.” When he was sent to the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment he was told he would be “seeing a lot of shit.” Foster joined Kilo Company because, he says, “they recently got wiped out.”
During his Vietnam War tour of duty Foster spent time in Dong Ha, Da Nang, Cam Lo, Con Thien, and Khe Sanh. He writes about jumping into five-man fighting holes, holding his .45 in his lap while getting a quick haircut from a Vietnamese barber, taking sniper fire, what it was like to go two months without a shower, and having to retrace your steps to get out of a minefield. There also are depictions of close-combat fighting and a helicopter crashing for a reason I had not heard of before.
A short but important part at the end of the book finds Foster being recruited for the prestigious Marine Corps Color Guard at the Marine Corps Barracks in Washington, D.C. He accepted the job with mixed feelings.
As to why he wrote his book, Foster writes: “As other wars erupt around the world, it’s never too late to understand the misery and brutality of fighting on the ground or the detached glitter of Washington that continues unabated.”
Overall, his war story is not that much different than those told in many other Vietnam War memoirs, but Foster’s better than most at telling it. The book includes one of the most evocative collections of photos that I’ve seen in a memoir.
Pop Smoke: The Story of One Marine Rifle Platoon in Vietnam: Who They Were, What They Did, What They Learned (Palmetto, 222 pp. $24.99, hardcover; $19, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is former Marine Bill Lindsay’s memoir of his time in the Vietnam War. Lindsay says the names in his book are fictitious, but the events are not. I found the book a refreshingly solid retelling of one man’s experiences without having to put up with outlandish tales that so many other memoirs seem to contain.
The first sentence of the first chapter, “My Arrival,” puts us in the plane Lindsay is on entering South Vietnam’s air space on February 6, 1970. I liked that.
This book knows what it is. It’s a description of a military tour of duty in the Vietnam War, pure and simple. The last chapter, “My Return,” should probably be titled “My Departure,” because the book ends as Lt. Lindsay is flying home from Vietnam. There’s nothing in this book about his life before or after the war. This book is focused.
Assigned to the First Marine Division, Lindsay flew into Da Nang and wound up in the Third Battalion of the Seventh Marine Regiment at LZ Baldy. His unit was in the thick of things, facing both Viet Cong and the NVA. Their success was measured by body count.
Someone handed him a flak jacket stained with mud or blood and told him he would be a platoon commander with India Company because they needed a new one. Lindsay says he never found out what happened to the previous platoon commander—and he never asked.
He had dreamt of commanding a platoon in combat after a challenge a Marine instructor had given him based on Ernest Hemingway’s words: “The only way to truly be a warrior and experience war was to be a soldier, on the front lines. You need to see the enemy and be able to look him in the eyes as you engage him in combat. That is the only way to really consider yourself a warrior.”
He was then told that the life expectancy of a new second lieutenant infantry platoon commander in Vietnam was “under an hour.”
Lindsay’s war experiences included going more than a month without a shower and losing thirty pounds while subsisting on a diet of C-rations. He trudged through monsoon rains. There were ambushes and times he’d sit down and cry as he thought of the dead and wounded. He put up with medical treatment for intestinal worms and malaria.
When word came that it was his time to go home Lindsay was told that the helicopter picking him up would be there in a few hours. It was that quick.
His first reaction was that he wanted to remain with his men, but that request fell on deaf ears. He flew out with sad thoughts that “so many had been killed or wounded during my tour. I was leaving without a scratch. That fact seemed so unfair.”
And with that, Bill Lindsay’s Vietnam War story ends—a story of only his actual time in-country.
It’s a story that consistently rang true and is one of the best Vietnam War memoirs I’ve read.
When I first picked up John P. Maloney’s Little by Slowly: From Trauma to Recovery (Lotus Design, 222 pp. $21.95, paper), I did not know what to expect. As a former educator, I have always been interested in the human condition. Why do some people adapt, adjust, and overcome when faced with adversity? Why do others succumb to their plight and seek to escape their pain through alcohol and drugs?
In this book Vietnam War veteran Jack Maloney takes us on his own personal Magical Mystery Tour in the form of a vivid first-hand account of alcoholism and its exacerbating effects on those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Actually, the book is more like a detour from reality that many of us have experienced following shock and trauma.
Maloney has a compelling story. As you read, you get a sense of the suffering and pain he continues to deal with. He presents a clear picture of the alcoholic father who abused him verbally and physically. He give us a vivid look at the psychological demons that alcoholics possess, including their pompous superiority and pretentiousness to the point of being so self-absorbed and wrapped up in their own arrogance that they cannot empathize with others who are suffering—unless they do so superficially because there is something in it for them.
Being raised in an alcoholic environment, brought periodic explosions of anger and rage from Maloney’s father, followed by remorse. I would guess that Maloney had reached a fork in the road at the ripe old age of sixteen: become an alcoholic like his father or pursue a more-sober path. Like most people suffering from the disease, he really didn’t have a choice. If you do not deal with the disease, it will deal with you.
Maloney faced several traumatic events as a Marine in the Vietnam War, and portrays himself in the book as being overly sensitive. This was a conundrum for me. After growing up in a household with an abusive alcoholic father, I expected he would be well and truly desensitized to any emotions, especially empathy.
In one passage Maloney recounts how he felt after seeing a young Vietnamese boy crushed beneath the deuce and half truck he rode escort on: “Even though I did not actively knock the kids off the trucks, one of them fell under the truck tires and was killed instantly,” he writes. “The sight and sounds remain, at times, as an indelible memory that I will always carry in my heart and cause nightmares to this day.”
Jack Maloney endured through one traumatic event after another and kept climbing back up. His story is truly remarkable, and one I would recommend to anyone dealing from PTSD who chooses alcohol or drugs to self medicate.
Little by Slowly shows that there is another way. Another choice. I would also recommend this memoir to all of Jack Maloney’s family and friends, especially his grandchildren.