The Freedom Shield by John D. Falcon

Retired U.S. Army Maj. John D. Falcon’s The Freedom Shield: The 191st Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam (Casemate, 343 pp. $34.95) is a well-written, vividly descriptive, colorful, and highly detailed account of Vietnam War helicopter combat operations. Falcon tells that story through the eyes of a UH-1 Huey pilot and fellow members of the 191st Assault Helicopter Company.

Readers will truly understand the nature of combat at the tactical level during intense engagements and ordinary missions that abruptly became life-and-death struggles. Those who have been in a chopper inserted into a hot landing zone will understand every word in this book. For those who haven’t, it will be an eye opener as Falcon puts the reader on board flying into combat while the side door gunner is firing his M-60 machine gun at North Vietnamese troops.

Not long into the book I realized writing it probably was probably a catharsis for Falcon, and for others with whom he flew. The releasing of so many memories, perhaps painfully at times, is what makes this book authentic in its telling. Every vignette reminds us how hazardous flying combat missions in the Vietnam War could be. The terrain, the jungle, and the weather, as well as the enemy’s lethal tactics, challenged even the best pilots.   

That includes a mission Falcon describes in which one of his unit’s’ gunships flew a night special operations mission into Cambodia through a canyon with sheer walls to destroy North Vietnamese supply sampans as they surreptitiously smuggled weapons across the border into Vietnam. It was as much luck as skill that kept them alive that night.  

Another of the book’s strengths is that it goes beyond being a memoir of one man’s tour of duty with the 191st. Falcon graciously collected the reminiscences of many former unit members and allowed them to find their voices and recount their combat experiences.

He also describes the big advances made in war-fighting with the application of the air mobility concept developed less than two years before his unit was sent to Vietnam. He describes the critical importance of helicopters during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965. after which air mobile operations became a mainstay for Army units in combat.  

With helicopter support, Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s 1st/7th Cavalry was continually resupplied during that intense and prolonged battle, its wounded medevaced, and ultimately safely extracted by chopper. However, there was another aspect of the battle not mentioned in this book, which highlights what might happen when a unit is left exposed without access to air mobile assets. Moore’s sister 1st Cavalry Division battalion, the 2nd of the 7th, was decimated when they didn’t get helicopter support and went on a needless march to a distant extraction zone. 

In other words, the strength of being an air mobile battalion is lost when helicopters are not employed where and when they are needed. The unlucky battalion commander later summed up his unit’s painful experience as “the least air mobile operation in the entire war.”

This well-written and very interesting book is outstanding on three levels: It describes the rise of Army aviation and the strategy of air mobility as a game changer in contemporary warfare; it captures the Vietnam War at the combatant level; and it is a pitch-perfect unit history. Well done.

— John Cirafici

Taking Fire! by David L. Porter

David L. Porter served twenty-seven years in the U.S. Army, retiring as as a colonel in 1995. The most memorable time of his career occurred when, immediately after he received his wings as a helicopter pilot, he flew the Hughes Cayuse OH-6 Scout LOH as an Aerial Scout Section Leader with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (known as the Thunderhorse) from Quan Loi, Vietnam in 1969-70. 

Porter recalls those days in Taking Fire!: Memoir of an Aerial Scout in Vietnam (McFarland, 182 pp. $29.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle). Porter tells his story with “no surnames” and “no attempt to identify any themes nor to draw any conclusions.” He leaves those tasks to readers, he says, and claims to offer only his “description of events.”

The memoir revolves around Hunter-Killer operations, which died with the war. The tactic could not have been simpler: An OH-6 LOH (Light Observation Helicopter or “Loach”) flew around Viet Cong- and NVA-controlled territory at or below treetop level until it drew fire, then marked the spot with a smoke grenade. Instantly, an AH-1G Cobra waiting overhead would attack the area.

These encounters quickly escalated as Cobra pilots directed artillery onto enemy positions. Ideally, an Air Force OV-10 Bronco forward air controller then brought in F-4 Phantoms to finish the job. 

American ground forces requested these missions, which were known as VR (visual reconnaissance) to try to find the elusive enemy. The ballsiest part of the operation fell to the LOH pilot—Porter’s role. An observer—called OSCAR—accompanied him and provided the primary set of eyes for locating the enemy. LOH pilots and OSCARs refused to consider themselves as bait.

Porter flew Thunderhorse Hunter-Killer strikes from October 1969 through February 1970. His recollection of facts during that time is astounding. The details of his physical and mental states often made me feel as if I were in his body or mind.

He brings everything to life, on the ground and in the air, on-duty and off. Although Porter uses no surnames, he gives us memorable personalities and dissects the idiosyncrasies of men of all ranks. For him as a lieutenant, watching and listening to experienced people was akin to attending school.

He examines LOH tactics in depth by analyzing missions and after-action discussions about arbitrary maneuvers such as which way to break over a target. His reflections on the morality of machine-gunning three VC—men he had initially attempted to capture—puts a heartrending slant on death, even in combat.

David L. Porter

One might read Taking Fire! as a coming-of-age story. Frequent turnovers in commanders allowed Porter to analyze leadership techniques from aggressive and violent, to careful and deliberate and, I believe, establish his own criteria for how best to command troops. Furthermore, the losses and injuries of many close friends had a strong impact on Porter’s appreciation for life. That said, these conclusions are merely mine.

Without intending to do so, David Porter also convinced me (for at least my tenth time) that flying helicopters is the toughest aviation job in warfare.

—Henry Zeybel

Rice Roots by Robert R. Amon, Jr.

Robert R. Amon Jr.’s Rice Roots: The Vietnam War: True Stories from the Diary of a U.S. Combat Advisor (Legacies and Memories, 328 pp., $27.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper) is a historically accurate page-turner about the Vietnam War.

Amon skillfully used his personal diary from his time in-county as a starting point as he put together this readable memoir of his ’69-’70 tour of duty with a series of South Vietnamese Army units in the Mekong Delta.

As a newly minted, well-trained infantry lieutenant, Bob Amon—a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America—was assigned to a Mobile Advisory Team, which consisted of five men charged with advising and working with small ARVN units. He spent his entire tour in the field, separated from American military activities and base camps. Part of his war story deals with the experiences of the men he served and fought with; those sections enliven the running story line. 

Amon toggles between his journal entries—which are printed in italics—with expansions of the narrative and bits of recreated dialogue. The writing draws the reader into the story, and affords a larger view of the war. He also includes the occasional letter home to underscore and complement the story. With this format, we experience one man’s intimate view of the war in remote villages in the Mekong Delta.

Bob Amon’s in-country diary

Amon’s telling of his story is not minute-by-minute battlefield reporting, nor is it a chronology of his life from cradle to jungle. Instead, he relates, in well-constructed prose, the daily routine of one group of soldiers helping another working side by side and fighting a war as best they can.

Amon, to close his story, describes his return to Vietnam more than twenty years after his tour of duty, accompanied by his wife, visiting towns and villages where he served.

He took photos during his tour, and brought albums of them with him. He was able, through those pictures, to meet with former comrades and enemies, as well as relatives of those he served with and advised.

This is a well-written, well-edited, and well-produced book, and one that I was doubly intrigued with.

That’s because I served in the same Delta areas as Amon did a year before he arrived in Vietnam. My efforts were not in a combat role, but in gathering local intelligence that he relied upon to execute his mission.

The book’s website is riceroots.com

–Tom Werzyn

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Tango 1-1 by Jim Thayer

A lot of soldiers from both sides of the battlefield get killed or seriously wounded in Jim Thayer’s memoir, Tango 1-1: 9th Infantry Division LRPs in the Vietnam Delta (Pen & Sword, 168 pp. $32.95). Thayer decided to re-enlist in the Army, he writes, looking for a fight. He found it in the heart of the Mekong Delta. Seeking to test himself “in the arena of combat,” he volunteered to serve in the 9th Infantry Division’s Long Range Patrol Detachment.

Thayer tells us that Vietnam War LRPs worked in teams of five to six heavily-armed men who relied on stealth and surprise to operate deep behind enemy lines. In South Vietnam, they deployed into areas controlled by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army; their mission was to kill enemy soldiers or capture them for interrogation.   

The book opens with Thayer’s arrival in Vietnam in 1968. He wastes no space on the trivia of stateside training: LRPs learned on the job. Writing primarily from “the memory of an old warrior,” he “corroborated the facts with surviving members of his unit,” he says. Each of his fifty-four short chapters is a story within itself.

Thayer had a genuine affinity for finding a fight—even with fellow soldiers. In the latter case, his aggression usually was justified. His leadership talent was unquestionable. His selfless attitude and actions in the field quickly qualified him to lead a LRP team.

Thayer’s passion for war did not wane despite his suffering a wound that sent him to Japan for six weeks of rehab midway through his 1968-69 tour of duty. Afterward, he voluntarily returned to his unit, eager to “get some pay-back” for the death of a young teammate, as well as for himself, he says.

Paralleling his own experience, Thayer—who died earlier this year—relates noteworthy actions of other LRP (aka LRRP or “Lurp”) teams. He pays a huge tribute to his Company Commander, Capt. Dale Dickey and to his Platoon Leader, Lt. Robert Hill. He also lauds two South Vietnamese soldiers named Bao and Dien from the Provincial Reconnaissance Unit for their loyalty, knowledge of the countryside, and extraordinary ability to find booby traps. They accompanied him on every mission.

The book overflows with recollections of the LRPs’ determination to confront the enemy. Thayer’s story about Dickey’s effort to accomplish an un-accomplishable mission borders on insanity. Unbelievably, using the same tactics and stymied repeatedly, Dickey did not lose a man. I read that chapter three times. The book also taught me about tactics that I had not known such as Parakeet flights, which proved costly to both sides.

A 9th Infantry Division LRRP team in Vietnam

As if the war alone were not an adequate challenge for him, Thayer also had to cope with a wife who decided to divorce him. He accepts his share of their marital disaster, but his wife’s bitterness could fill a book of its own.

Tango 1-1 contains an eight-page gallery of color photographs of Thayer and his teammates. It has no footnotes, bibliography, or index.

In 1969, the LRPs evolved into Rangers but performed the same mission. During the Vietnam War, slightly less than five hundred soldiers served as LRPs and Rangers with the 9th Infantry Division. Twenty-six were killed in action. Thayer’s memoir presents an insightful history that’s representative of those warriors.

—Henry Zeybel    

Waging the War Within by Tim Fortner with Elizabeth Ridley

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Waging the War Within: A Marine’s Memoir of Vietnam and PTSD (McFarland, 209 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle), by Tim Fortner with Elizabeth Ridley, pretty naturally divides into three parts. The first third of this relatively short book covers Fortner’s life before the Marines, then comes a recounting of his military experiences, mainly in Vietnam, and then a look at his post-war life up to today.

Fortner admits he was never concerned about grades in school but did, he says, “set new records for sexcapades in the back of a Chevy.” He writes that during his senior year of high school he had sex with one of his teachers over a four-month period, including at least once in the school building. He tried college but quickly dropped out.

With the draft breathing down his neck, he joined the Marines. It was late 1966 and Fortner was 18 years old. After serving stateside, he volunteered for Vietnam, arriving in-country in August of 1968.

Fortner was assigned to a CH-46D Sea Knight helicopter in Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 in the First Marine Air Wing based at Quang Tri Province in the far north of South Vietnam. He worked in the maintenance shop, and also flew as a gunner when not needed there. There are good descriptions of some of the missions he took part in, along with stories about a stolen Jeep, the accidental firing of a rocket on base, and the fragging of an NCO.

A bizarre episode involves Fortner taking his R&R in Hawaii, usually the place where married men met their wives. He asked to go there so he could spend time with his mother, who flew in from California. The story gets better when, Fortner says, they stealthily took a flight to San Francisco for a couple of days. More excitement: The plane he took back to Vietnam lost an engine, forcing it to return to Hawaii. Instead of staying in the airport as ordered during the delay, Fortner went back to the hotel to extend his visit with his mother.

On Okinawa, on the way home from Vietnam, Fortner took part in what he calls a “pretty unbelievable” massive food fight, then returned to San Francisco where he says he was spat on at the airport. After finishing his last few months in the Corps, he moved back home. One of his first jobs involved him digging around and removing a septic tank. After the job, disgusted with how his clothes smelled, he stripped naked and drove home. He had his mother spray him down with water while he scrubbed his body. She then threw him a towel.

After a failed relationship, a suicide attempt, and time in a “psych ward,” as Fortner puts it, went to the VA for help with hearing and back issues and was surprised to later be awarded a 100 percent service-connected disability rating for PTSD. Fortner has nothing good to say about his stepfathers, rear-echelon personnel in Vietnam, officers in general, and Jane Fonda.

Some of his stories push up to the edge of credulity, but I accept his description of the book as a “true” memoir. True or not, it’s not one that I’d recommend to my sons.

–Bill McCloud

This is Minuteman: Two-Three… Go! by Wayne Chasson

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Memoirs of helicopter pilots rank as some of the best Vietnam War books I have read. Wayne Chasson kept that feeling alive for me with This is Minuteman: Two-Three…Go! Memoirs of a Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan (Huey Books, 261 pp. $23.04, hardcover; $17.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle). The book’s drama is encapsulated in stories that describe Chasson’s three serious war wounds he received during missions supporting troops on the ground.

At Chu Lai from 1968-70, Chasson logged nearly 1,500 hours of combat time in slick and gunship UH-1 Hueys during an extended tour with the 176th Assault Helicopter Company of the Americal Division. Most of that time he was twenty years old. “Getting shot at was like snowflakes,” he writes, “no two times were ever the same.”

Chasson’s writing style is low-key. His stories run from one to five pages. Even his grimmest accounts are concise. He frequently finds humor in dire situations. And, although he shares his deepest feelings, Chasson does not live in his Vietnam War past.

This memoir also describes his warrant officer and pilot training. Basically, his account reconfirms what many before him have written about the rigors of such training. We also get details of Chasson’s post-Vietnam War flying experience during a long career with the National Guard and as a contract pilot.

As for his fifteen months of overseas duty during the war in Iraq, Chasson tells us that “nothing of significance happened during this deployment [to Kuwait].”

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Wayne Chasson on the links

Later, starting at “the tender age of sixty-seven,” he says, he flew for three years in Afghanistan. But he only offers limited details in the book about those missions.

Along with his flying pursuits, Wayne Chasson owned and ran restaurants and spent a few years as an elementary and high school teacher. “Now, at the somewhat less tender ago of seventy-two,” he says, he caddies full time at fancy golf clubs in Massachusetts and Florida.

Overall, the book is a story about a man who followed his heart, was somewhat surprised by what happened to him in war and peace, and does not regret a day of his life.

Call him a modest role model.

—Henry Zeybel

Fire Mission! Fire Mission! by Larry Kenneth Hunter with Mark Randall

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America’s war in Vietnam caused Larry Kenneth Hunter to fight the two most desperate battles of his life. The first occurred in 1966 at Chu Phong Mountain when more than 1,000 North Vietnamese Army troops ambushed his company. The second came in 2012 when the after-effects of exposure to Agent Orange paralyzed him multiple myeloma—commonly known as bone cancer—a disease with symptoms that often do not appear until the disease reaches a highly advanced stage.

With encouragement from his therapist, Dr. Mark Randall, Hunter tells the stories of these battles in Fire Mission! Fire Mission! A Forward Observer’s Experiences in Vietnam (Koehler Books, 172 pp. $2.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle). Almost all of the book’s Vietnam War recollections are based on letters Hunter exchanged with his wife Judy.

Larry Hunter served seven and a half months as a forward observer with the First Air Cavalry Division operating from An Khe. He flew in more than 25 engagements during search-and-destroy missions that usually lasted from two to four weeks. His company killed a great number of enemy soldiers—the majority attributed to artillery fire—but suffered many casualties. Hunter explains how the Cav initially learned by doing.

Sent to rescue crews of three downed helicopter at Chu Phong, Hunter and his men instantly were ambushed. During fighting that began in late afternoon and extended through the night, his unit lost half of its 130 men, primarily its officers. After the North Vietnamese shot down a Chinook sent to rescue the rescuers, Hunter assumed control of the operation. Although convinced that it was his last day on earth, he masterfully directed Army helicopter gunships and Air Force fighter-bombers and managed to resupply the men with ammunition—actions that helped his company survive until morning. He received a Bronze Star with V device for his courage and leadership.

When he went to Vietnam, Hunter left behind his wife and a newborn son. In exchanging letters, Judy Hunter provided strong support for the war and for her husband’s role in it. Avidly following First Cavalry news reports, she enthusiastically commented on the unit’s success. “Heard yesterday where 1st Cav destroyed an entire Battalion of NVA,” she wrote in one letter. “Good work.” Both repeatedly thanked God for sparing Larry Hunter from injury.

With his wife’s strong support, Hunter was nearly equally successful in his fight against cancer. After a successful thirty-year business management career, the couple had nearly finished building their dream retirement home when Hunter became partially paralyzed from cancer.

They counterattacked the disease with every available weapon: radiation, chemo, new drugs, physical therapy, a stem cell transplant, months of isolation, and faith in God. Although multiple myeloma is considered incurable, one doctor enthusiastically told Hunter: “Your blood results are fantastic. You are in complete remission.”

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Capt. Hunter

Twenty-one months later, in 2016, the cancer returned, and Hunter has been fighting a life-and-death battle ever since. He and Judy still pray and enjoy days of temporary victory.

Fire Mission! Fire Mission! held my attention for several reasons. Hunter, for one thing, provides map overlays of significant missions. And he teaches lessons about employing artillery: “We’ve put Batteries into some of the wildest country you’ve ever seen,” he writes. “You couldn’t have pulled in there in a truck in less than a month and in minutes we started shooting for the Infantry.” He pays tributes to officers and enlisted men killed in action.

Most important, however, Larry and Judy Hunter accepted whatever challenges confronted them. For me, reading about their indomitable spirits significantly narrowed the morbidity of the current perilous world situation. They set examples for how to survive when facing disaster.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam to Iran 1969 by James Ellenberger

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James Ellenberger’s Vietnam to Iran, 1969 (Bowker, 197 pp., $30, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is unlike any other book I have read dealing with the Vietnam War. Fifty-one years ago James Ellenberger’s tour of duty in the Vietnam War ended. Instead of flying home to the U.S. on a military-provided plane and processing out of the army in California, he chose to take his Army discharge in Vietnam and travel from Saigon to Tehran via the vagabond route.

After being inducted into the Army in April 1967, Jim Ellenberger went to Officer Candidate School and was commissioned an infantry officer. When he arrived in Vietnam he was posted to the old Imperial Capital of Hue not quite a month after the big Tet 1968 battle. He headed a Civil Affairs platoon that worked with the refugees.

Ellenberger kept a journal during this time, which he sent home and his mother lovingly packed away. When he dug up the journal nearly fifty years later, he discovered that reading it brought back memories of that long-ago time. So Ellenberger decided to use the memories as the basis for this little book. He includes journal entries as he wrote them five decades ago with only minor edits. He writes that he enjoyed reliving those days—and I enjoyed reading the entries about them

I wrote a book, a novel called REMF Diary, based on my journals and diaries of this time. So I thought it would be fun to read this  book and make comparisons. It was fun, but this book is very different than mine. The biggest difference is that Vietnam to Iran contains a lot of small maps and many color photos.

The color photos of Thailand and the many temples and statues make his book seem like an issue of National Geographic. The photos are high quality and go well with the journal entries. The maps chronicle the areas he traveled. The adventurous Ellenberger wound up traveling to many places that are no longer possible to go to—or advisable to—including the Bamyan Valley in Afghanistan.

Vietnam to Iran is an artifact of a bygone age and deserves a place on the shelf of Vietnam War literature. I highly recommend it to folks who wish for a taste of the vagabond life.

–David Willson

 

 

 

 

Yesterday’s Soldier by Tom Keating

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After graduating from Stonehill College’s Holy Cross Seminary in Massachusetts, but denied further advancement to ordination as a Catholic priest, Tom Keating surrendered to the inevitable and volunteered for the draft in 1968. Army Basic Training and Infantry AIT, along with his superior skill with weapons, overpowered Keating’s semi-monastic religious life style. And he began to concentrate on “how to survive and kill in battle,” Keating writes in his memoir, Yesterday’s Soldier (153 pp., $16.99, paper), and he moved on to Officer Candidate School.

As his infantry training continued, Keating re-evaluated this character transformation, and once again followed his religious training. Not wanting to kill people or order others to do so, he sought conscientious objector status.

In the first half of Yesterday’s Soldier Tom Keating does an excellent job explaining the dynamics of attaining conscientious objector status as an active-duty soldier during the Vietnam War. His recollections provided me with new knowledge and insights about a punishing, tedious, and sinister process. How sinister? Keating’s best friend became an Army Criminal Investigation Division agent assigned to evaluate the sincerity of his religious beliefs.

Although a Defense Department policy limited the number of conscientious objectors serving in the armed forces, Keating won his case: He would not be assigned a combat role or issued a weapon for the rest of his tour in the Army.

Nevertheless, he owed the military one more year of active-duty service. Without a job specialty, he was sent to Vietnam. On his arrival, Keating lucked out when a college friend classified him as an administrator and assigned him to a job with the 1st Logistical Command at Long Binh.

Keating’s writing style flows smoothly. I enjoyed reading his stories about the Vietnam War. But his book offers little new information about life behind the lines.

There are descriptions of surviving close calls during rocket, mortar, and sapper attacks on Long Binh. He tells of giving up his “seminarian virginity” in a Saigon bathhouse. Issued a Jeep, he chauffeured officers and performed other minor chores. He befriended a housemaid who was Catholic. R&R in Australia was a highlight of his tour. And then he came home.

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Tom Keating

Tom Keating found a different world than the one he had left two years earlier, especially within the Catholic Church. As part of a continuing evolution of character, his limited exposure to death had magnified his perception of the past. He determined he “could never return to that world, not after Vietnam. That world had collapsed.”

So he began a new life, earning a master’s degree in education and teaching high school for eight years before starting a long career in corporate communications.

The author’s website is tomkeatingwriter.com

—Henry Zeybel

Weapons of War by Robert E. Wright

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Weapons of War: A Compilation of Letters Recounting a Soldier’s Story of Service, Love, and Faith (AuthorHouse, 212 pp. $23.99, hardcover; $12.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) tells a love story far greater than a war story. In it, Robert E. Wright gives us letters he sent to Barbara Hampton during his two years in the U.S. Army, which included a 1969-70 tour in Vietnam as an infantryman with the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles.

The book works as a love story because Wright’s weapons of war were his M-16 to fight the NVA and Viet Cong; his pen to fight the loneliness and separation he felt; and his faith in God to fight fear and doubt. The power of the latter two exceeded that of the first. His letters concentrated on convincing Hampton that she was his one-and-only love forever.

As a grunt, Wright repeatedly walked point on lengthy search-and-destroy missions; turned a VC defector into a Kit Carson Scout; and cleared remote landing zones. His awards included the Bronze Star, two Air Medals, and the Army Commendation Medal.

I enjoyed reading his accounts of military life, but wanted more. That’s because Wright’s desire not to upset his high school sweetheart and their families with his combat experiences made him temper what he wrote. I respected his deep love for Hampton, which he pledged for eternity in every letter, but the memoir would have greater appeal for military history fans if, between letters, he had injected detailed notes about the actions that he otherwise quickly passes over.

The Army drafted Wright while he was still a teenager, and he quietly answered the call. He says military duty made him into “a mature man who is not afraid to make decisions and take on responsibility.” His personal motto of “Stay Focused on the Future” carried him through the war.

I admired Robert Wright’s integrity, particularly denying himself R&R to avoid temptations of the flesh. Best of all, his commanders appeared to respect his certitude about life by assigning him leadership roles above his rank.

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Robert E. Wright

Barbara Hampton and Robert Wright married in 1972 and raised two daughters, who like their mother graduated from Ball State University. Barbara died in 2002 at the age of fifty-two. Robert worked twenty-six years for the Indiana Bell Telephone, followed by twenty-one years of full-time ministry with the Eastern Star Church in Indianapolis.

His memoir teaches excellent lessons in self-restraint and perseverance. It includes photographs with many of the letters.

Wright’s website is weaponsofwar-indy.com/home

—Henry Zeybel