Joseph Michael Sepesy’s Once We Flew, Volume II: Aftermath (Lulu.com, 306 pp. $24.95, paper; $10, Kindle) is the sequel to the author’s memoir detailing his experiences as a Huey helicopter pilot with the 1st Cav and the 1st Aviation Brigade flying some 2,200 combat hours during his three years in the Vietnam War. This volume focuses on the Sepesy’s life and times after coming home and leaving his Army service behind.
The book is uniquely constructed; the chapters are chronological and are titled as such. At the top and at the bottom of each chapter—before and after the copy—are epigraphs, a series of shorter paragraphs pushed to the margin. They’re informational items that expand on the words in the chapters and also relate to Sepesy’s post-military PTSD challenges. The format at first appears disjointed and cluttered, but as we read on, what Sepesy is doing becomes evident and the book reads well.
After coming home from the war, Sepesy became a special-education teacher in some of the rougher areas of his native Northeast Ohio. He takes the reader through his preparation for teaching, and details some of his classroom and administrative adventures. The epigraphs explain developments that will, in later years, prove to be symptoms and manifestations of his as-yet-undiagnosed PTSD.
Through the years, health issues developed directly related to injuries suffered in a crash landing in Vietnam. Sepesy describes his challenges and continually fills in bits of information with the epigraphs.
During is counseling sessions with VA therapists he was introduced to ballroom dancing. As his PTSD became more evident and his medical issues more acute, ballroom dancing became very effective therapy. On the dance floor his pain falls away and his balance issues fade as he concentrates on the mechanics of the dance.
Some chapters are almost stream-of-consciousness narratives, another interesting, non-standard construct. A reader might profit from first reading Volume I as there are references in this book that would be clearer with the first book under your belt. Perhaps a short Glossary of military terminology would be good as well.
This is a good telling of one Vietnam War veteran’s efforts to rise above the PTSD gripping his psyche and his world.
F.J. Fitzgerald’s Combat To Conservation: A Marine’s Journey through Darkness into Nature’s Light (Koehler Books, 166 pp. $23.95, hardcover; $15.92, paper; $7.49, Kindle), is both haunting and inspiring. Fitzgerald presents an account of the horror of combat tempered with the beauty of nature with his life story beginning with a happy childhood and including details of his tour of duty as a Marine with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam.
Growing up in Southeast Minnesota farm country, Francis Fitzgerald loved the tranquility of the fields and woods. Walking and often sitting for hours, he came to love every animal, plant, and tree, especially white pines. His accounts are so compelling that readers can readily see themselves traveling the back country with the author.
Exceptionally bright and talented, Fitzgerald wanted a college degree and a career as a game warden. Yet doubts about his youth and his lack of experience, combined with a yearning for action and adventure, inspired him to join the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school in the summer of 1969. He arrived at LZ Baldy, a fire support base in the hills south of Danang, in the spring of 1970.
Fitzgerald writes with exceptional style; his descriptions are at once spare and poetic. With tight sentences and concise accounts of what he saw and endured, he presents a stark picture of the environment in which the Marines operated. He includes one eerie anecdote after another from patrols in dense jungle, as he strained to find his way through a claustrophobic world too often dark—and always wet.
Particularly striking are his graphic depictions of the misery of trench foot and the difficulty of treating it in a place where dry feet were every Marine’s futile wish; of sitting next to a tree limb and finding himself face to face with a poisonous snake and realizing he was an intruder in the animal’s world. And of sighting and killing an elusive enemy, then feeling little afterward, except that it was a consequence of war, as certain as night following day.
Then there is Fitzgerald’s account of coming to grips with post-traumatic stress disorder. As a way to try to fight it, Fitzgerald returned to nature when he returned to civilian life. He found that every waking moment he spent in the great outdoors was a balm for his troubled spirit. To move and breathe in the air and the light—to be continually reminded of the beauty of the world—empowered him. It continues to sustain and heal him.
Combat to Conservation is an excellent read; it’s a book as subtle as it is inspiring.
Once We Flew Volume I: The Memoir of a U.S. Army Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and a Life with PTSD, (Lulu.com, 674 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $39.95, paper; $10, Kindle), Joseph Sepesy’s memoir, is his sixth book. His first five were a series called Word Dances, that dealt with ballroom dancing. His next book will be titled Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.
Once We Flew is a different kind of memoir. The book’s main body is broken into six main parts. Combined, they contain 160 very short, chronologically ordered, sections. Each section tells a complete story. Many are riveting, bone-chilling tales of Vietnam War combat flying.
This is a long book—and I wish it were longer. While I had to put it down from time to time, I did so only reluctantly. It is a fascinating read.
From an early age, Joe Sepesy, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, wanted to fly helicopters. The U.S. Army presented him the opportunity to fulfill that desire. He was not a natural, though, and had to work long and hard to conquer the basics of flying. After a while, he learned to fly and became a master at combat flying.
During his first year in the Vietnam War with the First Cav’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion and the 1st Aviation Brigade and during two subsequent, voluntary six-month tours of duty, Sepesy accumulated a staggering total of 2,200 combat flight hours. While he displayed great amounts of skill and selfless courage, Sepesy never considered himself a combat hero—simply a man doing his job.
Being a very visible, high-value target and being shot at nearly every day, Sepesy did not dwell on death while in Vietnam, but was well aware of its nearness. Always keeping in mind, that, as he puts it, “complacency kills,” he became very methodical in addressing the dangers of flying in the warzone.
A man with Sepesy’s experiences is a prime candidate for developing post-traumatic disorder, and he writes a lot about it in this book. I found that to be a distraction. If PTSD is what you want to read about, I recommend Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.
I experienced a lot of suspenseful moments while reading Volume I. I liked Joe Sepesy’s honesty, his grit, and his writing style. After completing the book, I doubled back and reread much of the front matter.
I highly recommend Once We Flew: Volume I, which tells the life and times of a heroic American combat aviator.
Stephen and Rosie Williams’ Nine Pairs of Boots in Vietnam: Steps to Healing Every Veteran Needs to Know (Author Academy Elite, 180 pp. $25, hardcover; $15, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is an account of Steve Williams’ 12 months of service in the Vietnam War and his 50 years of mental combat struggling with the effects of PTSD.
Steve Williams (AKA “Sgt. Willie”) is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who returned home to face the lonely mental battles brought on by things he saw and did in combat. His wife Rosie, an author, waited patiently for him to say, “It is time to address my PTSD.” So with his personal recall and her military wife’s perspective of the effects of secondary PTSD, the two worked together to write Nine Pairs of Boots in Vietnam.
Steve Williams does a great job taking me through his early years struggling with a lack of self-confidence that was later attributed to dyslexia. Next came his fear and distress with being drafted not into Army, sent to infantry AIT, and assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. He strongly felt he would die in Vietnam.
Steve then details some of his combat actions, a few of which seemed to be swayed by divine intervention. Then his return to The World where—like many Vietnam veterans—he was rejected, shamed, and scorned by those he had fought for, even by veterans of earlier eras.
He then transitions to the years after his return when he got married, raised three sons, received a Master’s degree, and retired from a good career. Steve and Rosie Williams now spend much of their time ministering to veterans of all ages. I found this to be a very interesting and sometimes exciting story.
This book is written for those with PTSD, and also for families and friends of those with PTSD. If you’re looking for a bible-based, Christian solution for PTSD, this is the book to read. If you’re looking for a secular solution for PTSD, this could still be the book to read.
While the authors quote more than thirty Bible verses in the book, they make references to more than twenty secular PTSD help groups. They also include a lot of basic medical and practical information about PTSD and secondary PTSD.
Even though I do not share all of Steve and Rosie Williams’ religious beliefs, I recommend this book. I found Nine Pairs of Boots in Vietnam to be very easy to read, enjoyable, uplifting, and educational. It is well indexed, too, with a very good appendix, an After Action Review. and several photos.
Disappointingly, R. Dean Jerde appears or is quoted only sparingly in his own book, Flashbacks: A Vietnam Soldier’s Story 50 Years Later (Luminaire Press, 260 pp. $14.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle). His war story—as a member of a searchlight battalion during his December ’67-to-January ‘69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War—could have been a much more interesting one if he had put more of himself into his own book. Jerde and his co-author Tom Pisapia, instead, have providing a lot of well-known information about Agent Orange, PTSD, the VA’s mistreatment of Vietnam War veterans, and the negative reception we received upon returning to the U.S. from the war.
As indicated by the book’s title, Pisapia put Flashbacks together after a series of conversations, meetings, and interviews he had with his old friend Jerde and his brother over the span of about a year. During those sessions Jerde’s recollections, by his own admission, amounted to a series of mostly unrelated flashbacks to his time in Vietnam.
Upon returning to the states after his tour of duty, Dean Jerde married, began a family, and immersed himself deeply into his chosen occupation as a carpenter. He buried his wartime experiences, not speaking about them, even to his wife, for fifty years. Not until his retirement with time on his hands and the advent of the conversations and meetings with his brother and with Tom Pisapi, did some of the stories and experiences come out, along with symptoms of his long-carried PTSD.
As can be the case with self-published books, Flashbacks could have used a fact checker and more editing as it contains more than a few spelling, syntax, and punctuation errors.
Flashbacks, in short, is a book that needs more story and a bit of polish.
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.
Gojan Nikolich’s new novel, The Gopher King (Black Rose Writing, 358 pp. $20.95, paper $5.99, Kindle), is not quite Alice going down the rabbit hole chasing the White Rabbit. But a few chapters into the book and you might think it’s Coraline going down a gopher hole with an M16 on full auto and a K-Bar in her teeth.
The story centers around Stan Przewalski, a weekly newspaper publisher in Bull River Falls, Colorado. Stan suffers from a severe case of PTSD after surviving a hellacious tour of duty in the Vietnam War, and Nikolich—a U.S. Army veteran—paints a verbal portrait of PTSD suitable for hanging in any VA hospital.
Stan, like many veterans who experienced combat, came home with the demons of war firmly in control of his life. He soon depends on therapy and pills to keep those demons in check. The healing process for Stan materializes in the form of a gopher—and not just any gopher. He is the Gopher King. Soon, Stan and the Gopher King, appropriately named Chaz, embark on an odyssey of mutual self-exploration. Chaz is an anthropomorphic literary device Nikolich uses to deftly to probe the depth of Stan’s problems and alleviate his PTSD.
On a sightseeing trip to Vietnam, Stan realizes that he cannot be redeemed. But he also discovers that facing his fears and the hidden places in his mind amounts to true bravery. And that the times he allowed himself to suffer at the hands of his demons actually were opportunities to face his fears.
Nikolich effectively plumbs the depths of PTSD through the magical world he creates that Stan enters. It’s a world populated with camouflaged gophers toting M16s and fighting to save their homeland. It’s full of misunderstandings, meaninglessness, pompous characters, reminiscences without purpose, and characters who make absolutely no sense and are based on vanity and cluelessness.
The residents of Chaz and Stan’s world mainly just want to get by and survive and maybe have a good time. Their world isn’t actually that much different from the real world, although the real world may be less exaggerated with its arbitrary rules and adult nonsense, crookedness, cowardice, and sordidness. Still, it contains those traits in equal measure—and in many ways the cruelty of the real world is more incredible.
Nikolich’s writing style drew me in immediately. He ticked all the good-fiction boxes for me: a good story, entertaining and creative descriptions, and mesmerizing dialogue. To the extent that a good novel entertains and enlightens, The Gopher King masterfully achieves both goals.
Nikolich’s portrayal of the characters is realistically accomplished. The humor and the story could provoke unwanted memories for the initiated, but they also can be of tremendous educational value for those with little knowledge of PTSD.
I highly recommend putting a velveteen gopher on the desk of every VA shrink and The Gopher King on your reading list.
The Eagle On My Arm: How the Wilderness and Birds of Prey Saved a Veteran’s Life (University Press of Kentucky, 218 pp. $26.95, hardcover and e book) by Dava Guerin and the late Terry Bivens is the story of the life of Patrick Bradley. And what a story it is.
Bradley, who is in his early 70s, is one of the founders of the Avian Veteran Alliance, a program that uses birds of prey as a form of therapy for military veterans and others coping with chronic physical and emotional trauma. This type of animal-assisted therapy often uses large birds that have been seriously injured, making them wounded warriors as well.
Bradley served in the Vietnam War as a Green Beret in a team whose main job was to infiltrate enemy lines for information-gathering purposes. The authors describe how his team experienced high casualty rates on its dangerous forays into North Vietnam. “Out of his original team of sixteen, only three would survive, and two of them would commit suicide within a few years.”
Bradley returned from Vietnam as an explosively angry young man. Several incidents nearly landed him in the stockade at Fort Leavenworth. His first post-military job involved counting bald eagles in the Canadian wilderness. For three years he worked alone, using his Army survival training and experience in Vietnam as he lived off the land. Only a few weeks after he started observing the eagles Patrick Bradley found his anger issues had dissipated.
He moved on, and spent a few years working odd jobs at wildlife centers and preserves, where he found himself drawn to hawks. Bradley noted that working with a wounded bird seemed to calm both him and the animal. His personal life didn’t improve, though, as he continued to experience occasional violent, PTSD-fueled outbursts. Each failed relationship would cause him to get closer to his birds as he tried to fight the demons he continued to face.
As Bradley eventually felt a sense of healing from his relationships with several large birds, he began working with a VA hospital and became one of the founders of the Avian Veteran Alliance in Florida. That program has helped helping thousands of veterans with PTSD and others who have been through major illnesses.
The authors wrap up their book with the following words: “To live one’s life on one’s own terms, to touch others through passion and perseverance, to be fearless of rejection and hopeful that our better angels will prevail: that is the story of Patrick Bradley’s life.”
It was great to read a story about a man who was filled with anger and fear upon his return from the war in Vietnam, but learned to harness his emotions and go on to help thousands come to terms with the darkest times in their lives.
Every American should know the life story of former Green Beret—and Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient—Gary Beikirch. It’s an admirable life filled with honor, valor, service, and humility. And with severe physical and mental pain and anguish.
Gary Beikirch was born and raised in Rochester, New York. He struggled through a rocky childhood after his father deserted the family when he was in first grade. When he was twenty, Beikirch dropped out of college and joined the Army in August 1967. He volunteered for Special Forces, made it through the physically, emotionally, and intellectually vigorous SF training, and opted to become a medic.
Gary Beikirch arrived in Vietnam in July 1969. He wound up serving with a 5th Special Forces Group A Team in a remote Montagnard village called Dak Seang about a mile from the Laotian border in the jungles of the Central Highlands.
Beikirch found his calling tending to the medical needs of Montagnard men, women, and children. Like other Special Forces medics, he treated a myriad of health conditions, from pulling teeth to delivering babies, treating tropical diseases, and removing shrapnel wounds. He bonded with—and came to love—the Montagnard people, especially a 15-year-old boy named Deo, who more or less became his bodyguard.
On April 1, 1970, an NVA force numbering in the thousands launched a surprise human-wave attack on the camp. Caught off guard, the Green Berets and Montagnard fighters (and their families), suffered huge casualties. Beikirch and the other Green Berets sprang into action, defending the camp. Not long after the battle began, as he ran into the teeth of the assault to rescue a wounded Green Beret, a shrapnel burst knocked him unconscious. When he came to, Beikirch couldn’t walk—the metal had lodged near his spinal cord.
He shook off the injury and ordered Deo to carry him back to the perimeter to continue fighting the enemy and treat the wounded. Somehow—without the use of his legs—he helped rescue wounded Americans and Montagnards and treat them in the medic shed. During that time he was shot a second time, in the side. Again, the young Green Beret was treated and Deo took him back to the fighting. Beikirch took another bullet, this time in the stomach, but he refused entreaties to get back under cover. He continued to fight, even with Deo and two other men carrying him on a litter.
Then NVA rockets started falling. Deo jumped on top of Beikirch during a barrage and paid for that selfless act with his life. Somehow, Beikirch continued to fight until he collapsed and was medevaced out. The fighting would go on for nearly a month.
Next came months operations in hospitals in Vietnam and back in the U.S.A. He had to learn to walk again. When he recovered, Beikirch asked to be sent back to Vietnam. Instead, he spent his remaining time in the Army at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. When he took his honorable discharge, Gary Beikirch enrolled in college again. That’s when life got really rough.
“The war injured me physically,” he said in a TV interview in 2019, “but it was my homecoming that destroyed me.”
Being all but shunned and scorned by antiwar college students, he dropped out and for the next few years fought what seemed a losing battle with severe PTSD. He tried self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. He tried turning to the Bible. To little avail. Beikirch wound up living in a cave in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for nearly two years trying to come to terms with the carnage he’d experienced in Vietnam and survivor guilt—even after receiving the Medal of Honor in 1973 in a ceremony at the White House.
When Beikirch met his future wife Lolly in 1975, his life began to turn around. Her love and attention (and their embrace of Christianity) eased much of the psychic burdens he wrestled with. He graduated from White Mountain Seminary in New Hampshire, and two years later earned a BA in Psychology and Sociology from the University of New Hampshire. In 1981, he received an MS in Education Counseling specializing in adolescent psychology, trauma, and PTSD, from the State University of New York at Brockport.
But during those years there were setbacks and backsliding. Soon after Vietnam Veterans of America was founded in 1978, Gary Beikirch joined the fledgling organization and became one of VVA’s early leaders. He helped form Chapter 20 in his hometown of Rochester, and served as its first president from 1981-84. He was elected the first president of VVA’s New York State Council in 1982, and served in that position till 1984, and also did a 1983-85 term on the VVA National Board of Directors.
In 1981, Gary Beikirch—who was running Rochester’s pioneering Veterans Outreach Center and serving as a team counselor there—joined a small group of VVA leaders including then-president Bobby Muller that made a controversial trip to Vietnam to work on POW/MIA and other issues with the former enemy.
In the summer of 1988 Beikirch began working full time as a school counselor at Greece Arcadia Middle School in his hometown. That’s when he overcame the worst of his PTSD and became a loving husband and father—and a caring mentor to countless young teenagers. He spent nearly 25 years at that job. Since his retirement in 2013 Biekirch has traveled the country speaking to students, church groups, veterans, and others about overcoming adversity through faith and what he has called “finding love and being able to experience it” and “loving others more than myself.”
Marcus Brotherton, who specializes in writing inspirational books about military men, worked closely with Gary Beikirch to put together Blaze of Light: The Inspiring True Story of Green Beret Medic Gary Biekirch, Medal of Honor Recipient (Waterbrook, 261 pp. $26). Brotherton uses much reconstructed dialogue to tell Beikirch’s story in a style that calls to mind books aimed at young-adult readers. He stresses positives, but Brotherton does not shy away from describing the many low points in Beikirch’s life.
There is a strong emphasis on religion, which is fitting giving how important becoming a Christian had in bringing Beikirch out from the depths of emotional despair.
Brotherton mentions Vietnam Veterans of America only once in Blaze of Light, in the final chapter. He provides no information about the nation’s only congressionally chartered veterans service organization that concentrates on working for Vietnam War veterans and their families—other than writing that we are “a group.”
There’s not a word in the book about Gary Beikirch’s important role in VVA’s early years on the local, state, and national levels.
Clyde Hoch spends much of his life helping veterans, particularly those with post-traumatic stress disorder. He sees using a service dog as one of the better ways to cope with PTSD. “Many times,” he says, “I’ve heard from veterans, ‘If it were not for my service dog, I wouldn’t be alive today.’” He knows whereof he speaks.
A Marine tank commander in the Vietnam War in 1968-69, Clyde Hoch was severely injured by a mine that destroyed his vehicle. After coming home, he found that he could not fit into society. Eventually, he learned that he had PTSD, as well as Traumatic Brain Injury. Much later—with encouragement from a therapist and guidance from dog instructors—he bought Cooper, a Doberman Pinscher puppy, and spent a year qualifying him as a service dog.
In his latest book, Cooper: The Making of a Service Dog (100 pp. $8.95, paper) Hoch presents a strong argument for the adage that “a dog is man’s best friend.” The book covers almost three years of their relationship and Cooper’s training. “You build a bond with your dog like no other on earth,” Hoch writes of his one-hundred pound service dog.
The book is interesting because it discusses reducing the effects of war-induced emotional problems in everyday terms. Cooper, Hoch tells us, provides controls that he lacks. Best of all, he softens Hoch’s temper. For example, when Hoch displays road rage, Cooper rests his head on his shoulder to defuse the situation. Cooper also provides extra eyes and ears, lessening Hoch’s reactions to night noises. Cooper also takes the edge off Hoch’s tendency to be hyper-vigilant when he is in crowded places.
“He knows your mood and you know his,” Hoch says. “When I get angry or frustrated, he knows it and comes to me without my telling him to.”
Clyde Hoch in-country
Hoch repeatedly emphasizes the etiquette of service dog recognition. When wearing an identification vest, a service dog is off-limits to interactions with strangers, including petting. The dog knows this, but most strangers do not. Without the vest, the dog becomes a pet and acts accordingly.
Clyde Hoch performs volunteer work for veterans in many ways. He organized the Veterans Brotherhood, which takes homeless veterans off the street when they are at their lowest. He donates profits from this and his lengthy list of other books to veterans’ organizations and schools.
The long-time VVA member also is well known as a guest speaker in Eastern Pennsylvania where lives.