Post 8195 edited by Bobby White

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Twenty-three men recall “untold truths” in Post 8195: Black Soldiers Tell Their Vietnam Stories (Beckham, 228 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper) edited by Bobby White. Far beyond their confrontations with the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, the men still battle post-traumatic stress disorder.

These twenty-three men served in every branch of the service and performed the duties expected of them with lasting pride. A majority of them were infantrymen and remember horrific episodes from the thick of combat. Their gut-level candidness exceeds what is found in most Vietnam War books.

They focus on fears that nearly overpowered them. They emphasize challenges more than heroism, although they acted heroically in times of crisis. They often still show amazement for what they did and saw long ago. Even today, they dwell on how “Vietnam was a big hell spot,” as Ismael Rolle, Jr., put it. “We had no alternative but to fight and survive.”

Mostly draftees, the men express controlled anger regarding racism during their time in Vietnam. They recognized that a racial bias existed, but lived with it. Several became squad leaders.

Eulas Mitchell Jr. says, “I had a squad of fifteen men; all were black.” They performed with “perfection,” which “didn’t sit well with the powers.”

His unit was broken up. Then, Mitchell says, he “was given thirteen southern boys nobody wanted.” He turned them into a “good group” that simply “wanted a proven leader.”

The VFW Post in West Park, Florida, under the guidance of Bobby White, began a program to counsel veterans in multiple ways, especially those with PTSD. Called Stone of Hope, the program is an extension of one offered by the local Vet Center. White, retired from a thirty-two year career with the VA, organized a rehabilitation program that emphasized transcendental meditation, yoga, and chiropractic.534951_lno7y3kp

Post 8195 grew from this program and enhanced the men’s recovery from PTSD. Today, most of the men are in long-term marriages, have families and children, and enjoy retirement benefits earned from civilian careers.

The VFW post plays a major role in the lives of four hundred African Americans, White says,  providing them with both guidance and “the place” for adults to “hang out.”

—Henry Zeybel

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And the Redbird Sings by Phillip Dowsett

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Phillip Dowsett tells the reader in the Preface to his memoir, And the Redbird Sings: You are not Alone. You Are Loved. There is Hope. (338 pp., $14.95, paper’ $4.99, Kindle), that he does not want his words to hurt anyone and that he does not want to contribute to the pain that most of us are already in.  Dowsett describes himself an old, blown-up war veteran, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, and that this book was not easy for him to write.

While reading this book I had no notion that it had been easy to write or that Dowsett’s life had been easy to live. Far from it. He says he “was stuck in the darkness of my living nightmare for twelve years before a Veterans Outreach Center opened near my home.”  And that he’d survived “twenty-five years of frightening nightmares and suicidal depression.”

The painful memories of his childhood, of the Vietnam War, and of homelessness and an alcohol and drug-addicted life have been his to face and try to deal with. Dowsett, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, had served aboard a heavily armed Navy gunboat as a radioman in Vietnam and had been seriously wounded several times, ending up in Naval hospitals for weeks at a time.

Dowsett’s memoir takes place in 1967-68 when his unit, River Assault Squadron Nine, conducted search and destroy missions in the Mekong Delta south of Saigon. He was prepared for this service by an all-American boyhood that involved playing in creeks, fields, and woods where he lived the fantasies of being Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Jim Bowie.

Dowsett also grew up with seventeen years of a violent father and an insane, violent mother. When he returned home after serving in Vietnam, he learned there would be no parades, that he would not be celebrated as a hero, and that even though he’d fought valiantly, he returned to be treated as a criminal. He learned quickly not to trust the VA, and to be wary of antiwar protesters who chanted at him about killing babies.

He’d spent almost two years living aboard a small ship, LST 1148, but nobody was interested in hearing about this aspect of his service. He saw antiwar protesters as rich college kids who scorned him for having served in the Navy. He’d spent his time in Vietnam bathing in Agent Orange-laced river water, and he would soon reap the effects of the poison he and millions of other Vietnam War veterans were been exposed to.

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Dowsett eventually learned that nothing good comes from alcohol and drugs. He managed—with the help of those who loved him—to turn over a great number of leaves and makes something good of himself.

This is a powerful story and one well worth reading. I enjoyed it and it held my attention.

—David Willson

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kristin Hannah

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

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

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

The author’s website is kristinhannah.com

—David Willson

When We Came Home by Jack McCabe

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Jack McCabe begins When We Came Home: How the Vietnam War Changed Those Who Served (OddInt Media, 350 pp. $19.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) with his own story, including observations about his homecoming and the intervening years when he struggled despite the VA telling him, “just go home; there is nothing wrong with you.”

The more McCabe wrestled with his own demons, the more he realized he was not alone. Finally, after a successful business career in real estate, he began devoting his time volunteering to help other veterans.

The book is a compilation of stories about what happened after folks returned home from the Vietnam War. McCabe writes that “no one came home whole,” no matter what we may have initially thought. He recognizes two important aspects of Vietnam veterans: That we hid and tried to bury those times within without seeking out our brothers for many years, and that the war changed everyone who went there, no matter the job—cook, mechanic, pilot, or rifleman.

There are many stories in the book, all of them personal and important. The book broadens the mosaic of the story of the Vietnam War veteran.

In his interviews McCabe—a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America—followed a three-part formula, a short account of the veteran’s time in country, then tales of coming home and being home. He includes a range of servicemen and women, being careful to give them all a full and respectful opportunity to tell of their experiences.

One of the more poignant voices is that of Glenn Knight, a 1st Cav veteran trained to be a Huey repairman whose job in country morphed into being a gunner on hunter killer Huey team along the Cambodian border.

Upon his return, Knight realized he didn’t fit in despite his military experience. Marriage, followed by kids, soon turned into bouncing around in many jobs. The toll of raising a family and other pressures of life turned him to drink and bouts of anger. He admits the “guy who went to war is a KIA and he never returned.”

The courage Knight shows as he reveals his story is typical of the hidden courage of the men and women who went to war in Vietnam but did not know how to deal with the ghosts they brought home with them. It took many years, but Glenn Knight finally was able to get help with his PTSD at the VA.

One of McCabe’s lighter stories is that of former Red Cross Donut Dolly Rene Johnson, who decided she needed to go to Vietnam to see for herself stories she was hearing from friends and family before entering nursing school. During her first tour Johnson spent time with the 25th Infantry Division, the 9th Infantry Division, and the First Cav.

Johnson recalls stopping in Hawaii on her way home and spending hours just watching TV commercials. But after getting home, she realized something was missing. Depression set in, along with a feeling of failure that she somehow did not have a home per se. So she re-upped for another tour. It was not until 2012 that Johnson found help for her PTSD.

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Jack McCabe

The importance of this book is the voice it gives to Vietnam War veterans. It validates our service and puts the black and white honesty of what we did in print for all to see.

The courage of all the men and women in this book is raw, naked, awesome, and an encouragement to all who served to stand tall and be proud of what we did.

Jack McCabe has done a marvelous job of interviewing and telling these stories. This is a book that scholars of war and politicians would do well to read to see that war is not just a “tour” and learn about how the trauma taking part in a war causes can last a lifetime.

The author’s web site is jackmccabe.net

—Bud Alley

 

The Miracle Workers of South Boulder Road by Bob Fischer and Grady Birdsong

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“It looks a lot like a textbook,” my wife Jan said while thumbing through The Miracle Workers of South Boulder Road: Healing the Signature Wounds of War (Bird Quill, 199 pp. $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) by Bob Fischer and Grady Birdsong.

“Maybe,” I told her, “but it’s filled with information that touches your heart.”

The book pays tribute to a treatment program run by the Rocky Mountain Hyperbaric Institute in Boulder, Colorado. The book’s most significant picture is of a gray brain with a Purple Heart medal affixed to it because hyperbaric oxygen treatment (HBOT) helps war veterans with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

As my wife noted, the book contains charts and photographs, almost like a textbook. It also has “Exhibits” that illustrate the need for—and effectiveness of—HBOT.

Fischer and Birdsong, Marine Corps Vietnam War veterans, bring the text alive by describing the people who run the program and those who have benefited from using it their own words. The miracle-working heroes of the story are Ryan Fullmer, Eddie Gomez, Dr. Julie Stapleton, Pepe Ramirez, and their team.

Both Fullmer and Gomez suffered physical problems that HBOT cured, which motivated them to join forces and establish a clinic to perform feats similar to those that saved their lives. The authors helped find funding for starting a non-profit clinic. The clinic has treated hundreds of veterans.

Stapleton, a Certified Hyperbaric Physician, joined the group in 2007 to fulfill government regulations. She champions the use of HBOT to treat those with PTSD, although neither the Department of Defense nor the FDA endorses the concept. The VA recently announced that it would offer HBOT for PTSD patients.

Ramirez, a retired Marine Sergeant Major, specializes in EMDR (Eye Movement, Desensitization, and Reprocessing) psychotherapy and physical exercise that complements HBOT. He served three tours in Iraq.

Fundamentally, HBOT replaces the unsatisfactory array of drugs (and even career-ending brain surgery) routinely provided by VA hospitals as treatment for TBI and PTSD. Autobiographies of veterans who found renewed life through HBOT testify to its success.

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As treatment for combat injuries, HBOT is a relatively new form of medicine. I knew nothing about it prior to reading The Miracle Workers of South Boulder Road. As I said earlier, the book touches a reader’s heart. It is written by and about people who possess faith and perseverance in their cause.

The authors walk the reader through HBOT from start to finish and explain every step along the way. I doubt that you can find a better source to begin your education in this area.

Grady Birdsong’s web site is gradytbirdsong.com

—Henry Zeybel

Not Enough Tears by Dave Wright

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I try to read a Vietnam War memoirs as if it was the first book I’ve read on the subject. Despite that, I recognize similarities from previous books. Consequently, the depths to which a writer reveals personal experiences influences my reaction to a book. In other words, I often judge a book based on the writer’s willingness to share his or her most horrific war stories and reactions to them.

In Not Enough Tears (Author House, 277 pp. $14.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), Dave Wright generously opens his mind and heart to tell what he did and saw as a twenty-three-year-old Army infantryman. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion/26th Regiment of the First Infantry Division at Lai Khe during his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour.

Wright took part in two encounters that wiped out his squad, but left him unscratched. He justified—but at the same time questioned—surviving those and other traumatizing events as the result of his faith, which began when he was eleven.

“God let me ‘sense’ when we were walking into trouble,” he says.

Draftee Wright hated the war. “By three months,” he writes, “I was sick of life as a grunt.”

Yet he strove to keep others safe, choosing to walk point to protect new guys after watching too many of them get killed too quickly. Because he was a few years older, his fellow soldiers called him “The Old Man” or “Father.” They admired his good luck.

A natural leader, Dave Wright developed a philosophy whereby, when possible, he bypassed the enemy. His rationale centered on the certainty that his men would suffer casualties regardless of how many VC they killed, wounded, or captured. So avoiding firefights protected them from harm.

Wright discusses progressive mental and physical problems that made him resort to a “sham” and other schemes to get an easier job after eight months in the field. “I needed someone to recognize that I had done all I could, for as long as I could,” he says.

He was reassigned to a newly formed recon platoon made up of twenty-five “eight balls from the whole battalion,” as he calls them. The job was safer, but he started having “anxiety attacks just hours before it was time to go out into the jungle,” he says, and “was getting closer and closer to becoming a mental casualty.”

Despite his covenant with God, Wright worried about the future: “What if I screwed up and made Him mad,” he thought. “Would He stop protecting me and all those around me?” Eventually, Wright ended up in a support company where he felt relief. But he also felt guilt for “getting off line almost two months early,” he says.

You don’t have to be Sherlock to figure out the cause-effect of Wright’s PTSD. He provides the facts of his experiences and the effects naturally follow. For example, he reached “a new low,” he says, when he ripped open a dead VC’s face to help another soldier extract a gold tooth. He acted atrociously and no punishment followed, which complicated his “Why me, Lord?” puzzlement.

Back home and newly married, Wright slowly recognized that he had little control over his life compared to the control he felt when walking point. Depression, anguish, and pain followed. Work and church became the foundation for his life.

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Dave Wright

By writing Not Enough Tears, Wright was able to examine the changes in his personality that had resulted from war experiences. God provided salvation. As he puts it: “My stories are certainly not of biblical quality, but they are a true record of what Jesus has done in my life.”

Originally published in 2004, Not Enough Tears was recently re-released with revisions and photographs.

Richard Charles Martinez, author of Grunts Don’t Cry, served in the same 1st Infantry Division platoon as Wright in 1968-69. Their books complement each other.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Raeford’s MVP by Rick DeStafanis

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Raeford’s MVP (CreateSpace, 452 pp., 16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the third Vietnam War-themed novel by Rick DeStefanis, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1970-72.  We reviewed the previous books—Melody Hill and The Gomorrah Principle on these pages.

This book focuses on Billy Coker, who is 19 years old and erving in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam during the war. He left behind the love of his life, the chubby Bonnie Jo Parker, in Raeford, Mississippi. Bonnie happens to have an amazing voice and a pretty face, the way many big girls in small American towns do.  She gives him a good luck piece to wear. Spoiler alert: It does the trick.

When Billy arrives back home, he struggles with psychological problems and with connecting with his old friends. Some of his best friends make an effort to help him, a very good thing.

But the war becomes Billy’s life and he has a terrible problem shaking it off. The fog of battle gets a mention. So does John Wayne.  And Puff the Magic Dragon. Agent Orange is not ignored.

Billy finds a honkytonk that has an “old Son House tune on the jukebox.”  I would love to find that place. I’ve never encountered Son House on a jukebox.  Wilson Pickett sings “Land of a 1000 Dances,” and Jane Fonda gets kicked around years before she takes her trip to North Vietnam.

DeStefanis has written an honorable book that will hold most readers’ attention.

The author’s website is rickdestefanis.com

—David Willson