Combat to Conservation by F.J. Fitzgerald

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.

Fitzgerald’s website is www.fjfitzgerald.com

–Mike McLaughlin

Once We Flew., Volume I by Joseph Michael Sepesy

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.

Sepesey’s website is booksbyjmsepesy.com

–Bob Wartman

From Darkness to Light by James E. Hackbarth

From Darkness to Light (152 pp. Mill City Press, $16.99 pp.) by James E. Hackbarth, is a book of poetry that focuses on one man’s journey with post-traumatic stress disorder. Hackbarth, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, served as a U.S. Army Huey helicopter door gunner from 1968-69 with the 1st Cavalry Division’s 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, in Vietnam.

In “Destiny,” he writes:

“Am I living tomorrow today?

Have I been here before?

What is waiting for me behind

those doors?”

In “Men of War”:

War is not about men

Telling their story

Nor telling of past glory.

War is about a minute of one’s

Life filled with terror

It doesn’t go away because

You see it every day in replay.

The most memorable poem in this collection, “Soldier’s Wind Chime,” has this opening stanza:

Do you hear it?

Listen closely be still

Now can you hear it?

The soldier’s wind chime

It is whispering to me

Telling his story

A sad war story

Of a place, we know too well

Generously, Hackbarth includes a handful of poems written by friends. A stunningly gorgeous poem, by Joy April DeNicola, “I Wish I Were Vietnam,” includes this stanza:

If I were that place I would be seen by him.

I would be known if I were Vietnam.

He would want to discern every way and why of me/

He would dream of me, feel me in the root of himself.

He would think me, drink me, breathe me in, if I were Vietnam.

Hackbarth’s “We Demand More,” with this gut-wrenching opening stanza:

Have I not bared my soul for you?

Have I not shed enough tears to please you?

Must I carry this weight upon my shoulders to make you see me

Did you not see the real person upon this stage?

Must I bleed, must I break down and beg for your approval,

your pleasure

Is it not enough that I have done as you ask?

Is there more you ask

That’s all you have they say

Have we used you up so soon?

We demand more we demand more tell us the truth.

It’s been said that poetry is the most personal form of writing. In this collection James Hackbarth digs deeply into himself and uses poetry to express all that his heart, mind, and soul are pouring out.

–Bill McCloud

Honor & Indignity by Gregory D. Doering

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.

–Bob Wartman

War and the Arc of Human Experience by Glen Petersen

Glenn Petersen ran away from home at 16 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy shortly after turning 17. By 19, he was flying combat missions from the U.S.S. Bennington in the Vietnam War in 1966-67. Peterson, a research anthropologist and City University of New York professor, tells his story with wonderment and vigor in War and the Arc of Human Experience (Hamilton Books, 290 pp. $24.99, paper; $23.50, Kindle), an autobiography that should touch the soul of most people who served in the military.

In the first half of the book Petersen describes his emotional growth under a domineering father and wartime conditions; in the second half, he reveals his challenging ascent through alcoholism, antiwar civil disobedience, and parenthood.

Youthful exposure to movies, TV shows, books, and songs that emphasized duty to fight and to kill for our country (and to die for our faith) imbued him with the belief that dedication to duty was the primary trait of a warrior. This dedication reached its pinnacle when Petersen flew as an intercept controller and flight technician in E-1B Tracer early warning aircraft. On the aircraft carrier’s deck, he also maintained radar systems in an undermanned and under-equipped unit. He ranked his job ahead of his wellbeing, and the earnestness of his work brought recognition and promotions.

In the book Petersen skillfully recreates the dangers of aircraft carrier operations: the on-deck and inflight rigors of maintenance; the emotional and physical toll of catapult launches and arrested recoveries; and the absolute absence of free time. All of this fortified his aggressiveness as a warrior. When his crew mistakenly overflew China’s Hainan Island and barely evaded intense antiaircraft fire, Petersen reached a new heroic level in his mind.

After separating from the Navy and returning to school Petersen began to rethink his role in society. He tells extremely interesting stories about those years, showing how, in class, he worked as hard as he had in the Navy. He also drank a lot and totaled three cars in two years. He became an antiwar protester. He made what he calls the “bizarre decision to become an anthropologist” and live in exotic places, including Micronesia.

As the book progresses, Petersen disassembles his psyche with surgical-like precision. For him, it is open season on every aspect of his thoughts and behaviors, primarily involving marriage and fatherhood. He reduces war to an intellectual topic and simultaneously analyzes the emotions of the world at large from a hardcore anthropologist’s perspective, which involves neurobiology, guilt, just-war theory, and moral injury.

Peterson’s discussion of PTSD far exceeds what you’ll find in most Vietnam War memoirs. He repeats himself by bringing up the topic several times, but on each occasion, he digs deeper into the problem, and finds greater revelatory reasons for his PTSD and its resulting behavior. His thoughts about PTSD stretch to the end of the book.

Glenn Petersen has led a tough life—one I wouldn’t want. (He names Yossarian of Catch-22 as his role model.) His willingness to write about what he suffered induced me to look at my own self-destructive shortcomings that I could have prevented. Too late, though, in my case.

Anyone with an open mind will have it opened wider by reading this book.

—Henry Zeybel

Nine Pairs of Boots in Vietnam by Stephen R. and Rosie Williams

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. 

Steve and Rosie Williams

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.

The authors’ website is www.rosiejwilliams.com

–Bob Wartman

Flashbacks by R. Dean Jerde and Tom Pisapia

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.

Pisapia’s website is tompisapia.net

–Tom Werzyn

Little by Slowly by John P. Maloney, Jr.

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.

Jack Maloney

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.

—Charles Templeton

The Gopher King by Gojan Nikolich

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.

Gojan Nikolich

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.

–Charles Templeton

The Best of Medic in the Green Time by Marc Levy

Marc Levy’s The Best of Medic in the Green Time: Writings from the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath (Winter Street Press, 563 pp. $24, paper) is a kaleidoscopic book of stories written by Levy and others. Kaleidoscopically, these colorful stories burst out in all directions. They’re collected from a website that Levy, who served as a medic with the First Cavalry Division in the Vietnam War, started in 2007.

The stories, poems, essays, recollections, and reflections are divided into three sections: War, Poetry, and Postwar. There are more than seventy stories in all, three-fourths written by Levy.

Here is some of what we encounter in the opening section on the Vietnam War. A casualty of friendly fire, the first man Levy has to patch up. How to make morning GI coffee. Inflated body counts. Souvenirs taken from the dead. Medals awarded to appease grieving families. Coincidences that save lives. Men voluntarily returning to the war because they missed the adrenaline rush.

Several stories describe extreme combat at a personal level. A buddy dying in Levy’s arms. The attacking Viet Cong dressed only in loin cloths. Men giving themselves self-inflicted wounds to try to keep from returning to combat.

The poems are a mixed bag; some of the best are written by Levy. In “He Would Tell You,” for example, he writes:

 Let me never tell you

Things you cannot know

Let me never tell you

Things that won’t let go.

“Portrait of a Young Girl at Dawn” ends with:

They haul her in.

Beneath the whirling blades

She is spinning, spinning

She is floating away.

“Dead Letter Day,” begins: “He sent the letter to the guy’s wife/The same day,/Leaving out the following:”

We then learn the truth of the man’s death. Things his widow must never know.

One of the best poems, by Tom Laaser, is “Things I Think About at 11:11 on November the 11th”. In it, a man is attending yet another program for vets in a high-school auditorium and he’s conflicted. He senses that he does not want to be a veteran,

But the second that god damn flag is unfurled

And that crappy high school band strikes up you

Give way to unyielding patriotism of the highest degree.

I bled for this

You want to scream.

I am a veteran. This is MY country. I earned this freedom.

I earned

This day.

Marc Levy, left, at LZ Compton in An Loc, 1969

The third part, “Postwar,” includes a small section on combat humor, as well as one on how to talk to college students about the war, and one on the symptoms and treatments of PTSD because, as Levy writes, “Whatever you did in war will always be with you.” An especially interesting section includes comments from dozens of veterans describing what they think when some well-meaning person says, “Thank you for your service.”

It’s a phrase Levy considers to be “petty.”

This is a great book because of the well-written variety of stories and topics Levy covers. It’s also great because of how it’s put together. There is no reason to read the more than seventy chapters in order. Dig in and skip around any way you choose.

A kaleidoscope of stories awaits you.

Marc Levy’s website, Medic in the Green Time, is medicinthegreentime.com

–Bill McCloud