One Step at a Time by Greg Burham

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In One Step at a Time: A Navy SEAL Vietnam Combat Veteran’s Journey Home: Including his Hike from Alaska to Mexico (Phoca Press, 214 pp., $85) we follow former Petty Officer Greg Burham from his discharge in 1972 as he decides to exchange combat boots for hiking boots.

Burham’s childhood set the direction for physical and mental tenacity, from marveling at a man who rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean to challenging himself with skill tests.  “I can say the seed was planted for me to take a long trip myself under my own power,” he writes. “Even as a very young person, doing physical or athletic things made me feel better about myself.”

Burham readily took on the “sink or swim” motto of intense Navy SEAL training and a subsequent seven-month tour of duty in the Vietnam War near Can Tho in the Mekong Delta beginning in late 1970. In 1972, Burham decided to leave the Navy after his four-year hitch. “Even as I was getting ready to muster out of service,” he says, “I still considered staying in and trying to get my degree at night.”

Burham faced unexpected barriers when he returned home to Kalispell, Montana. At the University of Montana he was confronted by another student who asked him how many kids he had killed, and who “thought it was terrible the government would give a baby killer money for college. I bit my tongue, but the words stung.”

In May 1974 he turned his thoughts to hiking from Alaska to Mexico into action. He postponed college, left his job, and sold his car. Burham’s boots hit the Alaskan tundra in July, launching a remarkable trek accentuated by natural beauty and the almost daily offers of rides (which he always declined), food or drink, hiking and camping advice, or just plain conversation with strangers he met on the trail.

There were times in which Burham enjoyed being alone with nature. “The sun was shining and the daisies were nodding in the breeze,” he wrote in his journal about one such occasion. “As much as I liked the company of the people I met along the way, I also enjoyed my solitude.”

Possibly an August item is the most significant entry in Burham’s log. He wrote: “My two month milestone marked a second event in my life. The next day, August 20, was six years since I had enlisted in the Navy. This was also officially my Discharge Day.” Alongside Gita Creek in Alberta, Canada, Burham reached life-altering decisions. He decided not to re-enlist in the Navy, and also reached an important emotional plateau. To wit: “Even though I came back to a country that was relentlessly negative to military veterans like me, on this day, I only felt a sense of satisfaction.”

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Burham trekking

 

While trekking, Burham’s diet varied from occasional home-cooked meals to small-town cafe fare, Dairy Queen ice cream, freeze-dried packs, and grocery store “pig-outs” including peanut butter, crackers, cupcakes, Grape-Nuts, powdered milk, and an arid turkey sandwich he consumed at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Climate surprises greeted the hiker many times. Approaching the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Burham wrote: “The weather changed every five minutes, from sun, to rain, to sleet, back to sun, and then rain again.” Then came one more physical challenge.

“It was a tiring 30 mile climb from the desert floor in Fredonia to the top of the Kaibab Plateau (at around 7,900 or 8,000 feet elevation), making for a long day.”

At his final step in Sonoyta, Mexico, he began a new life phase, starting a career as a youth counselor while dealing with his own PTSD. Married and the father of three, Burham, went to work for the VA, counseling veterans from World War II through the current war in Afghanistan, including Russian veterans, until his retirement in 2007.

—Curt Nelson

 

No Strings Attached by John W. Carlson

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John Bultman enlisted in the Marine Corps and arrived in Vietnam at age nineteen in 1967. He spent thirteen months as a courier for the First Marine Air Wing at Da Nang. He also helped defend the base perimeter as a rifleman during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Bultman’s courier runs to outlying posts by helicopter, Jeep, light aircraft, and river patrol boat exposed him to “war’s dreadful brutality,” he says. The sight of dead bodies, “especially women and children,” created his “most horrible memories.”

Later in life, Bultman talked fervently about the Marine Corps to John W. Carlson, a drinking buddy and a feature writer for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana. Fascinated by what he heard, Carlson has written a book about Bultman’s life called No Strings Attached: John Bultman’s War as a Marine in Vietnam, and Its Aftermath (CreateSpace, 78 pp. $10. paper).

This short book provides a lucid image of Bultman’s personality, depicting his weaknesses as well as strengths. Best of all, Carlson shows that Bultman has a sense of humor about the world in general and an ability to laugh at himself when appropriate.

As the subtitle suggests, Bultman’s war experiences fill only half of the book. The “Aftermath” focuses on Bultman’s playing the banjo and battling PTSD.

After the war, John Bultman bummed around on beaches near San Diego, worked with Vietnam Veterans Against War, returned to college but dropped out, and then discovered and taught himself how to play the banjo. Love of music led him to the love of his life—Janan—who played the piano, flute, and mandolin. They married, had two daughters, and enjoyed success in the music business until PTSD overwhelmed him.

Bultman’s years of treatment for PTSD included two months as an in-patient at a VA hospital. Survivor guilt haunted him.

267x267-2d1fdaa5-3bb0-474e-8476f194863d8de0“When John describes his treatment, it takes on the aura of sweaty, physical effort,” Carlson writes, “’Oh, shit,’ he recalled. ‘It was hard, hard, hard work. My life changed dramatically,’ he said, though he noted his treatment wasn’t exactly a panacea. ‘I was not as angry.’ Still, even in the face of success, he doesn’t take such good news, such progress, for granted. He admitted, ‘I’ve never met a Vietnam vet that wasn’t grumpy. Every day, it’s always something. It’s just that now the level is different, of course.'”

To me, these four quotes quietly explain that PTSD is a lifelong problem. Along the way, a VA doctor declared Bultman one hundred percent disabled by the disorder.

Carlson’s No Strings Attached is what it is. Basically, he adds another witness to confirm the severe damage incurred by young minds exposed to traumatic situations.

—Henry Zeybel

What Have We Done by David Wood

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In What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars (Little, Brown, 304 pp., $28, hardcover; $14.99, E book), David Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and war correspondent, thoughtfully and often startlingly shows that men and women who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were well-prepared for “the art of war,” but woefully ill-equipped to deal with what the psychiatrist Jonathan Shay calls “moral injury” in his 1995 book, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.

“The U.S. involvement in Vietnam was a watershed in our understanding of war trauma,” Wood writes, “but because several of the indicators of PTSD—anxiety, depression, anger, isolation, insomnia, self-medication—are shared with moral injury, it took time for therapists and researchers to unbraid the two.”

Wood’s interviews with deployed troops strongly illustrate what he calls “the loss of a warrior’s moral guidepost.” Describing Marine Cpl. Sendio Martz whose patrol was hit by a command-detonated device in Afghanistan, for example, Wood notes that men in the patrol suffered mild traumatic brain injuries and assorted other injuries. “But the moral damage was worse than that,” he writes, because Martz and his men broke an unwritten rule by befriending an Afghan boy.

Martz reported that “the boy eventually would turn in villagers’ weapons, and would point out places where IED’s had been placed. Then one day the boy disappeared—and a few days later came the IED blast. Soon they found out it was the boy himself who set off the charge.”

The moral repercussions of the boy’s betrayal surfaced later. “Back home at Camp Lejeune,” Wood writes, “Sendio found himself replaying the IED blast detonated by the kid over and over in his mind.” Wood has conducted many interviews like this, revealing the distinction between PTSD and moral injury.

Another distinction Wood discovered while with the Marines in Afghanistan centers on chain of command. Wood reports that “higher ranks (referred to, usually not fondly, as “Higher”) make strategy, write doctrine, and devise tactics.” The lower ranks, which Wood calls “the blue-collar, working class of the military,” are “mostly young, mostly enlisted soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines who are the infantry grunts, the trigger pullers, the wrench turners, the watch standers, the tank drivers, the helicopter crewmen, the medics.”

The book includes statistics that may appear as dry as a Social Science textbook, yet behind every stat is a human element. Comparing this century’s conflicts with those of  previous years, Wood writes: “These new wars also threw young troops into legal and moral swamps that GIs of past wars could hardly imagine.” Even “attempting to follow the rules could lead to sickening self-recrimination.

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David Wood

“Lieutenant Colonel Rob Campbell commanded a cavalry squadron in eastern Afghanistan. One night, Campbell said, overhead surveillance showed what looked like a team of insurgents planting IED’s beside a road. Certain that [the Rules of Engagement] and international law had been satisfied, the staff called in a strike, killing the civilians who were actually farmers planting seeds. ‘It was horrible, something I’ll have to live with,’ Campbell said.”

Wood cites one instance in which a soldier who happened to be an atheist incurred moral injury almost immediately after an action in which he killed an Iraqi insurgent. “The soldier was near the end of his deployment so killing was not new to him,” Wood writes. “What was new was the circumstance. ”

The soldier “found the dead man’s wallet and opened it. Inside, a weathered snapshot of a man posing with several women and children. The man in the picture now lay dead at his feet. So he felt guilty about that.”

Atheist or not, this soldier suffered a moral injury, one of many masterfully recorded in this book.

The author’s website is davidwoodjournalist.com

—Curt Nelson

 

 

 

Tin Can Treason by Terry Nardone

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Terry Nardone’s Tin Can Treason: Recollections from a Combat Tour of Vietnam (CreateSpace, 159 pp. $12.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a tell-all memoir about life aboard a United States Navy destroyer and the dynamics of the relations between crewmen. Worried about the draft and an infantry assignment, Nardone enlisted in the Navy the day after his eighteenth birthday in 1971. Despite getting his dream sheet fulfilled, he ended up on a ship that went to war.

“Are we men or boys?” Nardone asks several times while thinking through his Vietnam War experience aboard the USS Bordelon (DD881). As part of his treatment for PTSD and guided by “a diary of events,” he writes about his shipboard life in the voice of his younger self in a quest to understand the trauma he still feels nearly fifty years later.

Fear and depression played significant roles in the lives of men on the Bordelon during her round trip from Charleston, South Carolina, to the South China Sea between October 1972 and April 1973. Nardone describes attempts to sabotage the ship as proof that the crew hated the war and wanted no part of it.

Off the coast of Vietnam, the Bordelon primarily provided gunfire support for ground forces and took part in Operation Linebacker. Except for one engagement when he went topside, Nardone spent his combat time below deck setting fuses and moving artillery shells.

His contempt for the war peaked when the Bordelon bombarded and “killed about eighteen [friendly] Marines,” he says. He felt an equally tragic loss when he saw a close friend “cut right in half by the steam” from a ruptured 600-PSI line. In combat, tasks that stressed the ship’s structure made “the old beast feel like she [was] going to disintegrate,” Nardone writes, and the crew twice retreated to Subic Bay for repairs.

Nardone talks about the boredom of sailing long distances and says a few crewmen likened it to a prison sentence. He seemingly holds back nothing in describing stops that developed into orgies of drinking booze, smoking dope, and finding whores or girlfriends in port after port. A confessed self-abuser, Nardone nevertheless questioned his behavior, wondering if he “would still have nightmares and problems if [he] did not get stoned.” Frequently in trouble with the ship’s captain, Nardone once spent three days in the brig on bread and water.

The book’s title is deceptive: “Treason” is not clearly defined and might be viewed from multiple perspectives. Suspected of the most flagrant crimes, the ship’s captain was relieved of his command, confined to quarters, and arrested upon returning to the United States.

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Terry Nardone

You could call this a coming-of-age story except that Nardone was a world-wise young man who exerted significant influence on his shipmates. He makes an airtight case for the strength of friendships and confidences that develop among workers in physically restricted surroundings, such as the hundred men on a destroyer.

Reviewing something like a memoir a week for “Books in Review II” for the past year and a half, I have read few accounts of the Vietnam War written by sailors. Until now, the most memorable book I’ve read about the Navy was Brown Water Runs Red by Bob Andretta, which mainly covers action on South Vietnamese rivers.

Tin Can Treason differs by telling more about people and the ship rather than the action. Yet Terry Nardone clearly spells out the impact that the war had on everyone and everything.

He closes his book with a history of the Bordelon from its 1945 commissioning to its 1977 sinking as a target.

—Henry Zeybel

All Would Be Heroes by Jim Maher

 

 

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Jim Maher is a U. S. Navy veteran who served for a few months in Da Nang during the Vietnam War. His book, All Would be Heroes (Tate, 146 pp., $12.99, paper; $10.99, e book ), we’re told, “is a work of his mind, dreams, and what if’s, plus excerpts from stories he heard.”  Maher also wrote a book called Leaders, Losers and Lessons.

This small book is presented as a series of short stories, each of which features a main character who seems to be disconnected from the main character in the other stories. Then they link up near the end of this book in action and theme.

We first meet Tom, a whining, complaining coward who never shuts up. He’s trained as an Army postal clerk and stationed near Da Nang.

Next we meet Ned, who joined ROTC and wants to be a wealthy broker when he grows up. He was trained for Naval Intelligence and stationed near Phu Bai. He did courier duty, and is shot down with a satchel full of secret documents, which he carefully hides. Then we meet Ben, a hospital corpsman in Da Nang  assigned to a Seabees unit.

Throughout the book the author does not waste false respect for the  enemy. One chapter is entitled “Viet Cong Scum.” Agent Orange is acknowledged and the VA is criticized for failing to help veterans with  PTSD. The book has a frequent sardonic edge. Maher writes, for instance that the mother of a fallen soldier is “given his medals in a beautiful wooden case.”

In the end, more medals are handed out and whiners show some heroism. Tom, the malingerer, “was now popular in his hometown because of his heroics in Vietnam, so he didn’t have a problem getting dates and spending a lot of time in bars,” Maher writes. “People enjoyed buying him drinks and sharing their pot with him. He was getting drunk and high on a nightly basis, and life for Tom was good.”

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Jim Maher

After getting drunk and high one night, Tom tries to cross some railroad tracks. He “failed to see the freight train backing slowly. The train’s wheel crushed him, killing Tom instantly.”  Just desserts, I say. No happy endings.

I highly recommend this book to overly optimistic high school seniors who think that being an American hero is all roses.

—David Willson

Crazy Me by Thomas Bixby

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Most autobiographies are written to inform readers about the events in the life of the author during a defined period of time. In that respect, Crazy Me: How I Lost Reality… and Found Myself (Micro Publishing Media, 204 pp., $15.99, paper) follows that practice.

The reader, however, once engaged in reading this book will find that it is not presented chronologically. The book begins in 1970 when Bixby’s symptoms of psychosis were at the worst. It then goes back to his Bixby’s childhood experiences, before returning to 1970 when he first sought psychological help.

The rest of the story is told chronologically, although Bixby goes back to his earlier experiences as they came up in the therapy process.The book finishes with chapters on life in recovery.

Tom Bixby, a member of Vietnam  Veterans of America who served as an MP and helicopter door gunner in the war, provides a very detailed account of the causes and history of his mental illnesses, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of the descriptions of his life experiences are extremely graphic and unsettling. 

I believe this book would be excellent required reading material in an academic setting for a class leading to a degree in psychopathology. It is not a book for relaxed reading.

—A.R. Lamb

My Other Life by Richard Alexander

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In 1967-68, Richard Alexander served with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam. Memories of what he did and saw have stuck with him ever since. As a result, after nearly half a century, he wrote My Other Life: A Combat Soldier in Vietnam (Darwin Press, 266 pp.; $34.95).

Upon opening his book, I thought, “What makes his story different from others who shared similar experiences?” I must admit to one fault: I usually bypass prefaces, forwards, acknowledgements, and anything else that delays the opening of a memoir. I want the story first.

Nevertheless, for no particular reason, I read Alexander’s preface. In it, he projects a why-the-fuck-not-talk-about-everything style that immediately had me nodding and laughing in sync with his tirade of honesty. The preface says it all. Yet, at the same time, it makes the reader feel as if some heavy stuff will follow. And it does.

Alexander jumps into the Vietnam War through a series of flashbacks. After bombing out of college, he volunteered for the draft. Alexander says he felt obligated to help to prevent the Domino Theory from becoming a reality. Or did he, he wondered.

In Vietnam Alexander manned a gun on an armored personnel carrier, got promoted to track commander, and then demoted back to gunner after complaining about the progress of the war within hearing range of his commander. His regiment worked near Xuan Loc in the south and on the Batangan Peninsula in the north.

The story line sounds familiar, but Alexander’s irreverent presentation knocks it beyond ordinary memoir boundaries. He hopscotches from scene to scene with prose overflowing with doubt, sarcasm, fear, love, hate, cynicism, and exaggeration. He raises questions about most phases of the war while producing laughs and anger. His amped-up writing style seldom wavers in its intensity portraying war as a menace to mankind.

At times he displays near-psychopathic rushes of ambivalence, hating the war but hating with equal ferocity those who protested against it. As a corollary to that hate, he constantly wanted to go home despite knowing that Americans no longer loved warriors.

“The first patrol I went out on,” Alexander writes, “set the tone for my whole tour.” Much of what he saw on that patrol, such as the murder of a prisoner, might be familiar to readers of Vietnam War memoirs, but the trauma Alexander felt further verifies the horrors of war.

Descriptions of his eight months in the field are what you expect to read—days of intense heat or rain in overgrown jungle or on dusty or muddy terrain, with interruptions of death and destruction from unseen forces until helicopter gunfire and Phantom napalm blasts incinerate everything in his unit’s path, soon followed by another similar day. Alexander, though, describes the routine in a spellbinding manner.

Shortly after Alexander survived a case of malaria and got out of the hospital with three months left in his tour and was assigned to rear-echelon duty, he agreed to a one-time courier trip to his former unit on the Cambodian border near Loc Ninh. He arrived on the day the Tet Offensive kicked off and once more became an APC gunner (until six days before rotating home), continually wondering “why” as mines and rockets destroyed men and tracks around him.

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Richard Alexander

Alexander remembers a lot of guys he enjoyed knowing in Vietnam but never saw again. For a long time, he refused to search for their names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial so that he could continue to hope they survived the fighting. He still feels guilty for being “spared,” as he calls his it.

“We were nothing but bait, going out each day,” he says. He developed a phobia of being ambushed and overrun, a situation American tactics set the stage for eventually encountering, he believes.

He rails against the enthusiasm of young people enticed by military propaganda that glorifies war”It’s a good thing we don’t know what awaits us, isn’t it?,” he writes. “What’s in store for us?”

Alexander repeatedly addresses the emotional toll that his war service took on his closely knit family, particularly on his parents. He examines every angle regarding his younger brother’s decision to move to Europe to avoid the draft, giving his brother a voice in the argument.

I found many similarities between Alexander’s My Other Life and Bruce McDaniel’s recently-published Walk Through the Valley: The Spiritual Journey of a Vietnam War Medic. The war significantly disillusioned both authors. Alexander’s book also made me dig Brian Esher’s Rolling Coffins: Experiences of a Mechanical Infantry Soldier in the Bloodiest Year of the Vietnam War, 1968 from my bookshelf. Combined, Alexander and Esher present a full-scale picture of life among APC crewmen.

Esher, too, found disenchantment with his nation but pride in his service. As he put it: “I was a simple soldier who did his duty when called upon by his country.”

To me, these three authors speak for the masses.

—Henry Zeybel