Vietnam Veterans Unbroken by Jacqueline Murray Loring

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In 2010, working in conjunction with a Vietnam War veterans group in Hyannis, Massachusetts, Jacqueline Murray Loring began studying the resiliency of Vietnam vets and their assimilation into the American social structure after coming home.

Loring, a poet and writer of stage plays, movie scripts, and articles, labels herself a “non-military writer.” She wholeheartedly acknowledges the support she received from the group’s Director of Counseling, Jack Bonino.

With Bonino’s help, she compiled interviews and writings from seventeen Vietnam War veterans (including her husband) to broaden her understanding of how they overcame the trauma of exposure to combat. Seven of her subjects served in the Marine Corps; eight in the Army; and two in the Navy.

Loring’s research culminated with her new  book, Vietnam Veterans Unbroken: Conversations on Trauma and Resiliency (McFarland, 212 pp. $29.95, paper).

This book resembles other Vietnam War memoirs that provide the life stories of a group of veterans who enlisted or were drafted from the same region and returned there following their military service. However, rather than providing complete memoirs one after another, Loring separates each person’s experiences into four parts that she then collects into the following groupings:

  • Growing Up in America and Arriving in Vietnam
  • Coping with Coming Home
  • Post-Traumatic Stress
  • Resiliency and Outreach

That structure helps the reader distinguish similarities and differences among the interviewees at four critical junctures in each of their lives.

The veterans—one woman and sixteen men—provided information in a questionnaire that is not included in the book. Their most common problem was the inability to speak about their war experiences. In general, civilians were not interested in stories of what the returnees had done overseas; likewise, most returnees did not want to talk about their experiences, which compounded their emotional problems.

The veterans describe their common feelings in everyday life: anxiety, depression and hopelessness, sleeplessness, anger and rage, nightmares and flashbacks, and suicidal thoughts or attempts. They talk about dealing with emotions that intensified low-level confrontations at home, in the work place, and in therapy. The depth and duration of their therapy to treat PTSD far surpassed what I had imagined.

Loring presents the facts and allows readers to reach their own conclusions about psychological outcomes. I concluded that the returnees’ major need was social acceptance and a method to unravel their innermost feelings, a task for which they received virtually no support.

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Jacqueline Murray Loring

That might sound like self-evident truth, but more than anything else, Loring’s book reconfirms how long it took for doctors and counselors to recognize the long-term psychological damage inflicted by the Vietnam War. Fortunately, these veterans found the resilience to construct at least a semblance of normal existences.

Although Loring’s work focuses on Vietnam War veterans, her findings will help those who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As one of the Marines interviewed for the book put it: “The young kids coming home today are facing the same quandary.”

Overall, the book is cathartic. It includes no battle scenes. It mainly displays the resiliency of a small group of veterans who paid a steep psychological toll for serving their country.

The book’s page on the author’s website is jacquelinemurrayloring.com

—Henry Zeybel

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One for the Boys by Cathy Saint John

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Cathy Saint John’s One for the Boys: The Poignant and Heartbreaking True Story of SGT John W. Blake, a Newfoundlander from Canada who Volunteered and Served in the Vietnam War (Sinjin Publishing, 457 pp. $22.95, hardcover; $9.95, Kindle) is a tribute to the author’s brother, John W. Blake, who joined the U.S. Army and served eighteen months in the Vietnam War.

The book is made up of five main parts, each of which could stand on its own. The first covers Blake’s time in the Vietnam war, from January 1970 to August 1971. Serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Sgt. Blake received a Bronze Star and suffered wounds from grenade shrapnel three different times.

Using her brother’s journals, Saint John says he “witnessed atrocities that were horrid, criminal behaviors and actions completely against his training as a soldier and as a human being that shocked him to his inner core.”

Blake estimated that he took part in 70-100 incidents in which he had a high probability of being killed, and that at least fifteen of his buddies were killed in combat. He also wrote of experiencing “airport assaults from protesters” when he returned home.

Once Blake was in Canada, he wouldn’t speak to family about his war experiences, though his sister writes that it quickly became clear he had “died spiritually and emotionally in Southeast Asia.”

Blake moved to the United States in 1976 thinking he would find more “understanding and acceptance” here than he had in Canada. He also hoped to find some meaning from his war experiences.

The book’s second part deals with John Blake’s seven-month solo walk across the United States to draw attention to the service of Vietnam War veterans. He wore out six pairs of boots walking in uniform and carrying an American flag from Washington state to Washington D.C.

That 3,200-mile trek was planned to coincide with the November 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He called his the walk, “Mission at Home 1982, One for the Boys.” He also described it as his “long journey home.”

The third part describes Blake doing volunteer work as an advocate for Vietnam War veterans that ends with him fighting his own losing battle with PTSD. He took his own life in 1996. A note he left behind said, in part, “I’ve always been wondering where the boys went—I think I’ll go looking for them now.”

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The fourth section of the book covers his family’s five-year struggle to have his cremated remains accepted for burial in a military cemetery in Newfoundland. The final part describes Saint John communicating with, and meeting several, of the men who had served alongside her brother in Vietnam.

John Blake often expressed his feelings through poetry and hoped someday to write a book about his experiences. The task ended up falling to his younger sister. She has served him well.

Cathy Saint John wrote this book for family members too young to have known John Blake. It also serves, more generally, as an exploration of the general causes and effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

–Bill McCloud

Vietnam Abyss by Michael J. Snook

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Michael J. Snook’s Vietnam Abyss: A Journal of Unmerited Grace (Southwestern Legacy Press, 234 pp. $25, hardcover; $16, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is the author’s journal of his struggles from April 14, 1996, to November 5, 1998. It details how he ultimately found God and a new wife and pulled himself out of his dark times.

Snook is a veteran of the Vietnam War, but barely discusses his experiences in Vietnam in this book, which he wrote with Michael J. Snook. The book, instead, focuses on Snook’s battles with alcoholism, PTSD, and mental illness. After his service in the Vietnam War, Snook was divorced, lost his job, and went back to Vietnam to work.

This is not a feel-good book and is hard to follow in places. It also is unpolished and repeats the same stories. On the plus side, Snook uses lists in his journal—an interesting approach.

Here’s one example, in which he debates what to do with his life:

Retire and screw it all,

Live on the street,

Get drunk,

Kill myself

The last thirty pages describe how the author escaped from alcoholism and PTSD, found romance and God, and now lives a useful and happy life.

This book is not for the faint of heart, but may be useful to those suffering from the same problems that Michael Snook faced.

—Mark S. Miller

Walking Point by Robert Kunkel

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As many war veterans have done before him, Robert Kunkel has created a memoir based on short stories he wrote to try to free his mind of haunting memories that caused post-traumatic stress disorder. Along with his own serious physical wounds, Kunkel had several friends killed in action, which ingrained his brain cells with psychological scars for an eternity, he says.

“There are thousands of stories like mine, but each is very different because of perception and what was in the mind at the time of an encounter, whatever that encounter may have been,”  Kunkel notes in Walking Point: A Vietnam Memoir (Thunderbrook, 479 pp. $18.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle).

Bob Kunkel is a savvy guy. His recollections of infantry life are as informative as any Vietnam War memoir I have read. A stickler for detail, he presents an unfiltered view of what took place in his own mind and speculates about the thoughts of others. His descriptions of combat, suffering, and death leave little to the imagination. His stories describe meaningful encounters on and off the battlefield. Bad actors generally receive a comeuppance.

At the same time, many of Kunkel’s stories are humorous. He labels laughter as “a smokescreen to keep from crying.”

He primarily served with B Company, 5th/7th Cavalry in the 1st Cavalry Division, operating out of Camp Radcliff near An Khe. The men of his company were determinedly aggressive against the NVA and Viet Cong during Operations Irving and Thayer in Binh Dinh Province in September and October 1966. The Americans relocated hamlet populations, burned hooches, destroyed food sources, and pursued the enemy with a take-no-prisoners policy. Kunkel reveals both heroics and atrocities performed by his company.

Drafted into the Army earlier that year at the relatively advanced age of twenty-two, Kunkel frequently assumed the role of platoon spokesman by differentiating between what had to be done and what was illogical. He counterbalanced a borderline wise-ass attitude by volunteering for dangerous tasks such as walking point and clearing underground bunkers as a tunnel rat. He was devoted to his fellow soldiers.

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Bob Kunkel

In his first large-scale battle, Kunkel suffered wounds to his head, back, and buttocks. Evacuated to Japan, he spent three painful months convalescing and then willingly returned to the field. Eventually the company commander recognized Kunkel’s inability to carry a full pack due to muscle damage and moved him to guard duty—a job that turned out to be more dynamic than expected.

For several years after returning to civilian life, Kunkel struggled to establish a purpose for his existence. Eventually, he found a “marriage and career made for him,” he explains.

Kunkel spent eighteen years writing Walking Point. He started it in 1999 after retiring from a thirty-three year law-enforcement career. Jean Doran Matua—who owns, publishes, and edits the Tri-County News in Minnesota—helped him with editing and designing the book.

The author’s website is walkingpoint.us

—Henry Zeybel

 

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

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