Appalachian Free Spirit by Duke Talbott

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Irwin D. “Duke” Talbott says that his 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War amounted to a prolonged nightmare. He encountered increasingly inhumane and intolerable situations that separated him from normal behavior. Those traumatic experiences included seeing naked prisoners locked in bamboo cages cowering in the fetal position; consoling a witness to the murder of women and children at My Lai; and surviving sustained bombardments of LZ Bronco.

Talbott’s Vietnam War experiences are the centerpiece of his memoir, Appalachian Free Spirit: A Recovery Journey (Balboa Press, 266 pp. $35.95, hardcover; $17.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), which also includes his account of salvaging his life from PTSD and addictions. Talbott also includes letters he wrote to his parents from Vietnam and earlier from Somalia where he was a Peace Corps volunteer.

His stories about Somalia are entertaining and meaningful. Heading a school building project provided profound self-satisfaction. On the other hand, his exposure to war’s violence began during his Peace Corps days in Africa when he went to Yemen and found himself in the midst of several gun battles during a period of civil unrest.

Talbott sandwiches his Vietnam War stories between detailed accounts of his West Virginia upbringing and his college-oriented, post-war life. Describing his first “big gulp” of whisky in his mid-teens, he says: “My whole being glowed in the aftermath.” He also fondly recalls memories of Darvon. It was in Vietnam, he says, that he “first learned to mix alcohol, grass, and pills for maximum effect.”

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Duke Talbott

The Twelve Step Program was Talbott’s compass to finding emotional freedom, and he details every step he took. He explains that his escape from self-destruction followed a path available to everyone. He bases his message on logic and inspiration from God.

Our society overflows with people willing and capable of helping addicts, he says, and finding them is infinitely rewarding. He clearly convinced me that one’s strongest enemy in a battle for emotional independence is one’s own ego.

After earning a Ph.D. in history from West Virginia University, Duke Talbott taught at several colleges, including his alma mater, Marshall University in Huntingon, West Virginia, and West Virginia Weslyan. He is a Professor Emeritus of History at Glenville State College in West Virginia. His expertise focuses on Africa. From 2009-13 he served as the mayor of Elkins—West Virginia, of course.

—Henry Zeybel

The Boys of St. Joe’s ’65 in the Vietnam War by Dennis G. Pregent

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Posterity needs men like Dennis Pregent who look back and examine life to determine what they and people like them have accomplished. A Vietnam War veteran, Pregent wrote a memoir about his role in the war. Then, encouraged by his wife, he found and interviewed ten other war veterans with whom he had graduated from high school: seven soldiers, two Marines, and one sailor. They served from mid-1965 to late 1972. He tells their stories in The Boys of St. Joe’s ’65 in the Vietnam War (McFarland, 246 pp. $39.95, paper: $19.99, Kindle).

Pregent served in I Corps near Da Nang. On his first tour, he was a Marine supply clerk and MP who patrolled at night and set ambushes. “We never killed anyone,” he says. Five months into his second tour as a comptroller, Pregent volunteered for temporary duty with the 1st Marine Air Wing as a CH-46 Sea Knight gunner. The unit rescued the wounded, carried the dead from battlefields, inserted and extracted recon teams, and resupplied Marines under fire.

Grisly events connected to saving wounded civilians (especially children) and Marines deeply affected him, but that exposure to the war did not satisfy his curiosity. For the last three days of his helicopter duty, Pregent volunteered for night medevac missions. That short span provided him with unforgettable memories about the frailty of the human body. Thereafter, he “was relieved to be back in the rear” for the remainder of his tour, he says. Pregent does not preach; he simply reports what he saw and did.

Pregent’s book also includes his own his pre- and post-war life, and he uses the same format to tell his Vietnam War story as he does with the ten men he interviewed. They all grew up in Adams and North Adams, Massachusetts. It was a mid-twentieth-century Americana environment: Households had two parents. Most fathers had served in World War II and worked responsible blue-collar jobs. Women kept house and sometimes had jobs outside the home. Children obeyed their parents and teachers. Families honored the Catholic Church and the nation. Boys pursued healthy outdoor activities. At all levels, misbehavior stayed within acceptable boundaries.

The men who went to Vietnam also shared a remarkable commonality in their military service: mostly they enlisted; within six months they arrived in Vietnam; and they usually fought as infantrymen—mechanized, airborne, or whatever. Search and destroy was the order of the day, and that was what they did—repeatedly. But, despite the many similarities the men share, Pregent uncovered ten distinct personalities.

Their stories are filled with heroics and selflessness. One man was killed in action, one paralyzed for life, and another suffered only slightly less horrendous wounds. Each endured a year filled with combat ops, air assaults, and skirmishes—and postwar PTSD. They usually fought outnumbered. They humped for stretches of twenty-eight-days, with two rest days in between, a schedule that lasted month after month. Fifteen-hour workdays, seven days a week were the norm for support personnel.

To round out his view of the era, Pregent includes a chapter on Carol Bleau Boucher—a war protestor and ’65 St. Joe graduate. Although her grandfather and father served in World War I and II, Boucher opposed the Vietnam War. The combat deaths of a family friend, a classmate, and then her long-time boyfriend within a year triggered her to join protest marches, antiwar discussions, and other forms of demonstrations. At least, as Pregent tells her story, Boucher’s protests eventually helped to disenchant some town citizens with the war.

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St. Joe’s High, North Adams, Massachusetts

Each chapter includes well-chosen photographs that mostly came from private collections and perfectly align with the topic of the moment.

I have read other books that examine small groups of men from the same community. The Boys of St. Joe’s is the most interesting. One chapter subtitle, “Too Many Close Calls,” comes close to describing the life of everyone in the St. Joe clan.

Pregent portrays young men with unquestionable devotion to nation and family, a small part of a generation we probably never will see again. His subliminal message (intentional or not) made me smile: It’s a short step from obeying a nun to following a sergeant.

—Henry Zeybel

Invisible Scars of War by Dick Hattan

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At the age of twenty-five in 1971, Dick Hattan served in the Vietnam War with the 101st Airborne Division at Phu Bai. His intelligence and his college degree qualified him for a clerical position at division headquarters, a job he readily accepted.

“I didn’t live through any firefights,” Hattan says in his memoir, Invisible Scars of War: A Veteran’s Struggle with Moral Injury (Woodstock Square Press, 188 pp. $15.30, paper; $7.95, Kindle). “I never really thought that I was out of danger, though.” The danger came from occasional mortar rounds that struck the base and guard duty he performed along the base’s perimeter.

“This was my war, my life,” he says, “eleven months gouged out of my young life.”

Hattan discusses his Vietnam War tour in Invisible Scars of War, which also recounts life-long emotional problems he has had that were caused by betrayals from the Army, the United States government, and the Catholic Church. He describes himself as “a man of peace” who “suffered wounds that were not visible to the naked eye,” and cites God for going AWOL during the traumatic periods of his life.

The institutions in his life, Hattan writes, forced him to “do something against my better judgment, antithetical to my own moral code.”  Conflicted emotionally, he hated himself for participating in an unjust war, although he was proud to fulfill his duty.

When he was drafted into the Army, Hattan believed he would be a citizen-soldier who owed allegiance to his nation. His father and other neighborhood World War II veterans, as well as his Army instructors, overwhelmed him by emphasizing “My country, right or wrong.” He never considered fleeing to Canada or claiming conscientious objector status.

He debates the morality of war and the taking of human life at length in his book. Much of his argument relies on the teaching of Jesus. Regarding the Vietnam War, he writes that the United States failed to meet even one of seven principles that decide whether or not a war is morally valid.

A former altar boy and wannabe priest, Hattan felt betrayed by the Catholic Church after realizing that its bishops’ neutrality in not speaking out against it, condoned the Vietnam War. The acceptance of war by Army chaplains particularly offended him. Eventually, he left the church.

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Dick Hattan 

To my disappointment, he offers no solutions to stop our government from arbitrarily starting new wars. Still, Hattan characterizes America’s long-time involvement in Iraq as “an unnecessary war.” Sometimes his arguments lapse into a low-key style that sounds as if he is trying to convince himself of the validity of his feelings and conclusions.

Hattan’s post-war life confirms his sincerity, however. During forty-four years as a health care executive, Dick Hattan discovered that his calling was healing. He worked with war veterans to mend what he cites as “fragmentation of the soul.” Performing pastoral care in his church led him to expand his education and become a priest in the Independent Catholic Church in 2015.

Hattan summarizes the Vietnam War as a “seminal event in the lives of many young men who did what they were asked, often unwillingly, but were afraid to refuse.”

His website is dickhattan.com

—Henry Zeybel

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

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