The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah


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.


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

—David Willson


When We Came Home by Jack McCabe


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jack McCabe

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

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

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

The author’s web site is

—Bud Alley


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Grady Birdsong’s web site is

—Henry Zeybel

Not Enough Tears by Dave Wright


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dave Wright

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

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

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

—Henry Zeybel


Raeford’s MVP by Rick DeStafanis


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

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

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

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

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

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

The author’s website is

—David Willson

PTSD & Psalm Twenty-Three by Robert Scholten


Robert Scholten’s Vietnam War experiences resurfaced in 2007 during six weeks of  VA therapy sessions. He has collected them in PTSD & Psalm Twenty-Three: Coming Up Out Of PTSD’s Trench (Westbow Press, 128 pp., $30.95, hardcover; $13.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle).

Scholten, who is a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, was troubled from minute one when he joined Charley Battery of the 4th Battalion, 60th Artillery attached to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam in September 1970. He immediately began counting down the days to the DEROS date on his long-timer calendar. He inscribed his personal mission on his boonie hat: “I’m a-going home – heaven or Chicago.”

Nicknamed “Preacher” because he constantly read his Bible, Scholten says he is “a praying man from a praying family.” His trust in God and his devotion to prayer and scriptural knowledge were central to his Vietnam War tour of duty.

Scholten came to learn that his emotional welfare was way down on his unit’s priority list, behind maintaining the Duster track vehicle, cleaning weapons, guarding the firebase, and placing crew members before self. He describes Charley Battery as “a tight-knit group who learned mutual trust and comradeship under extreme stress that would snap a civilian like a dry twig under a horse’s hoof.”

“Looking back forty-five years later, I have to admit that first night with my Unit had major impacts on my life,” he writes. During that first week Scholten couldn’t sleep, troubled by thoughts of his family praying for his safety and his own prayers centering on not having to “take a life.” Those thoughts and prayers “and Scripture readings started mingling with previous war movies and television shows” to keep him awake.


Duster Gunner Robert Scholten completed his year in Vietnam thanking God that he had lost no members of his crew. PTSD was an unknown when he flew home.

Many years later, realizing he was “haunted” in the “PTSD trench,” Scholten writes, “I didn’t leave Vietnam alone, I brought my crew and Section members with me in my heart and soul. To this day I can see, taste, smell, feel, and hear the times we were in the Duster engaging the enemy.”

–Curt Nelson

One Step at a Time by Greg Burham


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.”


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