Ed Miller’s A Trucker’s Tale: Wit Wisdom, and True Stories from 60 Years on the Road (Apollo Publishers, 186 pp., $22, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) is a notably refreshing little book. Over the years, I’ve spoken to any number of folks who have riding in a big rig on their bucket lists; Miller’s book is a wonderful opportunity to vicariously clear that item off your list.
Miller begins his 18-wheeler tales of adventure as a youngster on the family farm in rural North Carolina. Then he brings us along with a breezy, conversational, and at times delicately profane story that reads like an extended bar-stool homily.
Reared by a family of truckers, Miller recounts dozens of anecdotes from a group of folks right out of central casting: neighbors, parents, grandparents, siblings.
In the late 1960s, after a halfhearted college effort, Ed Miller tells us, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and volunteered for the Seabees based in part on his familiarity with trucks and heavy equipment. He hoped the Navy would help to further his training and experience with trucks.
Miller soon found himself in the Vietnam War sitting in the driver’s seat of a semi-truck in Da Nang. His chapter on boot camp and advanced training with his Seabee battalion alone is worth the price of admission. The antics he relates are well worth reading. His in-country stories are as fun as they can be in a war zone, and certainly are an interesting view of a side of the war that most of us are unfamiliar with.
Returning from the service and moving through his work in the trucking industry, Miller keeps us turning pages—if only to see if he can outdo himself describing yet another on-the-road incident.
Interestingly, laced through most of the stories is a subtle undercurrent of personal honesty, and a sense of honor and performing good deeds. Miller is a Knight of the Highway because of his helpfulness and can-do spirit. He briefly addresses the decline of that sense of duty and service today.
In this, his first book, Ed Miller has come up with a well-written and well-edited one. It moves along nicely; you can read it in just about one sitting.
If you’ve ever driven trucks, or wanted to, you’ll be nodding in agreement all the way through this one.
Fragments: The Long Coming Home from Vietnam (Wordworthy Press, 92 pp. $12.95, paper; $11, Kindle) is a poetry chapbook by Bruce K. Berger. Berger served with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam in 1970, writing sympathy letters to hundreds of families. This chapbook is as good a collection of poetry dealing with the Vietnam War as I’ve read.
There’s no dipping a toe in the water here. In the first section of the first poem Berger references the My Lai massacre, napalm, Agent Orange, AWOLs and “Dinks and Gooks.”
Berger writes of the “bloody mathematics” involved in taking, abandoning, then re-taking territory. Men around him wonder why they were there. “Why the hell were we, where the hell we were?” At one point he notes that “The long war symbolized so many lies/some of them true.”
Elsewhere he writes about the sympathy letters: “What more could he write/without deepening their pain?” He also writes of holding buddies while their lives slip away and remembering one soldier who died with a smile on his face. You don’t realize at the time that being “Impregnated by orange rain” means you were killed in Vietnam, though you won’t die until thirty years later.
He addresses the times on guard-duty when you have a chance to note the country’s fleeting moments of beauty. Then the rain and other natural sounds seem to combine to create “the jungle band.” Eventually there’s “The precious gift of sunrise in Vietnam.”
He shares in the comfort that can be found in a stray dog. Then there’s the “contagious smile” of the young boy with a “missing foot.” There’s also an old woman who continues to look for her grandson, although he died months earlier after being “shot by Aaron from Akron.” A young girl has “tiny breasts” that recall “two little sparrows/poking just barely/under her tee-shirt.”
Returning home from the war means “picking up where they left off/one year a century ago.” Then memories began to hit like “hot grease spattering his brain.” Memories that you begin to think of as “just dead life.” There is some evidence of healing once you are “no longer drinking suicide” and have started doing “drive bys” of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Berger in Vietnam
The stories told in these poems are the memories of one American Vietnam War veteran. The collection is not all-encompassing. It doesn’t try to explain the causes of the war or the motives of the people fighting on the other side. It’s personal, and poetry may be the most personal form of written expression.
There are 34 poems in this book. None of them is a throw-away. Each brings something to the table. The inclusion of 24 illustrations creates a complete package.
This is an unflinching look at the horrors of war and one man’s life-long efforts to escape its memories told in the form of poetry. Berger is a true word-artist.
“If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant,” President Richard Nixon famously said in an April 30, 1970, address to the nation, “the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”
During that speech Nixon announced plans for a joint South Vietnamese-American operation into Cambodia to confront the North Vietnamese Army, which had long used the territory as a sanctuary to launch missions into South Vietnam. The address spurred an immediate reaction from antiwar activists across college campuses, culminating in confrontations that led to Ohio National Guard troops shooting to death four students at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4, and Mississippi state police officers killing two students at Jackson State College on May 15.
In their book, Cambodia and Kent State: In the Aftermath of Nixon’s Expansion of the Vietnam War (Kent State University Press, 88 pp. $12.95, paper) Kent State professors James A. Tyner and Mindy Farmer provide a concise introduction to the domestic and international context of the shootings, as well as an overview of the historical memory in Kent and Cambodia. The book relies on secondary sources and the authors’ knowledge of the university where Farmer serves as the director of the May 4 Visitors Center.
The book’s thesis—connecting the incursion into Cambodia and the ensuing domestic protests to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, while also examining the collective memory in both countries—is laudatory. It is a helpful primer on both topics, and its strength is the closing chapter on the commemorations of the four victims in Kent and the millions in Cambodia.
But the book’s brevity does not account for curious unforced errors or reductive analysis. The world’s previous conflict was not World War II, as the author say, but the Korean War. What’s more, Kissinger and Nixon did not create realpolitik; it was a 100-year old political philosophy. And the South Vietnamese Army was a full participant in the operation, committing more than 60,000 troops and suffering some 600 killed in action.
“Nixon’s Expansion of the Vietnam War,” as the subtitle puts it, is important to the authors’ conception of the incident, but the context of the decision is more nuanced than the familiar Nixonian caricature. As the authors document, the North Vietnamese had long violated Cambodia’s neutrality, and when Prince Sihanouk was deposed in mid-March 1970 and replaced by the pro-Western Lon Nol, who welcomed the incursion, it provided the opportunity for something that the American military had long yearned.
Though Nixon’s Secretaries of Defense and State opposed the plan, there were no “fierce objections,” and the incursion had the support of the Joint Chiefs, the CIA, the South Vietnamese Embassy, and the National Security Adviser. The pacing of the book can be frenetic, jumping between the administrations of Nixon, Ford, and Carter with alacrity.
The Nixon Administration anticipated domestic fallout from the Cambodian action, but they underestimated how severe that reaction would be. In Kent, the protests were marked by an escalating level of violence, including burning the campus ROTC building. A Gallup poll showed that 58 percent of Americans blamed the students for the killings.
Not explored in this book, but important to the historical context, is the infamous New York City “Hard Hat Riot” that occurred four days after the shootings, and the subsequent May 20 rally that drew some 100,000 Nixon supporters. In 1972, Nixon won reelection by more than 18 million votes.
Four Dead in Ohio
The coda of the book is an appropriate elegy to the senseless deaths of four students on a beautiful Monday afternoon in Ohio, and to the millions who perished at the hands of the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
In the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy, this succinct treatment is a welcome addition to the historiography of the “end of the Sixties.”
Michael Green uses images as his building blocks for United States Marine Corps in Vietnam: Rare Photographs from Wartime Archives (Pen & Sword, 205 pp. $2.95, paper; $13.99, Kindle) and cements them together with a definitive narrative. Green, a prolific military historian, offers his version of the Vietnam War’s history in four sections: “The Opening Act” (1965), “The Fighting Increases in Scope” (1966-67), “The Defining Year” (1968), and “Coming to an End” (1969-75).
Green gleaned the photos and facts primarily from the Marine Corps Historical Center. His 150 pages of pictures alternate with 50 pages of analysis of combat from the American war’s start to its finish. Eight pages of photographs are in color.
The images include practically every weapon employed on each side of the battlefield: artillery, mortars, rifles, machine guns, pistols, flamethrowers, hand grenades, close support jet aircraft, helicopters, cargo planes, tanks, and other seldom-seen vehicles with tracks. The captions expand on what’s mentioned in the narrative and add finer details about the ebb and flow of the Marines’ war.
That said, the photographs convey little of the destructiveness of the weapons. They more resemble a catalog of military equipment.
Along with the weapons, personnel—mainly Marines, along with a few Vietnamese from North and South—appear in most of the pictures. They usually show Marines firing weapons or advancing through the bush. Green includes a handful of photos of the wounded and dead, but they are not horrifying images.
Although the images do not convey the intensity of combat, Green’s narrative does deliver that message. Citing archival accounts, he emphasizes the determination of troops on both sides and memorializes Marine Medal of Honor recipients.
His narrative discusses the difficulty of constant face-to-face encounters with the North Vietnamese Army along the DMZ, a major part of the Marines’ responsibility in northernmost I Corps. He deplores the high casualty count resulting from search-and-destroy missions. Things would have been much worse, he says, if not for “Marine supporting arms that turned the tide of battle as almost always.”
The first Marines landing in Vietnam, March 1965, Da Nang
Green takes a hard look at the pros and cons of contentious issues between Marine Corps leaders and Army MACV commanders who usually had the final word. He concludes that Army generals generally underappreciated the Marines.
The book would be an excellent starting point for those unfamiliar with the Vietnam War’s tactics, strategy, and equipment. Old timers might enjoy finding the faces of former friends.
I was not a Marine, but I flew many C-130 support sorties for them during Tet in 1968. The chapter covering that period brought back sad memories for me. Nobody had it tougher than the Marines.
United States Marine Corps in Vietnam is Michael Green’s twenty-first book in the Pen & Sword Images of War series.
As Stephen Piotrowski makes clear in No Where Man: One Soldier’s Journey Home from Vietnam (450 pp. $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) being in combat for a year is emotionally and physically draining, and the experience of coming home can be no less traumatic and stressful. Piotrowski’s story is like that of countless young veterans who have returned home from a war and found it nearly impossible to let go of what had been an all-consuming time in their lives.
As I read about his struggles I thought that this is what many war veterans need to write, even if it’s just a personal journal, to externalize the emotions and get them out in the open to be dealt with, and ultimately put to rest.
The book starts during the author’s final days as an RTO with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam in 1970, and the beginnings of his alienation as he finds it difficult to decompress in the rear at his battalion’s base camp. From there, his emotions continually erupt as he transitions in little more than twenty-four hours from the war zone to a very, very different world back home.
Anyone coming home from war will recall many of the same feelings and experiences Piotrowski, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, describes as he reluctantly prepared to leave his combat buddies and return to a country where he no longer fit in. Adding to the confusion back home were family and friends who appeared to have little or no interest in what he had undergone or was now going through.
An RTO in the field in Vietnam
One of the most mindless questions he heard again and again—just as many of us have—was, “Did you kill anybody?”
Aside from a brother who had returned from combat the year before, there was practically no one to help him sort out his confusion and alienation. A car mechanic who had been in the Korean War said it was the same for him when he returned. What made it worse was the contemptuous attitude of many World War II veterans who dismissed Korea as a nothing war. That same attitude would be experienced by many of us coming home from Vietnam; hence the founding principle of Vietnam Veterans of America: Never Again Will One Generation of Veterans Abandon Another.
It’s difficult to believe that those who had known war would reject returning war veterans who needed their support. For the author nearly everything seemed so bewildering. Even everyday sounds and sights took on ominous meanings in his mind.
I read each page carefully to catch all his take-aways as confusing sensations arose from things happening to and around him. I kept recalling similar moments that I had when I came home from my war. I can still remember well my involuntary reaction when I was walking to college classes and heard the high-pitched noise of metal on metal made by worn-out brakes. The sound was nearly identical to the final seconds of incoming North Vietnamese artillery rounds fired at us day and night during the battle for Khe Sanh. Who on campus could possibly imagine what was going through my mind at that moment?
Piotrowski in country
This book doesn’t attempt to explain the Vietnam War or describe the battles that were fought. It’s an every-man’s account of one young soldier trying to come to grips with his war and then struggling to bring closure to it.
In the end, Stephen Piotrowski realized that the first giant step for him to leave the war behind was to take control of his life and not wait for others to make the decisions.
Joe Myles wrote Fury: A Soldier’s Journey (Salt Water Media, 174 pp. $19.95, paper) to record his military experiences for his sons and grandchildren. In the book Myles describes his life as an infantryman with the Big Red One, the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division, in the Vietnam War during his 1968-69 tour of duty. He also uses the book to teach his offspring lessons from experiences far beyond ordinary life.
For example, after witnessing several members of his platoon die in combat, Myles says that he stopped dwelling on the loss of life. “I don’t feel I had become insensitive,” he writes. “I just shut down in some way, just to be able to cope. Our wonderful minds have a way of protecting us by putting us on automatic pilot to allow us to continue to function.”
As a draftee a year out of high school, Myles rapidly adapted to the Army’s demands. He demonstrated leadership skills and facility with weapons in infantry AIT and the accelerated NCO candidate course (AKA “Shake ‘n Bake School) at Fort Benning’s Infantry School, and during his brief duty as a drill instructor at Fort Polk. After less than a year on active duty, Myles was promoted to Staff Sergeant, E-6.
How Joe Myles accomplished that feat is a marvelous story that takes up the first half of the book.
Old timers resented his rapid rise through the ranks and questioned his abilities, which he more than adequately repeatedly proved to them while conducting search-and-destroy missions from Lai Khe Base Camp in South Vietnam. Assigned to a brigade woefully undermanned because of casualties, Myles was chosen to lead a platoon, a position normally filled by a lieutenant. Employing tactics he learned at Fort Benning made him more than the equal of OCS graduates. When a replacement lieutenant arrived, Myles’ company commander assigned him elsewhere and Myles kept his platoon leader slot.
Eventually, a glut of new lieutenants reduced Myles to the position of platoon sergeant. Soon after, however, the company commander called on him to pick a squad and lead a difficult rescue mission, a success for which Myles received a Bronze Star.
His strangest encounter occurred after his point men got lost in a rainstorm. His unit then walked into a firefight with NVA troops—at their Cambodian R&R camp. “We couldn’t report the battle results,” Myles says, “because we were out of country.”
After being hit by an RPG during an attack on Hill 178, his company commander’s last words appointed Myles to lead the company, which Myles did until his men reached the plateau and a lieutenant colonel replaced him. That’s when Myles suffered a horrendous chest wound. He survived and returned to his unit with four months left to serve in Vietnam.
Myles’ accounts of combat make interesting reading because he experienced the Vietnam War from both the level of a grunt and that of a commander. Regardless of his leadership status or the task, Myles took part in everything his men did.
Despite an offer to remain on active duty with a choice between a commission as a second lieutenant or a promotion to Sergeant First Class, E-7—which would have made him the youngest SFC in the Army—Myles decided to accepted a discharge after arriving home in July 1969.
His final lesson to his offspring appears in an epilogue, and compares life to a roller-coaster ride. As Myles puts it: “When you’re at the top of your game and taking a dive toward the bottom, throw your arms up above your head and enjoy the ride, because you won’t be at the bottom long.”
The book closes with twelve pages of color photographs. Their arrangement triggered flashbacks to the book’s major episodes, making them a perfect conclusion to the memoir of an exceptional warrior.
In 2010 Fred Childs attended his first unit reunion of Charlie Company, 1/22 of the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division. At that reunion he volunteered to complete some unfinished manuscripts written by a few of the attendees about a seven-day fight the company had at Chu Moor Mountain in northern South Vietnam in April 1968.
The result is Childs’ The Battle for Chu Moor Mountain As Told by the Soldiers Who Were There (Author House, 128 pp. $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), a short, intriguing, and well-constructed book. In his acknowledgments Childs credits ten of his fellow Charlie Company veterans for helping get the book assembled, written, and into print.
He begins each chapter with a copy of the S-3 Duty Officer’s Log for each day of the battle. He uses the logs to help reconstruct the battle incidents of each day. From those administratively terse, concise entries he fleshes out the story with quotes and remembrances from the survivors who were willing and able to speak all these years later. At the close of each chapter, Childs gives us the battalion S-3 Duty Officer’s Logs. He also notes entries from the 4th Infantry Division Operations Summary.
The narrative moves along smoothly, with comments and quotes from troopers on the ground and in the thick of it for the duration of the battle. Personnel loses are noted as well as actions by supporting U.S. forces. Childs provides enough good details to move the story, but not too much minutia. He includes a bit of history of the 4th Infantry Division and lists the KIAs of the encounter and the major medals awarded.
This battle, developing not long after the 1968 Tet Offensive, took place in the far northwest corner of II Corps in Kontum Province near the borders of Laos and Cambodia along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The 4th Division had been charged with interdicting goods and war materiel flowing into South Vietnam.
If you hanker for a well-done battle tale, this is your book. There is a bit of redundancy in the quoted material, but all of these men were in the same place at the same time fighting the same enemy. So there was bound to be some overlap.
Martin Havran’s My Vietnam Education: Or How to Conduct Research Without Really Trying (131 pp. $6.06, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a strange, compact book that includes three pages of footnotes and changing fonts. Havran dedicates the book “all those who served in Vietnam, their families and descendants.”
Departing from what most Vietnam War veterans write in their memoirs, Havran does not name the high school or college he attended and gives only fleeting mentions of his family. We pick him up during Army basic training at Ft. Dix, then follow him to AIT and NCO school before his deployment in 1969 to III Corps in South Vietnam.
This story is at once unsettling and common. We have a man in his seventies telling the story of a very young man and his introduction to the realities of war and personal combat. There are no extended battle scenes, just descriptions of the occasional skirmish, along with the day-to-day doings of a harried, overworked E-5 supply guy trying to keep his unit all together, moved, set up, resupplied, and replenished.
The author relates his story with minimal dialogue, few names of his comrades, and the barest of info on his unit and its history. We hear him tell us an Everyman’s story of going to war, coming home, moving along with a civilian life—and later the need, as his pace slows and the vision widens, to share his story.
Havran is almost refreshing in sticking to his in-country narrative. There are no riffs about the VA, about medical challenges brought about by his service, or about jobs lost and battles at home un-won.
In this self-published and self-edited book Havran comes to us as a non-professional writer, not an un-professional one. He is well spoken and writes a well-constructed story. His years as a teacher and leader shine through the text. He tells us that “only recent realization” was how much his war experiences “influenced the remainder of my life,” the reason for writing this book.
This was an enjoyable, quick, read. I suggest it could be used in high school AP English classes. Havran has no agenda; his book is simply a nice story told by an old-young man.
Havran is donating all of the book’s royalties to veteran scholarship funds.
Every American should know the life story of former Green Beret—and Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient—Gary Beikirch. It’s an admirable life filled with honor, valor, service, and humility. And with severe physical and mental pain and anguish.
Gary Beikirch was born and raised in Rochester, New York. He struggled through a rocky childhood after his father deserted the family when he was in first grade. When he was twenty, Beikirch dropped out of college and joined the Army in August 1967. He volunteered for Special Forces, made it through the physically, emotionally, and intellectually vigorous SF training, and opted to become a medic.
Gary Beikirch arrived in Vietnam in July 1969. He wound up serving with a 5th Special Forces Group A Team in a remote Montagnard village called Dak Seang about a mile from the Laotian border in the jungles of the Central Highlands.
Beikirch found his calling tending to the medical needs of Montagnard men, women, and children. Like other Special Forces medics, he treated a myriad of health conditions, from pulling teeth to delivering babies, treating tropical diseases, and removing shrapnel wounds. He bonded with—and came to love—the Montagnard people, especially a 15-year-old boy named Deo, who more or less became his bodyguard.
On April 1, 1970, an NVA force numbering in the thousands launched a surprise human-wave attack on the camp. Caught off guard, the Green Berets and Montagnard fighters (and their families), suffered huge casualties. Beikirch and the other Green Berets sprang into action, defending the camp. Not long after the battle began, as he ran into the teeth of the assault to rescue a wounded Green Beret, a shrapnel burst knocked him unconscious. When he came to, Beikirch couldn’t walk—the metal had lodged near his spinal cord.
He shook off the injury and ordered Deo to carry him back to the perimeter to continue fighting the enemy and treat the wounded. Somehow—without the use of his legs—he helped rescue wounded Americans and Montagnards and treat them in the medic shed. During that time he was shot a second time, in the side. Again, the young Green Beret was treated and Deo took him back to the fighting. Beikirch took another bullet, this time in the stomach, but he refused entreaties to get back under cover. He continued to fight, even with Deo and two other men carrying him on a litter.
Then NVA rockets started falling. Deo jumped on top of Beikirch during a barrage and paid for that selfless act with his life. Somehow, Beikirch continued to fight until he collapsed and was medevaced out. The fighting would go on for nearly a month.
Next came months operations in hospitals in Vietnam and back in the U.S.A. He had to learn to walk again. When he recovered, Beikirch asked to be sent back to Vietnam. Instead, he spent his remaining time in the Army at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. When he took his honorable discharge, Gary Beikirch enrolled in college again. That’s when life got really rough.
“The war injured me physically,” he said in a TV interview in 2019, “but it was my homecoming that destroyed me.”
Being all but shunned and scorned by antiwar college students, he dropped out and for the next few years fought what seemed a losing battle with severe PTSD. He tried self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. He tried turning to the Bible. To little avail. Beikirch wound up living in a cave in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for nearly two years trying to come to terms with the carnage he’d experienced in Vietnam and survivor guilt—even after receiving the Medal of Honor in 1973 in a ceremony at the White House.
When Beikirch met his future wife Lolly in 1975, his life began to turn around. Her love and attention (and their embrace of Christianity) eased much of the psychic burdens he wrestled with. He graduated from White Mountain Seminary in New Hampshire, and two years later earned a BA in Psychology and Sociology from the University of New Hampshire. In 1981, he received an MS in Education Counseling specializing in adolescent psychology, trauma, and PTSD, from the State University of New York at Brockport.
But during those years there were setbacks and backsliding. Soon after Vietnam Veterans of America was founded in 1978, Gary Beikirch joined the fledgling organization and became one of VVA’s early leaders. He helped form Chapter 20 in his hometown of Rochester, and served as its first president from 1981-84. He was elected the first president of VVA’s New York State Council in 1982, and served in that position till 1984, and also did a 1983-85 term on the VVA National Board of Directors.
In 1981, Gary Beikirch—who was running Rochester’s pioneering Veterans Outreach Center and serving as a team counselor there—joined a small group of VVA leaders including then-president Bobby Muller that made a controversial trip to Vietnam to work on POW/MIA and other issues with the former enemy.
In the summer of 1988 Beikirch began working full time as a school counselor at Greece Arcadia Middle School in his hometown. That’s when he overcame the worst of his PTSD and became a loving husband and father—and a caring mentor to countless young teenagers. He spent nearly 25 years at that job. Since his retirement in 2013 Biekirch has traveled the country speaking to students, church groups, veterans, and others about overcoming adversity through faith and what he has called “finding love and being able to experience it” and “loving others more than myself.”
Marcus Brotherton, who specializes in writing inspirational books about military men, worked closely with Gary Beikirch to put together Blaze of Light: The Inspiring True Story of Green Beret Medic Gary Biekirch, Medal of Honor Recipient (Waterbrook, 261 pp. $26). Brotherton uses much reconstructed dialogue to tell Beikirch’s story in a style that calls to mind books aimed at young-adult readers. He stresses positives, but Brotherton does not shy away from describing the many low points in Beikirch’s life.
There is a strong emphasis on religion, which is fitting giving how important becoming a Christian had in bringing Beikirch out from the depths of emotional despair.
Brotherton mentions Vietnam Veterans of America only once in Blaze of Light, in the final chapter. He provides no information about the nation’s only congressionally chartered veterans service organization that concentrates on working for Vietnam War veterans and their families—other than writing that we are “a group.”
There’s not a word in the book about Gary Beikirch’s important role in VVA’s early years on the local, state, and national levels.
Focusing on the concept that “sacrifice without remembrance is meaningless,” Craig Blackman enlisted students in his advanced placement American history class at Indian River High School in Chesapeake, Virginia, to study the lives of twenty-five local men who died in the Vietnam War. Twenty-three of them were killed in action. He had the students find and interview the men’s family members and friends, research their unit records, and write the stories of their pre-war lives and military service.
Sound historical scholarship forms the book’s roots. Page after page overflows with notes that validate the students’ findings. A bibliography is loaded with primary sources. Several of the students overachieved on the assignment and wrote longer-than-required accounts of their subjects, including their units’ activities. Some wrote wrote about in-country situations and locations previously unknown to me.
Despite growing up close together in Chesapeake, the men had diverse backgrounds: White, black, Native American; an only child; one of thirteen children; good guys and bad actors; draftees and enlistees. There’s an almost even split between those who were in the Army and in the Marines; only one officer is profiled. Their deaths stretched from 1966-70; fourteen took place in 1968. They shared a grim commonality in military assignments: straight from training to Vietnam in the combat arms. Nine died while still in their teens.
Each man’s story reveals a distinct personality. Photographs flesh out their personalities. A few experienced a rapid and perhaps premature transition from youth to adulthood. Determination to do the right thing prevailed among them. One definitely deserves his own book.
The students learned to appreciate the sacrifices made to American values by people barely older than themselves, even as a result of questionable diplomacy. “These high school students will never be the same,” Blackman says. “Interacting with the Gold Star families forever sculpted them emotionally and intellectually.”
The biographies are both sad and joyful. They brought unexpected resolution to some family members of the deceased by memorializing the deaths beyond a name engraved on a wall.
Blackman’s project peaked with a 2014 “special reception honoring Chesapeake citizens who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam War,” followed three days later by a Memorial Day ceremony. Relatives and friends of the men in the book attended both events.
Blackman also describes how he organized the project. In an appendix, he includes the worksheets he designed to guide his students’ research. Initially, his efforts produced spotty results, and he almost stopped the endeavor. Now he wants other educators to emulate this method for teaching American history.