Busted by W.D. Ehrhart

Busted: A Vietnam Veteran in Nixon’s America (McFarland, 173 pp. $19.99, paper), originally published in 1995, is a reissue of the third volume of W.D. Ehrhart’s three-part memoirs. That is good news, since Bill Ehrhart is one of the most significant American poets of the war in Vietnam, and it’s important to keep all of his works in print.

The first books of the series are Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir (1983) and Passing Time: Memoir of a Vietnam Veteran Against the War (1989). Ehrhart also has written many books of poetry and essays dealing with his Vietnam War service—and with war in general.

While you might think it’s best to have read the first two books in a series prior to reading the third, in Busted Ehrhart fills in all the backstory you need. The book begins just a few days after the end of the previous one. It’s not divided into chapters or broken up in any way. It just starts and goes in pretty much of a stream-of-consciousness style.

After completing his Marine Corps service and graduating from college, Bill Ehrhart took a job as a seaman on an oil tanker. He was busted by the Coast Guard for possession of pot, was fired, and faced federal charges unless he agreed to give up his seaman’s card, which he had no plans to do. In the book Ehrhart describes what he was thinking then and comments on the House Judiciary Committee’s hearings on the impeachment of Richard Nixon.

Ehrhart says his first night at boot camp on Parris Island was “the most terrifying experience of my life,” due to the harassment of the drill instructors. It didn’t help that a DI told him he was “going to die on this island.” That’s a lot to handle for a seventeen year old.

Then came orders for Vietnam. “What I found in Vietnam bore no resemblance to what I had been led to expect by Lyndon Johnson and Time magazine and my high-school history teachers,” Ehrhart writes (he would later become a high-school history teacher himself.). Because of his Vietnam War service, he says, “I had become something evil, but I did not know what it was or how it happened or why.”

Bill Ehrhart back in the day

He later joined the antiwar movement, then decided to go to sea in an attempt to escape the political and social chaos in the U.S.A. That’s how he ended up in his cabin in port at Long Beach, California, when his door banged open.

“I was scared shitless” are the first four words in the book. He later told his mom, “I’ve been smoking dope ever since Con Thien.” Then said, “So marijuana is illegal, but it’s okay to drop napalm on gooks.”

From time to time, Ehrhart—who received the Vietnam Veterans of America Excellence in the Arts Award in 2008—writes about Vietnam War atrocities and his visits from the hallucinatory ghosts of men killed in combat. The book ends with the conclusion of his trial.

Bill Ehrhart thinks like a poet and writes like one. And what he has to say is important. That’s why all of his books no longer in print should also be re-issued.

–Bill McCloud

The First Stone by Lynn Underwood

The First Stone (High Tide Publications, 293 pp. $12.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is a debut novel by Vietnam War veteran Lynn Underwood, who served with the 1st Marine Division as a radio operator and forward observer. The book’s main theme is the meaning of the word “family” in all of its configurations and ramifications. It’s a story in which a tragic secret carried home from the war in Vietnam may not even be a family’s biggest one.

This is a multi-generational story of several families spreading their influence throughout New Mexico from the 1940s through the 1970s, although the story moves into Mexico, Greece, Vietnam, and Southern California, and ends in 2004.

It begins in the mid-1930s when a teenage Mexican girl, Conchita, crosses the border from Juarez with her young child hoping for a better life. Going to work cleaning people’s homes, she gets into a secret relationship with Simon Kouris, who is making a name for himself in the construction business. Her second son, Ray, Jr., is told he will receive a family inheritance if he completes a hitch with the Marine Corps and receives an honorable discharge.

Bartolome Valles is a serious competitor of Kouris’s company. Their rivalry leads to a night of violence. Out of that night comes three deaths and a dark secret.

Zachary Martin grows up working on a farm. In 1969, he’s a Marine corporal in Vietnam. He frequently takes part in search and destroy missions, and after the death of a buddy, receives a Bronze Star for valor. But along with that medal comes a secret he carries that haunts him. Ray Kouris witnesses much of it the incident. In 1973 Martin marries Jordon Valles, a college student and the daughter of Bartolome Valles. This threatens to expose secrets that have been held for years. Redemption and forgiveness play major parts in this story and are embodied in the character of Padre Juan.

This is a novel that Underwood tells by narrowing the story until the midway point, then widening it out after that. It requires the reader to pay attention to keep up with the plot lines, but that’s not a bad thing.

The author’s website is lynnunderwoodauthor.com

–Bill McCloud

Agent Orange Roundup by Sandy Scull & Brent MacKinnon

Agent Orange Roundup: Living with a Foot in Two Worlds (Bookstand Publishing, 210 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), by Sandy Scull and Brent MacKinnon, is a unique, poetic condemnation of the massive use of defoliants and herbicides by the United States during the war in Vietnam. It is also an educational resource to help people learn more about the development, use, and devastating effects of Agent Orange. Along with poetry, the book contains artwork, stories, and essays.

Scull and MacKinnon served with the Marines during the war; they first met in 1988. They both have received Stage 4 cancer diagnoses that they believe are associated with being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

The first part of the book consists of poems by Scull, including this couplet:

“We return to you with a souvenir

 Of present and future Death”

He goes on to describes AO as “the round we didn’t hear, and it is killing us.”

He says that today, “I like my steak tartar/shrapnel-cut and raw –” and refers to war as a “big bang without the theory.”

Here’s more:

“When memory of war joins a poem, it’s more

than a blood trail, it has a voice and is free

to move with and punctuate its own rhythm.

Those imprinted lines of sacrifice now curve.”

Scull writes that he arrived in Vietnam with a “dread of what would come.” Here’s what he says about the American military’s policy of war by body count:

“This number game had faces.

My face. And mothers. My mother.”

At one point, he’s running to catch a plane leaving Khe Sanh, “wondering how many/rotting Marines want into my jungle boots leaving.” He also questions “How much blood can this soil absorb?”

We learn from Scull that when you smash your M-16 against a tree out of grief for five men lost to rifle jams, it comes apart this way: “The plastic butt stock shattered first, then the hand guard, the trigger and rear sight.”

MacKinnon begins his part of the book by declaring: “These poems and prose are by two combat Marines sentenced to slow death by the country who sent us in harm’s way.”

One of his poems mentions those who are “soon to die,” “already dead,” and “almost dead.”

He cries out to the U.S. government: “I don’t want money. Just say you did It/Say you killed me with Agent Orange/say you did it.”

Scull and MacKinnon (Lt. Scull and Cpl. Mac) bring the reader right into the poem-writing process with a line like, “You say, cut this last stanza –” and a title such as, “These Are Not Your Poems!”

There are poems here that deal with receiving cancer treatments and living with cancer. Scull sums things up beautifully when he says: “Though the subject matter of these poems may seem like a downer, my hope is that the human spirit of love and connection bleeds through.”

Overall, this is a strong collection of material written by two war veterans who have made a pact with their readers that they are going to go out fighting.

–Bill McCloud

Girls Don’t by Inette Miller

At first impression, Girls Don’t: A Woman’s War in Vietnam (Texas Tech University Press, 256 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $8.99, Kindle) seems implausible and irreverent. The cartoon illustrations on the book cover don’t help, but they accurately reflect the colorful, rebellious personality of Inette Miller, a 23-year-old journalist who married her draftee boyfriend in order to follow him to Vietnam in 1970. Their marriage was an ill-kept secret.

Besides being an unusual chronicle of the war, this memoir is a coming-of-age story. An emerging feminist who protested the war in college, Miller fought her own “war within” of conflicting pressures and emotions.

From 1965-73, a total of 1,742 accredited American reporters covered the Vietnam War. Only 232 were women. Half were in country less than a month and most, Miller claims, never left Saigon.

In contrast, Girls Don’t begins with Miller in a Medevac helicopter out of Khe Sanh. The chopper is hit and then “the worst” happens. Miller–who covered the war for Time magazine—lived to tell the tale, but the reader doesn’t know fully what the worst was until later in the book.

Covering January 1970 to March 1971, Miller draws from her journal and letters she sent home. Written mostly in the present tense, her descriptions and dialogue seem pulled verbatim from those sources, giving the narrative a sometimes disjointed, but vivid, flow.

Miller’s tone often seems naïve, or at least cringe-inducing. She describes skies above Quang Tri, for example, as “crystal blue like a chlorinated swimming pool” and the Ho Chi Minh Trail as “visible from above as a dirt road through a country fair.”

As events unfold, though, her voice evolves, and her observations become more insightful. Most notable are her descriptions of three trips into Cambodia. The first came when she flew to Phnom Penh in March of 1970, where she was “the only Western correspondent to enter Cambodia in years,” she says. (You have to take her word for it; some statements inspire skepticism).

In May she went with other journalists on a short press junket, which she compares to “a fifth grade field trip.” On the way there, an Army private told Miller: “I liked the Vietnamese when I got here. Now I hate them. They’re out to get us. I just want out of here. I want to go home.”

In June, she hitchhiked with two other reporters from Saigon to Phnom Penh, and saw burned villages and bodies and barely camouflaged landmines left on dirt roads by the Viet Cong.

Other chapters are equally vivid. Descriptions and reflections about life in Saigon, her marriage, Army pettiness, and the impact of the American presence on Vietnamese social and cultural norms are all intertwined. Many anecdotes are tragic; others ironic and humorous.

Assigned as a typist in the Army Provost Marshall’s office, Miller’s husband was busted after displaying antiwar cartoons around his desk. When not on duty, he donned civvies and curled up in “a private world” with Miller in a room she rented from a Vietnamese family.

Occasionally, her husband joined her to watch American movies with generals and colonels. During M*A*S*H, they “laughed [their] fool heads off” while the officers sat in “stony silence.”

On the streets of Saigon, they took once had to take cover as a sniper fired at motorcyclists. When an Army truck hit a 12-year-old boy and roared off, they stopped to help, only to be surrounded by an angry mob.

Inette Miller in country

The Medivac that barely made it back, Miller writes in the last chapter, had its tail “wrenched apart” and its body riddled with jagged holes—“the most dramatically destroyed helicopter I’d ever seen bring its crew and passengers back alive.”

By this time she has matured, and, in her telling, won the respect of male colleagues and combatants. Still, at that moment she felt “utterly exposed, raw and vulnerable.” The approval she had been seeking,” she realized, “had been my own.”

Inette Miller wanted to go home. With her husband’s tour of duty ending, they returned stateside in April 1971. Fifteen years later, they divorced.

Miller’s website is inettemiller.com

–Bob Carolla

Soles of a Survivor by Nhi Aronheim

Nhi Aronheim’s Soles of a Survivor: A Memoir (Skyhorse, 288 pp. $24.99, hardcover; $16.99, Kindle) is a worthy autobiography. In it, Aronheim tells the story of her escape from post-war Vietnam and resettlement and eventual success in the United States. Aronheim, who fled her native country in 1987 when she was 12 years old, shows herself to be a motivated, highly driven individual.

She was born into a large, prominent family near Da Nang. Her father was a respected physician who also treated injured American troops during the war.

When communist forces took control of the entire country in the spring of 1975, her father was taken to a re-education camp and soldiers marched through the family’s well-appointed home taking anything of value. They said that under Communism everyone was equal and no one should have too much wealth. Eventually, the father left the family and Aronheim, her mother, and her siblings were forced to leave their home.

As the family was about to be sent to a re-education camp, her mother bribed a bus driver to take them to Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. Arriving with only the clothes on their backs, they lived illegally in one room. Aronheim earned money for the family by selling counterfeit cigarettes.

Her mother longed for the opportunity for the family to escape, but knew it would be too difficult to attempt it as a group. So, in total secrecy, she helped her twelve-year-old daughter cross the border into Cambodia with the hope of getting to America. At this point in the memoir, we have reached the end of the first chapter, with nineteen more to go.

The book’s title is how Aronheim’s husband refers to her feet as a result of all the walking she did during her escape. It was a harrowing experience, during which, she says, she found herself “staring down death time after time,” and that each time was “as terrifying as it was the first time.” She spent time in a refugee camp in Thailand, and remembers watching showings of “ET” and “The Sound of Music” without her or anyone around her understanding what was going on.

Nhi Aronheim

Against heavy odds, this young woman managed to make it out of the refugee camp and fly to the U.S. where she thrived academically and went on to good jobs in telecommunications and the mortgage industry, and then became a wife and mother. This book celebrates a life of achievement that started in most unlikely fashion.

More and more stories are now being told by Vietnamese refugees who have made the best they could of their lives while also helping make America a better place to live. Nhi Aronheim says she hopes her book will encourage readers “to never give up, never give in, and always stay positive.”

Examples of how she lived that philosophy can be found on nearly every page of this inspiring book.

The author’s website is nhiaronheim.com

–Bill McCloud

Charlie Rangers at War by Darrel Gibson

In Charlie Rangers at War: An Infantry Soldier’s Journal, Vietnam (CreateSpace, 310 pp. $12, paper; $5.40, Kindle), Darrel Gibson provides a gripping account of his own Vietnam War experiences, as well as those of many fellow infantrymen. As an RTO in the Army’s 1st Infantry Division’s 1/16th Infantry (and later with the 9th Infantry Division’s 5/60th), Gibson was well placed to observe events, which he documented daily in a pocket notebook he kept wrapped in plastic.  

These notes are the foundation for this book nearly fifty years later, which Robert Cooper, his former platoon and company commander, helped Gibson put together. In 2017, Cooper was very ill, yet he worked tirelessly with Gibson through long, heavily detailed conversations by phone to craft this compelling history.

Gibson volunteered for the draft in January 1968, leaving his native Kansas City, Missouri, for six months of training, then arrived in Vietnam the following summer. 

Among the book’s many assets, a few deserve mention. First, by offering his own recollections and those of Cooper’s, Gibson adds those of other men from his platoon. Each man recounts his own experiences of the same action. When Gibson puts them together, they become a layered image of how, step by step, each action was fought. There are vivid details of the acrid smell of burnt gunpowder, the sight of enemy rocket-propelled grenades streaking close to the ground toward the Americans, and the near impossibility for the men to hear each other—let alone coordinate movements—as the lead is flying.

Then there are the descriptions of American tunnel rats who descended into the VC’s massive network of heavily reinforced and supplied tunnels. Filled with weapons and ammunition and supplies of nearly every kind, the tunnels also contained medical and maintenance facilities. These detailed accounts drive home the massive challenges American troops faced against a highly motivated enemy.

At the end of each chapter Gibson provides detailed accounts of the men in his unit who were killed in action. From the start, he drives home the point that each was more than a statistic—that his loss created a void in the world that could never be filled. 

–Mike McLaughlin

Agent Orange: An Insidious Legacy by Raymond H. Gustafson

Raymond Gustofson’s Agent Orange: An Insidious Legacy (148 pp. $14.99, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a short book with just 138 pages of text, but it contains a big message. Virtually every Vietnam War veteran is aware of the enormous amount of of toxic herbicides the U.S. military rained down upon South Vietnam—and, by default, upon U.S. and allied troops on the ground. “Deny the enemy sanctuary” was the mantra of Operation Ranch Hand, the spraying mission that went on from 1962-71. Agent Orange was the main—but not the only—chemical agent involved.

Gustafson writes about growing up and his decision to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17 right after high school. Coming from a family that traced its military service back through to the Civil War, it seemed like the right and logical thing to do. Service was in his bloodline.

He goes on to describe his time in-country beginning early in 1966 with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines in the 3rd Marine Division, including getting wounded, medevaced, being put back together, returning to the war, and then extending his tour for seven months. Throughout, Gustafson includes details about AO, including how it was manufactured and dispersed, its long and short-term effects on humans, and how the Department of Veterans Affairs has handled research and benefits.

After his discharge, Roy Gustafson, like many other Vietnam veterans, buried his war deeply inside himself. He did not talk about his experiences in Vietnam until he confronted serious medical issues related to AO exposure, along with post-traumatic stress issues.

The book is not confrontational, but informational. There is no excoriation of the VA that other books about AO contain. Gustafson does describe VA administrative missteps, but does not dwell on them. He backs up what he writes with excellent references throughout the book and in his bibliography.

Over all, Agent Orange: An Insidious Legacy is a heartfelt effort and a good beginning point for readers to learn the basics of this important issue, especially the serious health issues for Vietnam War veterans and their children and grandchildren.

–Tom Werzyn

If You Walk Long Enough by Nancy Hartney

Nancy Hartney’s new novel, If You Walk Long Enough (Wild Rose Press, 282 pp. $16.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), centers on returning war veterans and the loved ones they are returning to.

Main character Reid Holcombe is on his way home to Beaufort, South Carolina, after a couple of tours in the Vietnam War and the completion of his military service. He takes his time getting home. He winds up hanging out in airports because he’s in no hurry to return to his estranged wife and the family tobacco farm that his sister runs. Mainly, he’s just not sure what he wants to do.

When Reid finally calls his wife, she says, “Come home. I need to make sure you’re not a ghost.” She also says she’s concerned because she can no longer picture him or “smell his essence.”

But instead of returning to the house he shares with his wife, Reid decides to move into a nearby family farm and go to work helping his sister get the tobacco in. Still, he’s not happy about getting back to the fields; he’d joined the Army because he saw it as his ticket off the farm. His sister tells him she knows he didn’t write home because of all the stuff he was dealing with, but then tells him: “Hard stuff happened here, too.”

Hartney writes that even though Reid was far away from the war, he “ate fast, gobbling before the next mortar round hit.” He learns that Big Tobacco companies are trying to squeeze out small farms. At the same time, his neighbors—a Black family whose son also served during the war—are facing increasingly serious racial harassment. Reid begins thinking of South Carolina and Vietnam as “two places, different and the same.”

He continues to stay away from his wife, considering himself to be divorced in all but the strictly legal sense. For her part, Hartney writes, his wife sometimes “wished him dead in Vietnam—only to wither from guilt at the thought.” She also flirted with having a relationship while he was gone, while he has his own wartime secret.

Nancy Hartney

Feeling a sense of crushing guilt from what he did in Vietnam and the secret he still carries from it—while at the same time wrestling with new relationships with family and neighbors—Reid finds himself fighting Big Tobacco and the sickening racism he had not faced before going to Vietnam.

The book is divided into 62 short chapters with most of the story taking place in 1970. Hartney’s novel expresses beautifully the reality of veterans returning home from Vietnam to a world that had not stood still while they were gone. 

(Full disclosure: I am thanked on the Acknowledgments section of this book based on a few conversations I had with the author and my early reading of the manuscript.)

Hartney’s website is https://nancyhartney.com/

–Bill McCloud

Bloodline by Jess Lourey

Jess Lourey’s Bloodline (Thomas & Mercer, 347 pp. $15.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a mystery/thriller set in the small town of Lilydale, Minnesota, in the peak Vietnam War years of 1968 and 1969.

If you are looking for a good mystery, Bloodline may not be for you, as it’s a thriller than a mystery, with nearly all of the elements of a Gothic horror story. The only thing missing is a spooky castle. The suspense is there, though, along with aspects of a well-crafted psychological thriller.

Joan Harken, the protagonist of Bloodline, is a journalist in Minneapolis where she lives with her boyfriend, Deck Schmidt. After she is mugged on her way home, Joan (who is pregnant) agrees to move with Deck to his hometown of Lilydale. If Joan thought that only big cities like Minneapolis were dangerous, she is in for some big surprises in little Lilydale.

Right from the start, we know that something isn’t quite right with the town and a group of its most influential citizens. Lourey—a prolific author of mysteries, short stories, and nonfiction books—pays homage to both The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby as Joan is expected to comport herself like the loving and automaton wives in her new social circle. She soon begins to suffer PTSD symptoms as a result of the attack in Minneapolis.

Desperate to regain a modicum of independence, Joan gets a job with the local newspaper and decides to investigate the unexplained disappearance of young Paulie Aandeg, who went missing in Lilydale in 1944. This part of Lourey’s story is based on actual events that took place in Paynesville, Minnesota. 

Jess Lourey

As Joan tracks down leads, she becomes more and more paranoid about her husband, his family, and their friends keeping tabs on her. As the story unfolds, Joan believes she is about to discover something of importance, but is then derailed. Multiple times.

Lourey brings up the Vietnam War several times in the book. Early on, she mentions that one reason Deck wanted to take Joan back to Lilydale was because “his dad was head of the county draft board and had the power to save Deck from Vietnam.” Later, Joan reflects on her life in peaceful Lilydale while American troops are dying in Vietnam, thinking “how ashamed she is to tune out their pain, halfway across the world.”

I enjoyed Bloodline. I am a night owl and love immersing myself in a story that will keep me up and make me jump when I hear things late at night. The parts of the book I did not like are not worth mentioning, except to say that it appeared to me that Lourey overused her Thesaurus—a noble effort to keep the reader engaged in the story, but one that was not needed. 

For those who enjoy thrillers, Jess Lourey has crafted a story that will keep you on the edge of your seat and guessing until the last page. And God help you if a stray pecan falls on your roof late at night while you are buried in the depths of this book.

The author’s website is jessicalourey.com

— Charles L. Templeton

The reviewer is the author of Boot: A Sorta Novel of Vietnam

Kilo 3 by Richard W. Foster, Jr.

Richard Foster’s Kilo 3: The True Story of a Marine Rifleman’s Tour from the Intense Fighting in Vietnam to the Superficial Pageantry of Washington, D.C. (Outskirts Press, 298 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $33.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a well-told memoir focusing on a couple of years in the life of a teen-aged Marine—years filled with hellish combat.

This is one of those memoirs that does not deal with the author’s life before or after his military service. It starts off with a nighttime ambush patrol in the Vietnam War, and then stays focused mainly on a period of just a few months.

Foster joined the Marines at 17. He had been a rebellious teenager growing up in Henrietta, Texas, near the Oklahoma border, when he sensed he was being called to serve his country by fighting in the Vietnam War. After completing boot camp, he spent six months at sea because the Marine Corps didn’t send men to Vietnam until they were eighteen. Before going to the war, when home on leave, fellow Marines told him: “You can go home all you want, but you can never be at home again. Your childhood is over.”

Once in Vietnam, one of the first things Foster heard was someone say, “Ain’t no heroes here, just survivors.” When he was sent to the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment he was told he would be “seeing a lot of shit.” Foster joined Kilo Company because, he says, “they recently got wiped out.”

During his Vietnam War tour of duty Foster spent time in Dong Ha, Da Nang, Cam Lo, Con Thien, and Khe Sanh. He writes about jumping into five-man fighting holes, holding his .45 in his lap while getting a quick haircut from a Vietnamese barber, taking sniper fire, what it was like to go two months without a shower, and having to retrace your steps to get out of a minefield. There also are depictions of close-combat fighting and a helicopter crashing for a reason I had not heard of before.

A short but important part at the end of the book finds Foster being recruited for the prestigious Marine Corps Color Guard at the Marine Corps Barracks in Washington, D.C. He accepted the job with mixed feelings.

As to why he wrote his book, Foster writes: “As other wars erupt around the world, it’s never too late to understand the misery and brutality of fighting on the ground or the detached glitter of Washington that continues unabated.”

Overall, his war story is not that much different than those told in many other Vietnam War memoirs, but Foster’s better than most at telling it. The book includes one of the most evocative collections of photos that I’ve seen in a memoir.

–Bill McCloud