The First Door is the Final Exit by Timothy Kenneth O’Neil

The First Door is the Final Exit (235 pp. $19.99, hardcover; $13.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is the debut novel by Timothy Kenneth O’Neil. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Tim O’Neil spent the entire year of 1969 in South Vietnam. He was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, the Wolfhounds, and dedicates the book to “the men that died and the women who tragically suffered.” 

The novel has a tri-part structure. The plot follows Winson, the book’s protagonist, Winston, a 25th Division grunt, and his squad through their year in South Vietnam. Their in-country experiences are intertwined with those of Winston’s girlfriend Veronica, who is in nursing school back home. Occasionally O’Neil throws in current events to remind the reader what was happening on the home front.

Winston is an all-American boy. As soon as he graduates from college, he is drafted. He is a reluctant warrior, but not a troublemaker. He gets through his tour of duty by reminding himself that it’s just one year and then he can start his real life back home with Veronica. 

He goes to Nam as naïve as most cherries. He is put into a heterogeneous squad whose “complexion was the opposite of those who created the war.” Winston fits in immediately and befriends a like-minded guy named Rufus. They share a love of weed; in fact, the platoon has a reputation for being a unit of heads. 

Between bull sessions and toking, the squad is sent on missions typical of the war in 1969. The first is to the Michelin Rubber Plantation where they search a few abandoned huts and then return. They wonder why they had to wade through a leech-infested swamp just to be picked up on the other side.  

Questioning the war, in fact, is a theme of the book, but the novel is more anti-tactics than antiwar. The squad goes through a variety of leaders, ranging from the gung-ho to the cautious. The grunts are seldom told why they are doing things that can and do get them killed. 

Meanwhile, Veronica is waiting for the return of her man. Her chats with her friends parallel Winston’s with his buddies. For drama, she is being stalked by a Casanova.

There are countless good memoirs about the war. O’Neil takes that genre and fictionalizes it into a story of a grunt’s tour, adding a girlfriend back home to give a taste of how the war affected women and their boyfriends in Vietnam. And he throws in snippets of 1969 events showing the country going through some seismic social and political shifts.

U.S. infantrymen in the Michelin Rubber Plantation

The main focus, though, is on Winston and his squad. The characters are well-developed and each has a distinct personality. The book has a lot of dialogue, all well-written, and the jargon is appropriate for grunts. O’Neil enhances the story with grammatical flourishes. He is creative with his similes, such as describing the plane Winston arrived in county on as being like a womb. One distracting element is that the book could have used better editing.

If you haven’t read any Vietnam War memoirs, you might want to try this novel centered on a soldier counting down the days to the Freedom Bird. The First Door is the Final Exit is a realistic tale of a typical grunt and his comrades. Although the combat scenes are visceral, O’Neil avoids the temptation to give his readers combat porn. Winston is no Rambo. He is just trying to survive, a theme of the book.

Another theme is that squad members are pawns at the mercy of higher ups whose goals are the almighty body count and the “glory count” of dead GIs. Overall, the novel rings true as far as putting the reader in the boots of an American soldier in South Vietnam in 1969.   

O’Neil’s website is tkomynovels.com

–Kevin Hardy

Combat and Campus by Peter R. Langlois and Annette Langlois Grunseth

The best parts of war memoirs tell naked truths that leave historical perspective aside and entirely reflect the emotions of the author. Former infantryman Peter Langlois perfectly fills that bill with Combat and Campus: Writing through War (Elm Grove Press, 180 pp. $18.95, paper), particularly when he says, “The enemy was almost god-like. He was everywhere and anticipated our every move.”

The book—put together and written with his sister Annette Langlois Grunseth—contains letters written when Langlois served in Vietnam with Alpha Company, 2/22, of the 25th Infantry Division in 1968-69. His unfiltered descriptions of the carnage his unit endured is as graphic as those in any book I have read. He and his fellow grunts—most of whom were draftees—endured unrelenting combat complicated by poor leadership and inadequate supplies. In operation after operation, the 2nd of the 22nd’s casualties were inordinately high.

Drafted at 23, Peter Langlois had just graduated form the University of Wisconsin with a journalism degree. He wrote letters from Vietnam with a reporter’s point of view, mainly informing his family and friends about events that he experienced during four months of nearly constant exposure to the enemy. His hometown newspaper—the Wausau Daily Record Herald—published a series of his letters.  

Although he was challenged emotionally, Langlois maintained his psychological balance while writing home. “I can’t see how I can keep my sanity,” he wrote, for example, “unless I lose my conscience and sense of justice.” Despite the fact that he did not want to be in Vietnam, Langlois became a squad leader and did everything expected of him.

In 2004 Peter Langlois died at 59 from Agent Orange-induced cancer. Annette Grunseth, an accomplished writer and poet who is married to a disabled Vietnam War veteran, collected and arranged her brother’s letters into this memoir. She had attended the University of Wisconsin during Langlois’ tour, and provides a first-person look at student antiwar demonstrations on campus.

Langlois and his 13-year-old interpreter in country

Throughout the book, her powerful affinity for her brother recollects his entire life with thoughtful prose and poetry. Although I am not a fan of the latter, one of Grunseth’s poems brought tears to my eyes. Still grieving over her brother’s post-Vietnam War PTSD, she reveals a deep understanding of the mental and physical effects of war and its aftermath.

Combat and Campus fulfils several tasks in remembering the Vietnam War, its causes, and its participants. The book should jar the memories of old timers (especially those of us who were there) while showing younger readers the toll taken by war on both individuals and nations.

Summarizing why America took part in the war, Peter Langlois wrote: “Basically the major powers in this world haven’t matured enough to realize the virtue of love and compassion.”

Annette’s Grunseth’s website is www.annettegrunseth.com

—Henry Zeybel

A Contradiction of Terms by Joseph C. Maguire, Jr.

Joseph Maguire’s A Contradiction of Terms: A 25th Division Analyst’s Tour in Vietnam, April 1970 to March 1971 (284 pp. $9.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a reflective journal focusing on Maguire’s time in the Army, primarily his tour of duty in the Vietnam War.

Maguire enlisted in June of 1969. After Basic Training at Ft. Bragg, he was sent to Fort Holabird’s Army Intelligence School in Baltimore, not far from Dundalk, Maryland, his hometown. Maguire spent a lot of his off-duty time back home.

In March 1970 Maguire received orders for Vietnam. His tour began in April at the Cu Chi Base Camp where he was assigned to the 25th Military Intelligence Company attached to the 25th Infantry Division.

Maguire paints good pictures of his “behind the wire” experiences in Army Intelligence in Vietnam during the war. His candor about his non-combat, clean-living, and relatively uneventful life as an intelligence analyst is refreshing. I found his observations interesting and entertaining. In November, the 25th Division was standing down. Half the men were sent to Hawaii and the other half, Maguire included, were reassigned to Xuan Loc just north of Long Binh. 

His tour ended in March 1971, and Maguire returned home to encounter many Americans who had misguided notions about the Vietnam War and its veterans. Maguire’s analyses of people’s reactions to him and to the war are spot on.

Throughout the book, Maguire includes biographical sketches of his fellow servicemen, describing their personalities, idiosyncrasies, and physical characteristics. I particularly liked how the book’s 43 chapters could stand as interesting stories of their own.

I found A Contradiction of Terms to be a good read with one major flaw. It appears as though no one proofread the book before it went to print as nearly every page has a typo or other slip of the pen. Despite those distractions, the more I read this book, the more I enjoyed it. I recommend it.

— Bob Wartman        

Shrapnel Wounds by Tom Crowley

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Tom Crowley’s Shrapnel Wounds: An Infantry Lieutenant’s Vietnam War Memoir (Pacifica Military History, 198 pp. $24.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a how-to book on leading men in combat, circa 1966, although the author sees the same thoughts and ideas as still valid today.

Crowley presents two themes. Mainly, he discusses the traits of a good combat leader, particularly at the platoon level. Secondly, he analyzes the Army’s promotion and rank structures.

The book’s strength is Crowley’s account of combat as a platoon leader in the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi. He deals with battle in a vivid and straightforward manner. He says that he worked hard to become a competent and respected officer who cared for his men. Often he proves a point by referring to an encounter. For example, in speaking of fear, Crowly describes a prolonged shootout that occurred after his platoon unexpectedly found a large number of VC in a supposedly abandoned village.

He believes that the best leaders make both physical and emotional commitments to their men. Crowley felt this type of involvement to a high degree in Vietnam, and it took a tremendous psychological toll. After receiving two dozen shrapnel wounds in one battle, despite doctors’ objections and still-open wounds, he returned to his platoon after only a week in hospital.

Crowley once considered a career as an Army officer. A college dropout facing the Vietnam War draft, he instead enlisted and earned a commission through OCS. Watching the contrivances of his peers and superiors with career development convinced him to leave the military at the end of his enlistment because, he says, “I just saw no future in it.”

He determined that an officer’s position in the Army pecking order depended on the source of his commission (West Point at the top, then ROTC, and OCS last) and type of commission (regular Army above reservist). Within that framework, officers maneuvered to complete a combat assignment, earn an efficiency report that reflected great leadership in battle, and win medals, Crowley says. Favoritism based on these many factors determined promotions and assignments. He cites instances in which field activities to achieve such ends cost enlisted men’s lives.

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Based on the self-centered behavior of his contemporaries, Crowley lost faith in the military structure. He believes that Vietnam was a “squad leader’s and platoon leader’s war” and higher levels of command made plans and decisions based on outdated experience, namely set piece battles. He says that reality for “virtually all of the military’s top officers wasn’t the Vietnam War, it was the war for promotion.”

Tom Crowley’s story contains twists and turns that I have not mentioned. That surprised me and gave greater meaning to his leadership qualities. Fundamentally, he has cared about people and has led a meaningful and productive life both in the Army and as a civilian.

The author’s website is www.tomcrowleybooks.com

—Henry Zeybel

Year of the Rooster by Ben Wanderin

Larry D. Goodson served two years in the U. S. Army and then returned to his home in the Pacific Northwest in 1970. The cover blurb of Year of the Rooster (CreateSpace, 250 pp., $15.95, paper) tells us that it is “mostly a short story collection from the memories of a combat veteran of the Vietnam War mingled with present day thoughts and actions ”  This book—written under the pseudonym “Ben Wanderin”—didn’t read like any short story collection I have in my collection.

In 1969 the main character is nineteen years old and is from the Pacific Northwest—somewhere near Seattle, perhaps, which is where I was living when I was drafted into the Army and where I returned when my war was over. I feel a kinship with this author for that reason and quite a few others.

I part company with the main character when he says, “the last thing he wanted was to feel like he had avoided the draft.”  I would have been okay with that.

Goodson uses a progression of emotion-distancing names for his main character. He starts as Cherry Boy. Next he is called Rifleman. Soon he is Gunner. Eventually he becomes Survivor. And also REMF.

Our hero describes his arrival in Vietnam in familiar terms. As he “stepped from the air-conditioned freedom bird into the blast furnace of the dry season, the stench had hit his nose like a fist.” Soon after that he gets a detail during which he burns shit in a steel drum. He says, “If you’ve never stirred burning shit with a stick…”  Thank you, I have done that.

At Cu Chi, our hero joins his unit, then heads for Trang Bang, then Fire Base Pershing, and then Firebase Stuart or Stewart. Both spellings are used.  “Cherry Boy would come to believe that the squad he joined was made of the greatest guys in Viet Nam, maybe in the world.”

As Rifleman, his main assignment is to be part of a squad that clears mines. “The idea was to find the mines in the road and keep the convoy from being ambushed while bringing supplies to the little sandbag fortress called home to some 105 howitzers, plus 4.2 and 81 MM mortars.”  With less than three months in the field, our hero becomes the machine gunner and senior man of his squad.

He becomes disillusioned and thinks that perhaps he wasn’t in Vietnam to “protect the people of South Vietnam from those evil communists he had been hearing about since the day he could hear anything at all.”  It seemed likely that we were, instead, “creating enemies every day out of neutral or friendly people.”

The Gunner is transferred to Cu Chi where he has a better chance to survive. This is when his name is changed to Survivor. And then he becomes a REMF.

“They were a part of the ten to one ratio of people in support of the one to ten outside the wire being referred to as combatants.” He becomes a combat correspondent.  For “a healthy person with all his marbles the job would have been a dream come true.”  He wasn’t that person.

Our hero’s time in Vietnam hits him hard.  “By now about the only things he really felt were fear or rage and most of the time he couldn’t tell the difference.”  He goes on to say, “Killing people is a fucked-up business to be in, but if it’s the job you’ve got, you’d better pay attention or you’ll be the one not telling your friends anything.”  I appreciated that piece of wisdom.

On the plane home, the so-called Freedom Bird, Survivor thinks, “people would respect him for what he had survived.” Think again, Survivor.

This novel reads like an elegy—an elegy for lost innocence, lost youth, and lost lives—both American and Vietnamese. While reading this book, I kept thinking of The Red Badge of Courage. Year of the Rooster has more in common with that classic than with any Vietnam War book I’ve read—both in tone and in distance.

Year of the Rooster is well-written and accessible. I would like it to be required reading in high schools, especially by those who think that joining the Army will result in a happier life.

—David Willson