An Unbelievable Life by Rena Kopystenski

Rena Kopystenski’s An Unbelievable Life: The Woman Who Became Vietnam Veterans’ Voice Against Agent Orange (Strategic Media Books, 300 pp., $19.95, paper) is a tour de force of how one person can affect and benefit millions of others.

As Vietnam veterans know only too well, the U.S. military heavily sprayed the herbicide Agent Orange throughout South Vietnam during the war. The catastrophic effects on plant life were almost instantaneous; however, the effects on human life began to appear much later—and still wreak havoc in 2015.

Kopystenski encountered Agent Orange for the first time while watching a news broadcast in late 1977. She was pregnant with her first child when she heard the words “suspected of causing birth defects.” Knowing that her husband had been an Army door gunner on a medivac helicopter in Vietnam, she believed there might be a connection between his exposure to Agent Orange and her first child.

The author begins to describe the problems with her son Alex during his first few months of life. Skin conditions became prevalent almost immediately, followed by other painful and frightening ailments. At three and a half months, the child had severe stomach pains. He would have died had her husband not literally held a doctor against a locker until he agreed to take a second look at the boy.

These events with her child set the stage for Rena Kopystenski’s decades-long, national and international campaign to uncover the horrific price of Agent Orange.

Although the book needs some editing—the author consistently misuses the word “effect” for “affect,” for example—Kopystenski pulls no punches describing her quest for the elimination of AO and its extremely toxic byproduct, dioxin, and compensation for its victims.

She and her “band of brothers” formed Agent Orange Victims of New Jersey in 1978. Then, while listening to a news report, the author heard the words “dioxin, toxic waste, and children with cancer.” The battlefield expanded.

Throughout the book Kopystenski expresses her appreciation for the many people who worked with her in the struggle, including Annie Bailey, “a whole 100 pounds sopping wet,” who became known as a battler for the cause.

While the focus is primarily on U.S. citizens, the author takes the reader to present-day Vietnam to learn of the tragic rate of Agent-Orange-related birth defects among its people.

Rena Kopysenski

Kopystenski is not reluctant in pointing fingers at politicians, even in the Oval Office, who have taken little or no interest in the sufferings of AO victims. She is equally quick to thank politicians who have made an effort to right the wrongs.

Rena Kopystenski presented her findings to the International People’s Tribunal of Conscience in Support of the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange, which took place in Paris in May 2009. Both the chemical companies and the United States government were asked to appear; neither did.

The Tribunal noted: “Wars do not end when the bombs stop falling and the fighting ceases. The devastation continues long after, in the land and in the minds and bodies of the affected population.”

Today, in a world where the term “weapons of mass destruction” slides so casually from the tongue, An Unbelievable Life is a must-read.

—Joseph Reitz








When It Rains in Hell by Harry R. McCoy

Harry R. (Randy) McCoy served in two recon platoons in E Co., 3rd of the 39th Infantry in the Army;s 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam. In his memoir, When It Rains in Hell (CreateSpace, 300 pp., $15, paper), McCoy writes eloquently about that experience.

McCoy has throat cancer, “which debilitated [my] voice and ability to eat food,” he writes. He was often exposed to Agent Orange during his tour of duty, and his book includes some powerful writing about that poison. “We grunts suspected the chemical was bad for our health,” he writes, “but the Army maintained it was perfectly safe and only affected vegetation for a while.”

McCoy’s recounting of walking through a desolate area that had been hit by Agent Orange is a dystopian vision that chilled my blood—blood, by the way, that is currently under attack by Agent Orange-caused Multiple Myeloma.

McCoy started his tour assigned to road-clearing trips every morning as well as pulling convoy escort duty, bunker guard and listening posts. This might sound fairly safe and harmless, but it wasn’t; it involved dealing with booby traps of high explosive. His unit then went out in the jungle “looking for Charlie.” Often McCoy and his fellow infantrymen found him. The book is filled with well-written descriptions of close combat.

Randy McCoy is not the typical grunt, if there were such a thing. He quotes John Donne from memory: “any man’s death diminishes me.” His facility with the English language and his philosophical pondering about what he terms “vexing questions” elevates this infantry memoir. He often tells the reader that our leaders in that ill-fated war failed to heed the edict to “know thine enemy,” and because of that we were doomed to lose the war.

McCoy arrived in Vietnam in early 1968. He is clear about his dedication to the M-16. He says that the bugs had been worked out of it by then and it was a fine weapon for use in the jungle. It had to be pried out of his hands when he left combat situations.

There is no racist ranting about the inferiority of the Vietnamese people in this book. McCoy makes it clear that he liked and respected the Vietnamese. He also thanks the Boy Scouts for training him and preparing him for survival in Vietnam.

Randy McCoy

My great respect for this memoir slipped a tiny bit at the end when McCoy indulged in a brief rant about Jane Fonda. He went  on to say, though, that he no longer hates protesters and war activists of the 1960’s.
“I can now quite clearly see they were right in their actions,” he writes. “Their efforts ended the war quicker than it would have happened otherwise.  However, I am still not ‘fonda Jane.’”

This memoir moves back and forth in time—from Vietnam to the future. It reflects on how McCoy’s tour of duty affected his later life, especially his first marriage. This literary device works well.

The book does not stop when he boards the “Freedom Bird” to go home. The reader finds out where McCoy’s life goes next and what demons tormented him in his post-war life. He dealt with these demons by isolating himself in his garage working on restoring cars—a pursuit that was solitary and had clear parameters, unlike the challenges of being a husband and father.

McCoy’s ability to summon up stark details of long-ago combat in Vietnam makes this memoir stand out as one of the best. His thoughtful reflections about that time held my interest throughout.

I highly recommend this memoir to those interested in the infantry experience in Vietnam.

—David Willson