The Hardest Part by Bruce I. McDaniel

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Bruce McDaniel enlisted in the Army in September 1967 and spent a year as a medic with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam. He wrote about that experience in a 2016 memoir, Walk Through the Valley: The Spiritual Journey of a Vietnam War Medic, which we reviewed on these pages.

In  Homecoming Stories from the Vietnam War (Lulu.com, 64 pp., $8, paper) McDaniel uses those experiences to create a group of short stories that explore his feelings about the challenges of returning to America after his tour of duty. He did not anticipate the troubles he would encounter.

McDaniel’s service as a medic saving lives in the Vietnam War did not make him popular in the civilian world when he returned home.  Some of the stories he uses to explore what it is like to be back deal with a Vietnam veteran on leave who chooses to travel in his uniform because of the advantages he thought that would give him as a traveler.

The story I appreciated most was about a veteran who enrolls in college with his war wound dogging him, but not a wound that is readily identifiable. He lacks one eye, which was damaged by a tiny piece of shrapnel. He’s actually told by a fellow student that it served him right for being in Vietnam.

Nobody has told me that about my Agent Orange-connected disability, but the world has changed a lot since 1968. The story made me wonder, though, if the occasional person might have that thought. It wouldn’t surprise me.

These stories frequently provoked me to fits of thinking, which is what one hopes for from good fiction. There are far fewer than seventy-five pages is this little book, but it packs a punch.

In fact, it packs several punches, and I highly recommend it to all veterans. I believe the stories would be especially helpful to read and discussed by a group of veterans dealing with stubborn, painful issues that have refused to fly away into the clouds.

I appreciate that Bruce McDaniel used his memories and imagination to produce these powerful stories.

—David Willson

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Walk through the Valley by Bruce I. McDaniel

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Following his year as a medic in the Vietnam War, Bruce I. McDaniel carried home a large dose of disillusionment. More than that, during his first four years back home, he sharpened his disillusionment to a point of rage. The intensity of his feelings marked a transformation from the patriotism that had motivated him to enlist in the Army after graduating from Rutgers University.

McDaniel carefully and logically explains his philosophical reversal in Walk through the Valley: The Spiritual Journey of a Vietnam War Medic (lulu.com, 224 pp.; $13, paper; $5, Kindle). As a man who at the age of fourteen accepted Jesus as his savior, McDaniel “uncritically supported the American effort in Vietnam,” he writes. He considered serving in the Army as a Christian’s willingness to fulfill “loyalty to the national community.” To him, the duties of a medic captured his wholehearted involvement in how best to help his country.

Christianity established McDaniel’s way of life. He speaks of religious convictions but does not preach. He approaches all subjects in a reasonable and lucid manner. Although he does not reveal anything new about combat or the Vietnam War in general, he does validate antiwar sentiments based on his experiences and his reconsidered Christian values.

McDaniel arrived in Vietnam in March 1968 and joined the Americal Division at Chu Lai. He spent six months in the field. Mostly, as he says, he “wandered around the countryside, climbing up another hill every afternoon to set up a night position, and then going down into the jungle valley in the morning to walk some more.” He labored to provide the best possible care to the men in his company. At the same time, he spent a lot of time and effort doctoring Vietnamese civilians under the Medical Civil Action Project.

Along with search and destroy missions and helicopter assaults, two intense battles taught McDaniel as much as anyone needs to know about infantry combat. The first involved capturing Hill 434, which was abandoned the day after taking it. The second battle resulted from a North Vietnamese Army ambush that killed six and wounded twenty-four men in his company. During the taking of Hill 434, McDaniel suffered wounds to his face, shoulder, and knee. Following a hospital stay, he returned to his unit.

McDaniel’s switch from supporter to opponent of the war began after his reassignment to a behind-the-lines job. As a clerk, he assembled reports that he knew were fictitious, particularly ones regarding enemy KIAs. He saw that American leaders measured the war’s progress by counting dead enemy bodies, a parameter without an end goal. Consequently, killing became the war’s primary purpose, which he felt was wrong.

The inability of America to follow actions to decisive endings led McDaniel to conclude that his abstract policy of using limited violence for good purposes was overwhelmed by “the human devastation that was concrete and arbitrary.”

McDaniel determined that the war came down to individuals and decided that the Americans with the strongest influence in prosecuting the war were unworthy of the task. “A man in sandals lying on the wet ground, his brains beside his head” did not match McDaniel’s image of how peaceful ideologies could change the world. During his last days in Vietnam, he writes, he felt “little other than futility and absurdity and detachment.”

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A Vietnam War 25th Infantry Division medic in the field

After completing his enlistment, McDaniel earned a law degree and found his life’s work in writing for a legal publisher. As a civilian his disillusionment deepened. He easily grew angry with people who discussed war as an abstraction and did not know the reality of what he had experienced.

He no longer saw war as “a struggle for national survival, undertaken as a last resort, which called for noble sacrifices on the part of the nation’s young men.” Instead, he came to believe that America had normalized war and made it a part of life fought by people our society considered expendable.

McDaniel married, bought a home, raised children, and helped Vietnamese and Laotian refugee families resettle in the United States. He became a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America.

Here is his final conclusion about the Vietnam War: “Surviving the war was more than just being alive; it meant returning home with a sense of honor, being able to live with whatever one did, able to go on without being trapped in guilt or shame from the past. It meant being able to integrate one’s experience in the war into one’s life story as a whole.”

Bruce McDaniel has learned and escaped from the past.

—Henry Zeybel