Behind the Wire by James Stoup

 

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The word “paradoxical” perfectly describes the thoughts and actions of James Stoup as related in his “nonfiction novel,” Behind the Wire: A Story about Life in the Rear during the Vietnam War (Page Publishing, 318 pp., $17.95, paper: $9.99, Kindle). A member of the 25th Infantry and 1st Air Cavalry divisions in 1970-71, he gained the credentials of an Army war correspondent without covering combat. Furthermore, he called himself a war protester, but excelled as a reporter for the military establishment. While reading the book, I occasionally wondered if any of us fully understood what was going on back in the day.

Stoup, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America,  wrote a first draft of this book in 1994 and rewrote it in 2014. Surprisingly, his youthful emotions and opinions prevail, which makes the book valuable because it shows the contradictions felt by young men who supported the Vietnam antiwar movement. Stoup provides a wealth of stories about constructive and destructive behavior among rear echelon personnel, also known as REMFs.

Mainly, Stoup relies on personal observations and opinions to prove his points and seldom offers references to authoritative sources. His arguments usually rest on generalizations such as his friends’ estimate that sixty-five percent of enlisted men in Vietnam used drugs.

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Jim Stoup

 

His favorite topics are marijuana, marijuana, marijuana, and other drugs; incompetent lifers;  fragging; the quest for medals; and profiting from the war.

This paragraph perfectly reflects the heart of his REMF sentiments about the Army:

“There was still the occasional Army bullshit to put up with, like formations, police calls, inspections, starched fatigues, and polished boots. But those of us who escaped the stress and danger of combat figured we were lucky to be where we were, so we just put up with the lifers and the bullshit. And after the recent series of fraggings and tear gas incidents, the ‘off-the-record’ protocol that had been observed between the lifers and the EMs had now become more like a truce. After hours, they didn’t bother us and we didn’t bother them. They didn’t come into our living areas, unless necessary, and we stayed out of theirs. In other words, the troops could drink their beer, smoke their pot, and do their drugs in their haunts without fear of harassment or being busted. And the lifers could get falling-down drunk in their clubs without our snickering at them as they tripped and fell on their way back to their quarters.”

Frequent observations such as this show that for Stoup and his friends, protest against the war manifested itself as a schism between the ranks. In other words, protest among REMFs focused on daily living conditions.

In 1968 Jim Stroup brought Abbie Hoffman to lecture at Saint Joseph’s College. Stoup was president of the student body, and the FBI interviewed him about his intentions. He says, “Even though I never looked into it, I’m sure the FBI had a file on me.”

Stoup graduated from college in 1969. Certain to be drafted and fearing a sure trip to Vietnam as an infantryman, he enlisted in the Army as an officer candidate, even though commissioning required an additional year of service. Assigned as an infantry officer trainee, he resigned from OCS because he did not want responsibility for “the lives of young men drafted into the Army.”

From that point, he found other detours that bypassed the battlefield. Yet he grooved on meeting “seasoned-looking” soldiers who fought the war. He draws colorful pictures of men he admired for their courage. I especially liked Stoup’s description of one such group displaying “a blatant aberration of military discipline.”

Upon arriving at the 25th Division at Cu Chi, he sold his college education, writing skills, and ability to type ninety words a minute to an NCO and got a job in the Public Information Office.

Although he avoided combat situations, Stoup did go into the field and got in trouble for reporting exactly what he saw. His desire to tell the truth paralleled an incident described by correspondent Jim Smith in his memoir, Heroes to the End.

For one of his first stories, Jim Smith exposed the incompetence and inadequacies of the Combat Training Center. His editor told him to rewrite it or forget it; otherwise, Smith “would suddenly find [himself] slinging hash in a field kitchen in the Delta—at best.”

When Stoup wrote the truth about building a new bridge and its dedication ceremony, his commander told him: “I want you to cut the peace shit out of this story and rewrite it the Army way. And this better be the last time this happens, or you’re going to be spending a lot more time in the field.”

From then on, Stoup followed the party line and received commendations for his writing, along with increased responsibility. True to his contradictory nature, however, he simultaneously became a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Because his editor restricted him from writing about problems such as poor leadership and drug use, Stoup secretly passed privileged information to television network correspondents. Often, it is difficult to understand Stoup’s motivation for his actions, which requires separating his hatred for the war from his hatred for his military superiors.

When the 25th Division rotated home in 1970, Stoup transferred to the 1st Cav at Phuoc Vinh, which was a total contrast to Cu Chi. For example, the Phuoc Vinh division information officer wore shorts and flip-flops to work. Stoup used his “portfolio of writing samples and press clippings” to secure an information specialist MOS.

In that job, his writing earned him a “direct field promotion to Specialist 5th Class (E-5),” and he became honorary editor of the division newspaper. Talent and a cooperative spirit made him a valued member of the Army establishment, although I doubt that he viewed himself in those terms.

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25th Infantry Division HQ at Cu Chi

Throughout his time at Cu Chi and Phuoc Vinh, Stoup and his friends used drugs—mostly pot—practically every night. Stoup describes how other men frequently overdosed on harder drugs. At that stage of the war, the problem was not a “problem” because nobody seemed to care.

A confessed member of the counterculture, Stoup nevertheless accepted two Army Commendation Medals, and on one occasion, filled a foursome for bridge at the Officers’ Club. Furthermore, he credits his leaders with teaching him everything he knew about journalism, which helped him in his post-military career. Most surprising of all, he turned down a forty-one-day drop during a force reduction.

His finest anti-war action took place during his last month in-country at Bien Hoa: he initiated Article 138, UCMJ action that brought positive changes of unexpected magnitudes to REMFs. In the midst of this activity, he questioned his behavior and attitude for the first time: “Was I out of my fucking mind? After all, without proceeding with this action, I’d be on my way home in less than ten days, with little chance of anything happening to me from the dangers of the war to, well, anything else. Was I out of my fucking mind!”

Although Jim Stoup might not agree, I believe he used the military system to benefit himself equally as much as the lifers he detested, which was, of course, justifiable behavior for anyone who did not want to be there in the first place and who was determined to avoid combat.

It takes great strength to row against a ceaseless tide. I admire those who do so. Therefore, I enjoyed Stoup’s story and classify him as a clandestine fighter.

By the way, James, here’s the deal regarding medals: You don’t have to accept them. That type of rejection is a protest. At the end of my twenty years, my boss offered me a Meritorious Service Medal. I wrote to him: “Don’t bother. I’ve already been compensated for my work.”

Or should you and I have said, “I don’t need no stinking medal for doing my everyday job”? Oh well, I must confess that insubordination had already wrecked my “lifer” career.

The author’s website is www.behindthewire-vietnam.com/home.html 

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

A Never-Ending Battle by Howard B. Patrick

Howard B. Patrick’s A Never-Ending Battle: How Vietnam Changed Me Forever (CreateSpace, 208 pp., $10.99, paper) is a classic account of how combat in the Vietnam War resulted in many years of post-traumatic stress disorder that adversely affected his life.This book is a basic primer for anyone unfamiliar with what the combat experience was like for veterans who served in the Vietnam War.  But more importantly, Patrick published his book to help other veterans suffering from PTSD, as well as to provide their families with information, advice, and support.

Howard Patrick was a highly trained IBM computer technician when he received his draft notice in 1967. Of course, the Army ignored those skills and sent him to NCO school. Then came orders to Vietnam, where Patrick was placed in a 1st Cav Division infantry unit—Echo Recon of the 1st of the 5th—as a “new boot” squad leader.

Sgt. Patrick soon was thrust into several heavy combat, which he describes in great detail. After six months with Echo Recon, his platoon walked into an NVA ambush and half of the men were casualties, including the platoon sergeant and platoon leader. Patrick was then named platoon sergeant.

When a shiny new West Point graduate captain ordered Patrick to resume the attack with the remaining exhausted soldiers, he refused. Two weeks later, Patrick was transferred to the 2d Brigade Civil Affairs unit in An Loc. His new duties included Psyops air missions, leaflet distribution, and live audio broadcasts from the air to try to repatriate Viet Cong. Other duties included Medcaps and humanitarian and recreational activities.

Howard Patrick left the Army after serving in Vietnam and returned to his old position at IBM. But he had changed, and over the years his behavior became increasingly dysfunctional.

Howard Patrick in Vietnam

His PTSD began with repressed memories of the war surfacing in nightmares of a helicopter crash he’d survived. Then the flashbacks started. Road rage and panic attacks came next. Patrick’s work efficiency decreased and he began job hopping, eventually filing for bankruptcy. He suffered constant feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, culminating in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, which he hoped would provide a $100,000 insurance benefit to his wife who had stuck with him through it all.

Patrick’s road to recovery from PTSD started when another 1st Cav veteran urged him to get help at a Vet Center. From there, the author progressed to involvement in VA treatment over several years. Patrick lists the complete list of PTSD symptoms—he had most of them. He eventually received 100 percent service-connected disability for PTSD.

This book should be required reading for war veterans wondering if their dysfunctional, erratic behaviors might be due to PTSD. What’s more, every mental health professional who has ever treated (or could ever have) a veteran as a client, also should read this book.

The author’s website is http://howardpatrick.weebly.com

—James P. Coan

First Light by S. Elliot Lawrence

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S. Elliott Lawrence’s First Light: A Novel of Close Combat (CreateSpace, 444 pp., $19.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) closely follows the 1968-69 Vietnam War tour of Lieutenant Kenneth McKenzie. The lieutenant serves with the First Cavalry first as an platoon leader. He fills out the second half of his one-year tour as the Division Protocol Officer. McKenzie grew up in Oregon and the novel often alludes to the Pacific Northwest and his boyhood there.

Lawrence shares the above biography with his character. A Vietnam veteran, he is a retired trial attorney who can write and how knows how to tell a story. His main character is the lowest of Army officers, a second lieutenant. That was rare in Vietnam since most newly minted officers chose extra training before they left the United States, which resulted in them being first lieutenants when they arrived.

Our hero was in a big hurry to get to the First Cav, so he volunteered to go to Vietnam right out of OCS, with no jump school or other foot-dragging exercises.  That’s why he was not highly valued when he arrived in country.

Lt. McKenzie fooled the powers that be, though, by surviving his first few weeks and then months in the field and doing a good job as an infantry platoon leader. His priority was to keep his men alive while also following orders. When orders placed his men at serious risk for no apparent reason, McKenzie butted heads with his commanders. This led to quite a bit of drama in the novel and to the young LT’s reassignment.

Lawrence brings his characters alive—the lieutenant and the enlisted men and officers he served with, both good and not so good. When they die, this reader felt their loss, and believed that the lieutenant felt their loss as well.

Lawrence, center, in Vietnam in 1969

The filth and suffering of being in the field for weeks at a time without clean water, clean clothes, and decent food is well communicated. We encounter such oft-told horrors as ham and lima beans and worse. John Wayne is meantioned, but Audie Murphy surprisingly also is name-checked. REMF’s are also encountered.

Our hero becomes a REMF in the second half of his tour, but that part of the book is not as long as the combat section. The emphasis is the hero’s combat experience, but Lawrence also presents a good, solid representation of the life of a Division Protocol Officer.

I enjoyed this well-told story from beginning to end. My only carping remark would be about some lamentable editing: “heals” for “heels”; “people” for “purple”; and on and on. For those who lack training and experience as an Army stenographer (which I was), perhaps the lack of proofreading will not trouble you, and the excellent story will carry the day. I hope so.

—David Willson

Dear Mom and Dad, Love From Vietnam by Joe Abodeely

Every Vietnam War story has value, even the ones you have heard before. Repetition produces truths. Recently, I read three autobiographies by soldiers who experienced combat in Vietnam during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The best book was whichever one I was reading—the most recent being Dear Mom and Dad, Love from Vietnam (282 pp., $20, paper) by Joe Abodeely, a lieutenant back in the day.

Abodeely’s memory relies heavily on daily journal entries he wrote in-country and long letters he sent to his parents at least weekly. In this memoir he reflects on that material.

He led a platoon in the 1st Cav for five-and-a-half month before transferring to a staff job. Abodeely recorded his proudest achievement in his journal: “Well, I did it. I went through my tour in the field and never lost a man. None killed.”

Abodeely and his always-undermanned platoon engaged in air assaults, sweeps, patrols, ambushes, search and destroy, and search and clear missions, and one time escaped after being surrounded. They “walked in on Highway 9, where no one before could travel because of ambushes” as the first replacements for besieged Marines at Khe Sanh. Shortly thereafter, his platoon was airlifted into the A Shau Valley to support Operation Pegasus.

Often in Vietnam War books, the big picture tends to repeat itself; therefore, vignettes and turns of phrase fascinate me. Abodeely nicely filled those squares. For example: “In a firefight, you did not see a person shooting at you—bushes shot at you. It was ominous. It was as if the NVA were ghosts.”

And: “My point man was a guy we called ‘Hippy.’ He was a lanky guy and had a peace symbol on his helmet. He found the machine gun and an NVA helmet and a bag of raw opium. The NVA used opium for medicinal purposes. I told Hippy to take the bag to turn it in. I never checked to see if he did.”

Abodeely watched an operations officers carrying a dead NCO and reported: “Before he set the dead soldier down on the ground, the body started regurgitating—the involuntary action of the body after death. I had never seen that before. That was another reminder of my mortality.”

Regarding prisoners, Abodeely noted: “First and third platoons captured some VC. The interrogators beat the hell out of the VC who confessed.”

Joe Abodeely at the Arizona Military Museum

Yet he also felt compassion. After an ARVN soldier tortured a young mother suspected of being a VC by kicking her in the face, crushing her milk-filled breasts, and rubbing chili peppers into her eyes, Abodeely took control and returned the baby to the woman. “We moved out with 38 refugees interspersed with the troops,” he writes. “The ‘VC’  girl was falling behind, my platoon sergeant yelled to me that she was: I just let it go. I don’t know if she was a Vietcong, but I thought she had suffered enough.”

Life changed significantly for Abodeely after he switched to S-4 Logistics. He describes his job as “requisitioning, scrounging, and stealing” to obtain material for new buildings at Camp Evans in I Corps. He spent his last two months at Quan Loi, a III Corps hot spot near the Cambodian border. Working on S-3 base defense and landing zone duties, he experienced the war from a new perspective. When half of his former company became casualties in one afternoon, he developed a hint of a political conscience.

The other books about 1968 in Vietnam I mentioned are reviewed on these pages: Gray Horse Troop: Forever Soldiers by Charles Baker (a major) and My Story: Vietnam 1968, 196th Light Infantry Brigade by Gary Lyles (a sergeant).

–Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

 

 

Assignment in Samarra by Frank M. Smart

22222222222222222222222222222Frank M. Smart was drafted into the Army in 1964 and served on active duty for seven years. He arrived in Dong Ha in May of 1968, and was assigned to the First Cavalry Division’s 42nd Public Information Detachment. His MOS was 71Q20, Combat Reporter. He had received his military education at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, the same place I learned to be an Army stenographer. 

Smart’s Assignment in Samarra (Tate Publishing, 192 pp., $12.99, paper) “is a work of fiction,” the author says. It’s a handsome little book, with a title that echoes that of John O’Hara’s first novel, Appointment in Samarra. That echo is all that Smart’s novel has in common with O’Hara’s book, however, other than it also is set in the Middle East. On the first page, the hero gives a short speech about the deja vu of being in another “God forsaken hell hole,” and how he doesn’t want to die to make Islamic fanatics free.

He then expresses disgust for South Vietnam’s ARVN troops, who, he says, were “perfectly willing for me and my fellow soldiers to die to make them free, but they were not necessarily willing to die for it.” The implication is that ARVN troops avoided casualties in South Vietnam. I checked the statistics, and ARVN troops did die, in at least three times the numbers as American troops did.

Frank Smart

I’ve read criticisms elsewhere about the bravery of ARVN troops, but one cannot question their fatalities. Brave or not, they died. Maybe they died hiding under their mothers’ beds, but they did die. It’s a myth that they did not.

Jack Spraggins, the hero of this book, is a Vietnam veteran who gets picked, at a handsome fee, to go to Iraq with a seven-member fact-finding group. They go there to investigate allegations of bribery, graft, and poor workmanship. He and his committee are ambushed and Jack uses his Vietnam-War-honed fighting skills to defeat a large contingent of insurgents with weapons he obtains in a manner that can only be called divine intervention.

Jack is unsure if the cavalry will come in and save him and his cohorts in time. I won’t ruin the suspense, but will say that the reader is told that there will be a sequel with more of Jack’s derring-do. The next time it looks as though he will be going into Southeast Asia to rescue American POWs, which has been a life-long obsession. He knows they are there.

This short thriller will please those who agree with Smart’s vision of the world. He has a lot of positive things to say about Vietnam veterans, always a refreshing change. And he mentions a lot of American icons, including John Wayne, who is quoted non-ironically saying “Saddle Up.”

That’s always a good thing to do in times of crisis.

—David Willson