Eternally at War by Robert Lathrop and Jeanette Vaughan

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Tragedy played a big role in the life of Robert G. “Gene” Lathrop. When he was two years old he witnessed a crashed B-17 engulfed in a tower of flames as high as he could see. The fire was “permanently etched into the synapses of [his] mind,” he said. In his early twenties as a Marine Corps pilot, he ejected from an F9F-8 Cougar fighter jet that disintegrated moments after takeoff. His parachute malfunctioned, and he landed in the airplane’s blazing wreckage. Suffering severe burns and multiple bone fractures, he barely survived. A year later, he arrived in Vietnam.

These scenes comprise the opening act of Eternally at War (Age View Press, 332 pp., $14.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) by Lathrop and Jeanette Vaughan. The book is a memoir put together by Vaughan based on Lathrop’s writing about his past as part of a PTSD recovery program. The pacing of the writing brings events to life in an exceptionally vivid manner. Lathrop’s thoughts and behavior blend realistically, magnifying and complementing the other.

For most of his year in Vietnam, 1968-69, Lathrop flew F-4 Skyhawks with MAG 12, VMA-311 Tomcats at Chu Lai. The unit’s mission sent him into battle over I Corps, the DMZ, North Vietnam, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Primarily, he flew close air support for Marines fighting the North Vietnamese Army.

Chu Lai was the hub of Marine Corps flying in I Corps. While trash-hauling during the time Lathrop was in Vietnam, I crewed on C-130s that occasionally landed at Chu Lai. Everything on the base appeared constantly in motion, or as Lathrop said on his first day there, “It seemed like there was a plane taking off or landing every ten or fifteen seconds.” Judging by what I saw countrywide, Marines never rested.

“Overworked” and “overstressed” perfectly describe Lathrop’s experience with the Tomcats. At times, he flew as many as four missions in twenty-four hours. He took part in or witnessed events more devastating than his crash in the Cougar.

Lathrop saw death and destruction on a daily basis. These events tried his psyche, but his devotion to duty overrode doubts about his actions. “As far as I was concerned,” he said, “when I landed, I lived until I flew again. Nothing would impact me if I could help it. Once I learned to live only for the moment, the stress of war didn’t bother me.”

After seven months in the cockpit and against his wishes, Lathrop became commander of a company that guarded the perimeter of Da Nang Air Base, a move that again proved that every Marine is basically an infantryman.

A turning point in Lathrop’s life began when he returned home after thirteen months in country. “Being home was torture,” he said. He wanted to be left alone and avoided contact with people. After-effects of the injuries he received before going to Vietnam made it progressively more difficult for him to fly, so he resigned his commission in 1970.

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Gene Lathrop

Successfully employed as a forester, he grew increasingly restless and depressed. He divorced his wife, gained custody of the younger of his two sons, and remarried. But the bouts with depression came more frequently and lasted longer and longer.

In 1984 he began to suffer the full effects of PTSD. Flashing back to the war, he experienced mental and physical disorders that transcended the worst he encountered in his fiery crash or in combat. Counseling and hospitalization did not help. Anguish and guilt haunted Gene Lathrop until the day he died from heart failure in 2012.

As a victim of fire, Lathrop repeatedly delivered the same punishment to his enemies in the form of napalm, which formed the core of his guilt. At one point he tells us, “From my very first day in Vietnam, I was conscious of the continual emissions of fire.”

That war-induced recognition dictated the images in his mind and the course of his post-war life.

–Henry Zeybel

The Dark Side of Heaven by Robert G. Lathrop

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Retired Marine Corps Capt. Robert G. Lathrop’s The Dark Side of Heaven (AgeView Press, 68 pp., $24.99), as the title suggests, is a dark book. Lathrop, a former A-4 Skyhawk pilot, arrived in Vietnam during the  1968 Tet Offensive. In fifteen months, he flew more than 275 missions. His squadron, VMA-311, flew 54,625 sorties and dropped some 9 million tons of bombs.

We’re told this record will never be broken. I believe it. This is a book for those who believe that if we’d only dropped more bombs on Vietnam, the outcome of the war would have been different.

Lathrop was tortured by his role in the Vietnam War and he wrote some moving and powerful poems about what he viewed as war atrocities.  “He wrote them to honor the men and women who served,” the book’s collaboration Jeanette Vaughan writes.

The poems often moved me to tears, as did reading Gene Lathrop’s biography and how he spent his time after the war. He was born in Walla Walla, Washington on June 8, 1942.  He graduated from Dayton High School in 1960.  This overlap with my own biography and the skill of his writing, often made me feel as though I could have easily ended up in his shoes.

His being the exact same age as I am—and being born and raised in Washington State—was often on my mind as I read his verses.  The old cliché, “There but fortune go I,” dogged me throughout the book.

After the war, Lathrop endured PTSD and sought treatment at the VA’s American Lake Hospital near Tacoma, Washington, where many of my close friends also have  been treated. Lathrop spent much of his retirement “in periods of solitude,” writing down his memories of his experiences in Vietnam, seeking “answers and meaning to the controversial questions, occurrences and mysteries that took place during the Vietnam Conflict.”

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An A-4 Skyhawk in the skies over Vietnam

Lathrop was a lucky man, in that he married the love of his life, Joy.  “She was his confidant and supporter as PTSD threatened to unravel Gene’s mind and destroy relationships with friends and family.” Gene Lathrop died on June 13, 2012, “while out on his farm doing what he loved, working the land in solitude.”

This small book of verse is dark and honest and tormented. The titles of the thirteen poems include  “As I Lay Dying,” “After Mission 186,” “The Field of Despair,” and “The Phantom Battalion.”  It’s difficult to quote from a book of this sort, so I won’t even try, but the language of war and of pilots has never been served better in any book I’ve read.

“All of the missions described in this work are purely from the imagination of the author,” Vaughan writes. “Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”  Okay, I buy that, but Gene Lathrop paid the dues that made each of the poems seem to me to be the purest of truths.

The pen and ink drawings by Laura Brown and L. Lederman are perfect to support and amplify the poems. This is a book that everyone concerned about the costs of war should read.

—David Willson