James Milton Smith, the author of Secrets Brought Home (Amazon Digital Services, 425 pp., $14.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is a former Marine and a graduate of CalPoly.
His novel is about Owen O’Brien, a newly minted Marine Corps lieutenant. O’Brien calls attention to himself at a Marine Corps function by dancing inappropriately with a major’s wife. The major takes exception to the manner of dancing, and O’Brien knocks him to the floor. This event results in O’Brien being “sheep dipped”—removed from the officer corps with his records expunged.
He’s given the pseudo-option of becoming a part of America’s secret war in Laos, being paid at the rate of a Marine Corps captain, but not wearing a uniform. He agrees, and serves as a “paramilitary Case Officer during the years leading up to the Vietnam War.”
Mostly he conducts long range reconnaissance patrols behind enemy lines in the jungles of Laos during the early sixties. The comment, “The jungle was not some romantic place with Martin Denny music playing to jungle sounds in the background,” is typical of the dry wit in this book.
O’Brien conducted patrols with teams of three or four men, “two PARU special guerrilla soldiers and two Hmong soldiers.” They interdict the enemy and observe his strengths, locations and directions of advancement. This activity is like being “stuck to a tar baby Jungian bad dream,” Smith writes. The “secret war in Laos had become a tapeworm in Owen’s gut.”
Owen O’Brien runs these missions in the Golden Triangle for about six months before being badly wounded. President Kennedy was assassinated during his time in Laos when O’Brien becomes “a soldier and a citizen of the world.”
The reader discovers Owen O’Brien’s exploits in Southeast Asia and his boyhood as a foster child in California during extended sessions with his therapist. Owen undergoes therapy in the hope that he get a clean bill of health and leave his PTSD behind—or at least be able to cope with it better.
There is much in this novel about the CIA and the connection to the opium trade. John Wayne is mentioned more than once, and we are given an explanation for the expression “to have seen the elephant,” which is often used in Vietnam War books. It comes, Smith says, from Hannibal, who was given credit for startling the Romans when his elephants crossed the Alps. Action junkies will appreciate that Owen O’Brien sees plenty of the elephant in this book.
This is an erudite book, and is well edited and well written. It is not for the lazy reader. But anyone interested in the secret war in Laos should consider starting with this book. It is written by a man who knows war from the ground level and does not mince words about it.
The author’s website is www.jamesmiltonsmith.com