Former Vietnam War correspondents Joseph L. Galloway and Marvin J. Wolf have combined forces to write a book with a little-traveled approach to telling the stories of those who took part in that war. They Were Soldiers Once: The Sacrifices and Contributions of Our Vietnam Veterans (Thomas Nelson Books, 416 pp. $34.99, hardcover and audio book; $14.99, Kindle) includes the in-country experiences of 49 people who took part in the war, but also delves into what those men and women have done with their lives since then. That is the most captivating factor of this book
Galloway was a United Press International combat correspondent in Vietnam. He’s best known for his collaboration with Lt. Gen. Hal Moore on the book We Were Soldiers Once… and Young. Galloway is also known for putting down his camera, picking up a rifle, and helping fight off the NVA during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965—and for receiving the Bronze Star for that courageous act.
Co-author Wolf served as the Public Information Officer for the 1st Air Cavalry at An Khe. Among a plethora of other books, Wolf co-wrote Buddha’s Child: My Fight to Save Vietnam with the Nguyen Cao Ky, the controversial former South Vietnamese prime minster, and Abandoned in Hell: The Fight to Save Vietnam’s Firebase Kate, with the hero of that fight, William Albracht.
They Were Soldiers has an obligatory A-list of Vietnam War veterans filling its pages. Among them are former Army nurse Diane Carlson Evans, the founder of the Vietnam Womens Memorial; film director Oliver Stone; former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Colin Powell; and Sen. Max Cleland.
What makes this even more worth the read, though, are the profiles of lesser-known veterans. People such as Paul Longgrear, a Baptist pastor, who said of his service in Vietnam: “I really didn’t mind going. I wanted to see the world. I was pretty wild at that time. Really wild, to be honest.”
Burbank, California resident, Don Ray, a permanent fixture at veterans’ events in that city, is another fascinating addition to the book. Ray was a dog handler stationed near the Cambodian border was attached to the Soc Trang Civil Action Group. “When the Sergeant in charge of the unit and the veterinarian were both arrested for black-marketeering, he suddenly found himself in the role of the detachment’s acting veterinarian technician,” Galloway and Wolf write. After the war, Ray’s passion for research led him to a career in broadcast journalism at KNBC-TV in Burbank.
In addition to those who donned the uniform in Vietnam, others people profiled in the book served in civilian capacities. The International Voluntary Services (IVS), erroneously thought to be an arm of the CIA at one point, sent people to Indochina to counter communism in a nonviolent way.
Retired North Carolina State University English Professor and poet John Balaban, a pacifist who struggled with his draft board, as recounted in his book Remembering Heaven’s Face, telling them, “If you don’t believe me, send me to Vietnam.” They did. Balaban, another very appropriate addition to They Were Soldiers, served with IVS as an English professor at Can Tho University. But being a pacifist did not preclude him from experiencing the Vietnam War’s death and destruction.
Vietnam veterans have suffered the indignities of being labeled the first to lose a war, drug abusers, baby killers, and the like. Many a Hollywood film and TV shamefully added to that erroneous image. The truth is that an overwhelming majority of Vietnam War veterans, much like their World War II veteran parents, came home from their tours, fit back into their communities, went to college or back to work, married, had children, and continue to make the USA the great country it is today.
Joe Galloway and Marvin Wolf’s They Were Soldiers goes a long way to illustrate that. Their book will greatly enhance the libraries of Vietnam War veterans, students of the war, journalists who reported on it, as well as J School students of today.
–Marc Phillip Yablonka