No Where Man by Stephen J. Piotrowski

 

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As Stephen Piotrowski makes clear in No Where Man: One Soldier’s Journey Home from Vietnam (450 pp. $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) being in combat for a year is emotionally and physically draining, and the experience of coming home can be no less traumatic and stressful. Piotrowski’s story is like that of countless young veterans who have returned home from a war and found it nearly impossible to let go of what had been an all-consuming time in their lives.

As I read about his struggles I thought that this is what many war veterans need to write, even if it’s just a personal journal, to externalize the emotions and get them out in the open to be dealt with, and ultimately put to rest.

The book starts during the author’s final days as an RTO with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam in 1970, and the beginnings of his alienation as he finds it difficult to decompress in the rear at his battalion’s base camp. From there, his emotions continually erupt as he transitions in little more than twenty-four hours from the war zone to a very, very different world back home.

Anyone coming home from war will recall many of the same feelings and experiences Piotrowski, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, describes as he reluctantly prepared to leave his combat buddies and return to a country where he no longer fit in. Adding to the confusion back home were family and friends who appeared to have little or no interest in what he had undergone or was now going through.

An RTO in the field in Vietnam

One of the most mindless questions he heard again and again—just as many of us have—was, “Did you kill anybody?”

Aside from a brother who had returned from combat the year before, there was practically no one to help him sort out his confusion and alienation. A car mechanic who had been in the Korean War said it was the same for him when he returned. What made it worse was the contemptuous attitude of many World War II veterans who dismissed Korea as a nothing war. That same attitude would be experienced by many of us coming home from Vietnam; hence the founding principle of Vietnam Veterans of America: Never Again Will One Generation of Veterans Abandon Another.

It’s difficult to believe that those who had known war would reject returning war veterans who needed their support. For the author nearly everything seemed so bewildering. Even everyday sounds and sights took on ominous meanings in his mind.

I read each page carefully to catch all his take-aways as confusing sensations arose from things happening to and around him. I kept recalling similar moments that I had when I came home from my war. I can still remember well my involuntary reaction when I was walking to college classes and heard the high-pitched noise of metal on metal made by worn-out brakes. The sound was nearly identical to the final seconds of incoming North Vietnamese artillery rounds fired at us day and night during the battle for Khe Sanh. Who on campus could possibly imagine what was going through my mind at that moment?

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Piotrowski in country

 

This book doesn’t attempt to explain the Vietnam War or describe the battles that were fought. It’s an every-man’s account of one young soldier trying to come to grips with his war and then struggling to bring closure to it.

In the end, Stephen Piotrowski realized that the first giant step for him to leave the war behind was to take control of his life and not wait for others to make the decisions.

It is on that positive note that the book ends.

–John Cirafici

Basic Airman to General by Pete Piotrowski

It’s not easy to become a four-star Air Force general, especially if you start as a basic airman. But Pete Piotrowski did it while giving thirty-seven years and eight months of his life to military service. Anyone who aspires to wearing even one star—or simply to becoming a better leader—should read Basic Airman to General: The Secret War & Other Conflicts: Lessons in Leadership and Life (Xlibris, 717 pp.$26.99, hardcover; $14.95, paper) by General Pete.

The book is a chronological account of the author’s life. The General concludes each chapter with a short list of “Lessons Learned.” (He also provides photos at the end of most chapters.)

The advice reflects many principles taught at Maxwell Air Force Base’s Air University and other advanced military schools in the United States and England—places where Pete Piotrowski studied, along with Harvard. Fundamentally, he writes, “life is a continuum of learning,” and “higher education is essential in the professions.”

That, however, is not the primary message I gleaned from the book. As I see it, General Pete’s secret to success was threefold. He put Air Force needs first in his life. When he saw a problem, he solved it. And he fought for what was best, even if a new way contradicted “how we’ve always done it.”

Along with following those three active attributes, the General practiced an important passive one: He suffered the idiosyncrasies of fools who outranked him. Which leads to the conclusion: “If you won’t follow, you can’t lead.”

General “Pete”

General Pete served in the Air Force from 1952-1990. I served from 1955-1976. I was awed by how perfectly his book captured USAF practices and manners of the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, the time period when our services overlapped. For old readers, the book is a walk down memory lane; for young people, it teaches a history lesson about the pre all-volunteer military.

The book’s first half centers on Captain and Major Pete. As a pilot and munitions officer, he became the First Combat Application Group commander’s go-to-guy in the Jungle Jim program. For three years, he labored over the nuts and bolts of armament and aircraft performance, made two trips to Vietnam, and flew B-26 combat missions that turned theory to practice.

In a follow-on assignment with the Fighter Weapons School, he innovated Walleye delivery tactics that he later validated by busting North Vietnamese bridges. This portion of the book contains a wealth of excellent flying stories.

Following a tour at the Pentagon and below-the-zone promotions, Colonel Pete became commander of the 40th TFG at Aviano. In a down-to-earth style, he explains mistakes he made—and success he achieved—as a rookie commander.

From there, the book focuses on his ever-expanding responsibilities and earth-bound duties. Another below-the-zone promotion started him on fifteen years as a general officer, culminating with Commander in Chief at NORAD and USSPACECOM.

General Pete’s recall of people and actions from long ago is virtually limitless. He must have kept a copy of every piece of paper that crossed his desk. Memory alone seems inadequate to explain the depth of recollections. But his stories are fascinating. And he writes like a pro.

—Henry Zeybel