Walking Point by Robert Kunkel

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As many war veterans have done before him, Robert Kunkel has created a memoir based on short stories he wrote to try to free his mind of haunting memories that caused post-traumatic stress disorder. Along with his own serious physical wounds, Kunkel had several friends killed in action, which ingrained his brain cells with psychological scars for an eternity, he says.

“There are thousands of stories like mine, but each is very different because of perception and what was in the mind at the time of an encounter, whatever that encounter may have been,”  Kunkel notes in Walking Point: A Vietnam Memoir (Thunderbrook, 479 pp. $18.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle).

Bob Kunkel is a savvy guy. His recollections of infantry life are as informative as any Vietnam War memoir I have read. A stickler for detail, he presents an unfiltered view of what took place in his own mind and speculates about the thoughts of others. His descriptions of combat, suffering, and death leave little to the imagination. His stories describe meaningful encounters on and off the battlefield. Bad actors generally receive a comeuppance.

At the same time, many of Kunkel’s stories are humorous. He labels laughter as “a smokescreen to keep from crying.”

He primarily served with B Company, 5th/7th Cavalry in the 1st Cavalry Division, operating out of Camp Radcliff near An Khe. The men of his company were determinedly aggressive against the NVA and Viet Cong during Operations Irving and Thayer in Binh Dinh Province in September and October 1966. The Americans relocated hamlet populations, burned hooches, destroyed food sources, and pursued the enemy with a take-no-prisoners policy. Kunkel reveals both heroics and atrocities performed by his company.

Drafted into the Army earlier that year at the relatively advanced age of twenty-two, Kunkel frequently assumed the role of platoon spokesman by differentiating between what had to be done and what was illogical. He counterbalanced a borderline wise-ass attitude by volunteering for dangerous tasks such as walking point and clearing underground bunkers as a tunnel rat. He was devoted to his fellow soldiers.

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Bob Kunkel

In his first large-scale battle, Kunkel suffered wounds to his head, back, and buttocks. Evacuated to Japan, he spent three painful months convalescing and then willingly returned to the field. Eventually the company commander recognized Kunkel’s inability to carry a full pack due to muscle damage and moved him to guard duty—a job that turned out to be more dynamic than expected.

For several years after returning to civilian life, Kunkel struggled to establish a purpose for his existence. Eventually, he found a “marriage and career made for him,” he explains.

Kunkel spent eighteen years writing Walking Point. He started it in 1999 after retiring from a thirty-three year law-enforcement career. Jean Doran Matua—who owns, publishes, and edits the Tri-County News in Minnesota—helped him with editing and designing the book.

The author’s website is walkingpoint.us

—Henry Zeybel

 

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The Odyssey of Echo Company by Doug Stanton

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Doug Stanton’s The Odyssey of Echo Company: The 1968 Tet Offensive and the Epic Battle of Echo Company to Survive the Vietnam War (Scribner, 337 pp. $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) centers on the author’s quest to help former infantryman Stan Parker answer the most pressing question of his life: “What happened to me in Vietnam?”

In an effort to deal with his post-war emotional problems, Parker sought to find meaning for himself and his fellow U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division soldiers who were killed and wounded during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Days after graduating from high school in 1966, Parker enlisted in the Army. He won jump wings and learned long-range reconnaissance skills. In December 1967, as a volunteer, he arrived in Vietnam, turned twenty, and was assigned to a recon platoon in Echo Company of the 1st Battalion in the 101st’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. The small unit, he says, was “supposed to be the eyes and ears of the battalion, to find the enemy, to probe, size up, and report to the battalion so that the line companies—the ‘line doggies,’ the other grunt soldiers—can come in and fight.”

The recon platoon operated near Cu Chi in the Iron Triangle. For six months, Parker says, “Nothing ever changes, and yet nothing ever is the same.” He went out on many patrols until he was wounded for the third time in May 1968.

Much of the book focuses on killing and remorse, killing and sorrow, and more killing—and pain. Friends and foe alike suffer. By recording grotesque incidents told to him by Parker and other Echo troops, Stanton (the author of the bestsellers In Harm’s Way and Horse Soldiers) captures the essence of Vietnam War combat.

With chilling, detailed accounts, Stanton shows the disintegration of the minds of men repeatedly exposed to injury and death. Anguish, grief, hate, and sorrow filled their days. Shredding other men with gunfire, they rued their task while knowing it was their salvation: kill or be killed. They recognized their actions as counter-intuitive behavior of man toward his fellow man.

Guilt created conflict in the minds of many Echo Company men. Despite their heroic actions, Parker and others questioned the reasons for the war. At the same time the men built a brotherhood, akin to being in “a new fraternity.” Still, those associations did not last beyond the war.

Based on many firefights described in the book, one could call Parker the consummate warrior. He had total intensity toward a mission. He ignored vulnerability and pain. Best of all, he reacted creatively to apparently unsolvable problems.

“War is really about elimination—eliminating, erasing, wasting, greasing, making nonexistent,” he says. “You kill the other guy, until there are more of you than there are of them.”

For several years, Parker’s post-war life was nearly as violent as his time in Vietnam. As a civilian, he reacted to physical threats with unreserved violence.

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Doug Stanton

Parker and Stanton returned to Vietnam in 2013, with Parker still filled with guilt and questions about his and his unit’s role in the war. They visit places where Parker was wounded. Surprisingly, they befriend a former enemy soldier who fought at one of the sites. That brief encounter created a bonding to help Parker find a modicum of relief from the PTSD that had pursued him after the war.

The book developed from a long acquaintanceship between Stan Parker and Doug Stanton. At its heart, it is Parker’s memoir of the start of his military career based on his own words, along with Stanton’s interviews with other Echo Company soldiers, letters from the time, and official reports and records.

The realistic writing style of The Odyssey of Echo Company flows easily and should appeal to military nonfiction fans.

The author’s website is www.dougstanton.com

—Henry Zeybel

Hornet 33 by Ed Denny

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We were flying south of Song Be in our C-130 the first time I heard a helicopter pilot in trouble. He came up on Guard and said, “I’m hit. Going down. Somebody come and get me,” with less emotion than I use to order breakfast.

Beginning with Bob Mason’s groundbreaking Chickenhawk in 1983, Vietnam War helicopter pilots have written memoirs that keep readers on the edges of their seats. Simply flying those cantankerous machines requires the best of anyone, but performing that feat in combat demands skills possessed only by pilots at a level higher than mere human beings. Of course, big balls help, too.

Memoirs by helicopter pilots who saw lots of combat such as Bill Collier, Robert Curtis, Tom Messenger, and Jim Weatherill rank as favorites. Ed Denny has grabbed equal billing with Hornet 33: Memoir of a Combat Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 296 pp.; $29.94, paper; $9.99, Kindle). This memoir tells the story of a draftee who volunteered for a helicopter training and went straight to Vietnam as a Warrant Officer.

Denny wastes no time with background. The book begins with his arrival in Cu Chi in March 1970. Assigned to fly the Huey UH-1H with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company, known as the Hornets, he became a leader within the group.

Denny’s word pictures of battles—particularly a large-scale friendly fire fuck-up during the opening day of the May 1970 Cambodian invasion—should erase any vestige of “the glory of war” from the minds of sane readers. He did and saw things that far exceeded normal levels of fighting, suffering, and killing, and describes many gory scenes. In one case, his description of a shattered and dying woman that he rescued reaches a graphic pitch almost beyond belief. Similarly, his actions during Operation Lam Son 719 in February and March of 1971 begin as a classic history lesson but evolve into another bloody and inhuman tale.

Denny’s imagination was his worst enemy. In daylight, because his commander taught him to “just take it” when the world exploded around his helicopter, Denny did not think past the moment. At night, however, he couldn’t ignore dreams flooded by gore. Predicated on the day’s latest horror, his imagination created nightmares that made Dante’s Inferno look like a Sunday school picnic. Despite therapy, imagination of his own painful death pursues him to this day.

Treatment for PTSD gave birth to Hornet 33. Denny wrote eighty-five true stories to expose the trauma of his war experiences for others to see. Guided by a desire to eliminate redundancy, he distilled those stories down to forty-five chapters, most of which concern combat and flying.

“How many times can a person say that the bastards tried to shoot me again and missed by a couple of inches one more time,” he rhetorically asks.

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Ed Denny in front of the Denton, Texas, County All-War Memorial – photo by Jeff Woo, Denton Record-Chronicle

Along with telling combat stories, Denny deals with with drugs, fragging, prostitution, Donut Dollies, R&R, PTSD, returning home, and Americal Division tactics. The Hornets flew with both the 25th Infantry at Cu Chi and 101st Airmobile Division at Chu Lai, thereby seeing first hand the difference between good and bad leadership. Denny’s opinions are highly personalized and do not follow the logic usually associated with these subjects.

Ed Denny has a way with words, using fresh similes and metaphors, few clichés, and conveying a sense of awe and wonder. The book tightly held my attention from start to finish.

The author’s website is hornet33.com

—Henry Zeybel

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

What Have We Done by David Wood

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In What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars (Little, Brown, 304 pp., $28, hardcover; $14.99, E book), David Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and war correspondent, thoughtfully and often startlingly shows that men and women who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were well-prepared for “the art of war,” but woefully ill-equipped to deal with what the psychiatrist Jonathan Shay calls “moral injury” in his 1995 book, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.

“The U.S. involvement in Vietnam was a watershed in our understanding of war trauma,” Wood writes, “but because several of the indicators of PTSD—anxiety, depression, anger, isolation, insomnia, self-medication—are shared with moral injury, it took time for therapists and researchers to unbraid the two.”

Wood’s interviews with deployed troops strongly illustrate what he calls “the loss of a warrior’s moral guidepost.” Describing Marine Cpl. Sendio Martz whose patrol was hit by a command-detonated device in Afghanistan, for example, Wood notes that men in the patrol suffered mild traumatic brain injuries and assorted other injuries. “But the moral damage was worse than that,” he writes, because Martz and his men broke an unwritten rule by befriending an Afghan boy.

Martz reported that “the boy eventually would turn in villagers’ weapons, and would point out places where IED’s had been placed. Then one day the boy disappeared—and a few days later came the IED blast. Soon they found out it was the boy himself who set off the charge.”

The moral repercussions of the boy’s betrayal surfaced later. “Back home at Camp Lejeune,” Wood writes, “Sendio found himself replaying the IED blast detonated by the kid over and over in his mind.” Wood has conducted many interviews like this, revealing the distinction between PTSD and moral injury.

Another distinction Wood discovered while with the Marines in Afghanistan centers on chain of command. Wood reports that “higher ranks (referred to, usually not fondly, as “Higher”) make strategy, write doctrine, and devise tactics.” The lower ranks, which Wood calls “the blue-collar, working class of the military,” are “mostly young, mostly enlisted soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines who are the infantry grunts, the trigger pullers, the wrench turners, the watch standers, the tank drivers, the helicopter crewmen, the medics.”

The book includes statistics that may appear as dry as a Social Science textbook, yet behind every stat is a human element. Comparing this century’s conflicts with those of  previous years, Wood writes: “These new wars also threw young troops into legal and moral swamps that GIs of past wars could hardly imagine.” Even “attempting to follow the rules could lead to sickening self-recrimination.

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David Wood

“Lieutenant Colonel Rob Campbell commanded a cavalry squadron in eastern Afghanistan. One night, Campbell said, overhead surveillance showed what looked like a team of insurgents planting IED’s beside a road. Certain that [the Rules of Engagement] and international law had been satisfied, the staff called in a strike, killing the civilians who were actually farmers planting seeds. ‘It was horrible, something I’ll have to live with,’ Campbell said.”

Wood cites one instance in which a soldier who happened to be an atheist incurred moral injury almost immediately after an action in which he killed an Iraqi insurgent. “The soldier was near the end of his deployment so killing was not new to him,” Wood writes. “What was new was the circumstance. ”

The soldier “found the dead man’s wallet and opened it. Inside, a weathered snapshot of a man posing with several women and children. The man in the picture now lay dead at his feet. So he felt guilty about that.”

Atheist or not, this soldier suffered a moral injury, one of many masterfully recorded in this book.

The author’s website is davidwoodjournalist.com

—Curt Nelson

 

 

 

Kissing the Tarmac by James Hansen

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James Hansen in Vietnam in 1968

The wonder of it all never ceases: Young men go to war, survive unimaginable trauma, come home emotionally troubled, and struggle to get on with their lives. Draftee James Hansen’s memoir—Kissing the Tarmac: Winning the War With PTSD (Stories To Tell, 164 pp. $14.95, paper)—is the latest book written by a veteran who found it difficult to understand how and why he deserved to live through the Vietnam War.

During nine months of search-and-destroy missions, Hansen says that he accumulated a burden of “sorrow, regret, shame, and guilt.” Forty-nine men from his unit —Charlie Co., 2/501st Infantry, 101st Airborne—died in action during 1968-69 when Hansen served

Luck played an inordinate role in Hansen’s survival, a fact that he fully recognizes. He graphically describes how men died around him and in his arms while he remained relatively untouched physically. Every death, however, added to the emotional toll. Decades passed before he began to understand and work on the psychological effects of his post-traumatic stress disorder.

In civilian life, Hansen filled all the squares: He married, found success in his work, and built a family. At the same time, though, he felt restless, frequently changed jobs, moved from town to town, drove his wife to a divorce, and abandoned his family.

Hansen wastes no words in recalling the past. He tells what he did and what he saw in combat without seeking sympathy or understanding from the reader. He takes a similar approach to his PTSD. Overall, the book fulfills its goals: first, to cure Hansen, and second, to offer a plan of relief for others confronted by PTSD.

“There’s nothing groundbreaking here in the field of PTSD research,” he writes, “but these ten steps worked for me.” Writing the book was a big part of the treatment that helped to rid him of suppressed anxiety.

Hansen also wrote the book for his two sons and three grandsons, with whom he “never shared anything about the Vietnam War until now.” An in-country diary that he calls the Little Red Notebook and 224 letters  he wrote home served as guides to his recalling the war as part of PTSD counseling. That material had sat untouched in storage for decades.

It is easy to find interest in Hansen’s accounts of searching for the NVA. He jumps from one sudden, unexpected action to another. Although he describes much that has been written about before, he presents those events in a unique voice that makes them special to him. The mercilessness shown by men in his unit appalled him, for example, and yet he admits to having behaved in equally merciless ways.

In Vietnam, James Hansen was a young man within a man searching amid chaos to find an identity. He ended up lost and required most of his life after coming home to reach that goal.

For ordering info, send an email to hansen22769@aol.com

The author’s blog is jameshansen.wordpress.com

—Henry Zeybel

Tribe by Sebastian Junger

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I first read Sebastian Junger’s important essay, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (Twelve, 192 pp., $22, hardcover; $12.99, e book) in a shorter form in the June 2015 Vanity Fair under the title, “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield.” Junger is best-known for his 1997 creative nonfiction book The Perfect Storm. and for directing the Afghanistan War documentary, Restrepo. Tribe, a small book with large margins and big print, is moving and important beyond its size.

Junger is that messenger who brings bad news. Bad news we need to hear and to listen to. Bad news that brought tears to my eyes in the reading.

As Karl Marlantes, the former Vietnam War Marine lieutenant who wrote the novel Matterhorn, says on the jacket: “Sebastian Junger has turned the multifaceted problem of returning veterans on its head. It’s not so much about what’s wrong with the veterans, but what’s wrong with us. If we made the changes suggested in Tribe, all of us would be happier and healthier. Please read this book.”

Junger brings to light several aspects of modern military service that differ markedly from how it was during the Vietnam War when the military draft was a fact of life for every young American man. Voluntary service today, he writes, “has resulted in a military population that has a disproportionate number of young people with a history of sexual abuse.” He goes on to explain that military service is an easy way for young people to get out of their homes. One result is that the military draws an imbalance of recruits from troubled families.

“This was not true during the draft,” Junger says. And this state of affairs, Junger and others believe, has driven up the military suicide rate.

 

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Junger

Speaking of PTSD, Junger notes that even “among the regular infantry, danger and trauma are not necessarily connected.” Rear-based troops, on the other hand, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War “had psychological breakdowns at three times the rate of elite front-line troops, relative to the casualties suffered.” That’s because, he says, the troops with rear-echelon jobs did not get intensive training nor the exposure to danger that creates unit cohesion and therefore generally did not develop strong emotional bonds in their units.

Junger also directly addresses the problems that infect America today—the vast gulf between two sides in a culture war. “It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary,” he writes, with “rampage shootings happen[ing] so regularly that they only remain in the news cycle for a day or two.”

As Karl Marlantes advises, read this little book for advice on what we can do to remedy what has afflicted America. There are no easy answers.

Junger’s website is sebastianjunger.com

—David Willson