The Rakkasans by Andrew Robbins

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Andrew Robbins’ stimulatingly dismal reflections on military life and combat triggered my entire repertoire of WTF reflexes. His book, The Rakkasans (December 1967 through October 1969): A Vietnam Veteran’s Memoir (CreateSpace, 298 pp. $18.95, paper) rounds up—and convicts—the usual suspects.

Robbins served in Vietnam with the 3rd Battalion/187th Infantry Regiment, aka the Rakkasans (“Parachutists” in Japanese), in the 101st Airborne Division. He confronted two big problems . First, he questioned the purpose of the war. Second, he despised the lack of leadership and battle skills of his officers. At one point, Robbins says, he seriously sought a sergeant’s approval to shoot a junior lieutenant who could not read maps and frequently became lost.

A teenage enlistee from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Robbins paid close attention during basic training, infantry AIT, and Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol school. Beyond that, while helping train reserve officers, he sat in their classes and learned combat tactics, mastering map reading. In his spare time, he “devoured writings on guerrilla warfare and Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Chiang Kai-shek, Ho Chi Minh, and Che Guevara,” he says.

In Vietnam, along with taking part in many search-and-destroy missions, Robbins fought in three large engagements: Operation Rakkasan Chaparral in March 1968, Ap Trang Dau, and Fire Support Base Pope, both in September 1968. He describes the action in vivid detail . Between the first and second engagements, he spent three months locked up in Long Binh Jail. Upon returning to his unit, he voluntarily extended his combat tour.

Self-confidence based on his study of the guerrilla mentality prompted him to question superiors when they devised risky or incomplete operational plans. His habit of questioning authority led to the court-martial in a trial during which he was barred from the courtroom.

The book describes many Vietnam War leadership practices that defy reason. Robbins saw how irrational leaders destroyed esprit and caused unnecessary deaths. He provides example after example of avoidable combat disasters to prove his point. Based on his observations, the foremost goal of officers in-country seems to have been winning command positions to advance their careers. Victory was secondary. Furthermore, the way the military gave out medals to officers damaged military valor, Robbins says. He spends a chapter demeaning the combat awards of generals that he cites by name.

Robbins’ blunt complaints are supported by operation orders, daily entries in duty officer logs, eye-witness accounts, excerpts from the Abrams Tapes, other personal narratives, and his letters from Vietnam to his mother. His research reveals cover-ups of events that might have damaged officers’ careers and false battle claims such as inflated body counts.

The book takes on a tone of international intrigue after Robbins meets “SBC” (his moniker for a unidentified “Skinny Black Contractor”) and Mr. Q. while in LBJ. Based on Robbins’ map reading skill, LRRP training, and familiarity with firearms, the two mysterious men unexpectedly and without explanation enlisted him for secret missions.

Long after the war when Robbins worked for the Department of Defense, he met SBC at the Pentagon. Their conversation then proved equally as mystifying as their relationship had been in Vietnam. SBC related complicated ideas that finally showed Robbins the true purpose of the war. His explanation gives an entirely new dimension to Southeast Asia. At least that is how I read it.

To clarify a long-ago war for present generations, Robbins includes two appendices in The Rakkasans. The first reviews Vietnamese history. The second explains the influence Ho Chi Minh exerted on his nation. Robbins’ message: Vietnam’s savior built a dictatorship using imported revolution.

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Andrew Robbins

Following the account of his time in Vietnam, Robbins applies a logical approach to long-term health care by calmly discussing the war-incurred medical problems for which he sought treatment from the VA: malaria, hearing loss, exposure to Agent Orange, impaired vision, and Post-traumatic stress disorder. Unproductive encounters with VA doctors and administrators—as well as unreasonable policies that hindered his treatment—eventually reduces his logical argument to an emotional one unfavorably comparing the VA to “real hospitals” and “true medical” facilities.

He sums up years of unfulfilled VA medical care, particularly for PTSD, by saying: “I tried the VA’s mental health program and found it to be a complete failure. VA treatment is unreliable, inhumane and not in any patient’s best interest.”

In 2004, Robbins wrote It Took My Breath Away: One Man’s Experience May Save Your Life, an investigation into problems associated with working in toxic environments.

Robbins’ web site is http://www.therakkasans.com/page-4/

—Henry Zeybel

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Vietnam Veterans Unbroken by Jacqueline Murray Loring

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In 2010, working in conjunction with a Vietnam War veterans group in Hyannis, Massachusetts, Jacqueline Murray Loring began studying the resiliency of Vietnam vets and their assimilation into the American social structure after coming home.

Loring, a poet and writer of stage plays, movie scripts, and articles, labels herself a “non-military writer.” She wholeheartedly acknowledges the support she received from the group’s Director of Counseling, Jack Bonino.

With Bonino’s help, she compiled interviews and writings from seventeen Vietnam War veterans (including her husband) to broaden her understanding of how they overcame the trauma of exposure to combat. Seven of her subjects served in the Marine Corps; eight in the Army; and two in the Navy.

Loring’s research culminated with her new  book, Vietnam Veterans Unbroken: Conversations on Trauma and Resiliency (McFarland, 212 pp. $29.95, paper).

This book resembles other Vietnam War memoirs that provide the life stories of a group of veterans who enlisted or were drafted from the same region and returned there following their military service. However, rather than providing complete memoirs one after another, Loring separates each person’s experiences into four parts that she then collects into the following groupings:

  • Growing Up in America and Arriving in Vietnam
  • Coping with Coming Home
  • Post-Traumatic Stress
  • Resiliency and Outreach

That structure helps the reader distinguish similarities and differences among the interviewees at four critical junctures in each of their lives.

The veterans—one woman and sixteen men—provided information in a questionnaire that is not included in the book. Their most common problem was the inability to speak about their war experiences. In general, civilians were not interested in stories of what the returnees had done overseas; likewise, most returnees did not want to talk about their experiences, which compounded their emotional problems.

The veterans describe their common feelings in everyday life: anxiety, depression and hopelessness, sleeplessness, anger and rage, nightmares and flashbacks, and suicidal thoughts or attempts. They talk about dealing with emotions that intensified low-level confrontations at home, in the work place, and in therapy. The depth and duration of their therapy to treat PTSD far surpassed what I had imagined.

Loring presents the facts and allows readers to reach their own conclusions about psychological outcomes. I concluded that the returnees’ major need was social acceptance and a method to unravel their innermost feelings, a task for which they received virtually no support.

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Jacqueline Murray Loring

That might sound like self-evident truth, but more than anything else, Loring’s book reconfirms how long it took for doctors and counselors to recognize the long-term psychological damage inflicted by the Vietnam War. Fortunately, these veterans found the resilience to construct at least a semblance of normal existences.

Although Loring’s work focuses on Vietnam War veterans, her findings will help those who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As one of the Marines interviewed for the book put it: “The young kids coming home today are facing the same quandary.”

Overall, the book is cathartic. It includes no battle scenes. It mainly displays the resiliency of a small group of veterans who paid a steep psychological toll for serving their country.

The book’s page on the author’s website is jacquelinemurrayloring.com

—Henry Zeybel

10 Cents and a Silver Star by Bruce D. Johnson

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I’ve been waiting many years to read a novel of the Vietnam War and its lasting impact that is as enjoyable as Bruce D. Johnson’s 10 Cents and a Silver Star… A Sardonic Saga of PTSD  (Edit Ink, 386 pp., $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle )

Johnson begins his book with the main character, also named Bruce Johnson, pretty casually receiving a Silver Star. It’s 1969 and he is awarded the medal for actions he took while fighting in South Vietnam’s III Corps with Army’s the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Specialist Johnson gets no comfort from the medal, believing it to be the result of some “bureaucratic blunder.” He’s pretty sure it was actually intended for his best friend, Bill Hastings, who died in Johnson’s arms while they were engaged in combat.

In that way, his sense of survivor’s guilt becomes even more complicated by receiving a medal he is sure was meant for his buddy. Johnson’s actions during the firefight may have been worthy of a Silver Star, but he was so stoned at the time that he has no idea and certainly doesn’t think so.

Johnson considers the Vietnam War to be “the insane asylum of this planet,” and notes that actions taken by American troops in Vietnamese villages sometimes made those soldiers appear to be “the Peace Corps in reverse.”

The story is told by someone who apparently has determined that life is merely time filled with one absurd incident after another. Johnson is sent to a Fire Support Base for just one day but a misunderstanding keeps him there for six weeks. That’s long enough for his original unit to consider him missing and for his parents to be notified.

Or maybe they weren’t. You can’t be sure if all the things that are supposedly happening in the book are actually happening. It leads you to constantly wonder what is real in this fictional world and what isn’t. So this is not a book you just read, but one you’re forced to engage with, which isn’t a bad thing.

After his year in Vietnam, with the war basically over “except for the shooting,” Johnson returns home to Chicago. He has that Silver Starl which he’s been told will get him a cup of coffee anywhere—if he also has a dime.

It turns out, though, that the medal serves as almost a good-luck charm. It opens up many doors and provides many opportunities that would not have been available to him otherwise. Yet he constantly struggles with the realization that the medal really isn’t his, and belongs to his best friend who paid the ultimate price for it.

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Bruce Johnson

Johnson decides to locate the parents of Bill Hastings and present the medal to them.

 

This novel is written in a hilarious fashion. It’s not often that I laugh out loud when I read something, yet I did several times while reading this book. It’s filled with jokes that keep coming at you in machine-gun style, probably averaging three a page, and at least eighty percent of them work.

They work because—as funny as they are—you are constantly reminded of what the source of the humor is. It’s an attempt to deal with (and make sense of) a world and an existence that is often cold, cruel, and senseless.

Bill McCloud

Thank You For Your Service: Battling PTSD by Richard Baker

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Richard Baker served with the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division Band in Vietnam from 1966-67. He and I were in Vietnam at exactly the same time, but we did very different things. He didn’t spend much time playing in the band, but learned how to fight a war he knew nothing about. He was wounded twice and has battled PTSD since he came home. Thank You for Your Service: Battling PTSD (387 pp. $15, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is about that battle and it is a very interesting one.

I didn’t expect the book to be about boxing, but that is what it largely turned out to be. It’s also about suicide, music, nightmares, and sex.

Baker is tempted to tell the Vietnamese, he writes, that he was “happy to be involved in killing over a million people from a 3rd world country who wanted the freedom to govern their own country and to help save our democracy and way of life by keeping those vicious, evil, forces from rowing across the Pacific to sling a few arrows at the West Coast. Had I not gone, I would have been sent to prison.  Such is the life in an American democracy.”

The above paragraph is a fair example of what Baker has to say in this book. He is careless with punctuation, but careful with ideas. This is a beautiful book, filled with poetry and philosophy and should be read by everyone who plans to enter the military. The book is a warning and a rant about America and how we have treated the rest of the world.

I enjoyed every page of this book, just as I enjoyed the more than a dozen other books of Baker’s that I have read that relate the American war in Vietnam. Richard Baker has written more than two dozen books, including Shellburst Pond, Janus Rising, Shattered Visage, Feast of Epiphany, Gecko, Smoke Tales, The Last Wire, The Flag, The Last Round, Siege at Dien Bien Phu and Cow Bang.

He starts off this latest book with a short essay on how boxing and war relate. Boxers and soldiers often share a common social status, he notes. They come from the middle to lower classes and occasionally constitute the bottom stratus. Food for thought.

Buy this book and Richard Baker’s other books. You will have invested your money well.

—David Willson

One for the Boys by Cathy Saint John

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Cathy Saint John’s One for the Boys: The Poignant and Heartbreaking True Story of SGT John W. Blake, a Newfoundlander from Canada who Volunteered and Served in the Vietnam War (Sinjin Publishing, 457 pp. $22.95, hardcover; $9.95, Kindle) is a tribute to the author’s brother, John W. Blake, who joined the U.S. Army and served eighteen months in the Vietnam War.

The book is made up of five main parts, each of which could stand on its own. The first covers Blake’s time in the Vietnam war, from January 1970 to August 1971. Serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Sgt. Blake received a Bronze Star and suffered wounds from grenade shrapnel three different times.

Using her brother’s journals, Saint John says he “witnessed atrocities that were horrid, criminal behaviors and actions completely against his training as a soldier and as a human being that shocked him to his inner core.”

Blake estimated that he took part in 70-100 incidents in which he had a high probability of being killed, and that at least fifteen of his buddies were killed in combat. He also wrote of experiencing “airport assaults from protesters” when he returned home.

Once Blake was in Canada, he wouldn’t speak to family about his war experiences, though his sister writes that it quickly became clear he had “died spiritually and emotionally in Southeast Asia.”

Blake moved to the United States in 1976 thinking he would find more “understanding and acceptance” here than he had in Canada. He also hoped to find some meaning from his war experiences.

The book’s second part deals with John Blake’s seven-month solo walk across the United States to draw attention to the service of Vietnam War veterans. He wore out six pairs of boots walking in uniform and carrying an American flag from Washington state to Washington D.C.

That 3,200-mile trek was planned to coincide with the November 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He called his the walk, “Mission at Home 1982, One for the Boys.” He also described it as his “long journey home.”

The third part describes Blake doing volunteer work as an advocate for Vietnam War veterans that ends with him fighting his own losing battle with PTSD. He took his own life in 1996. A note he left behind said, in part, “I’ve always been wondering where the boys went—I think I’ll go looking for them now.”

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The fourth section of the book covers his family’s five-year struggle to have his cremated remains accepted for burial in a military cemetery in Newfoundland. The final part describes Saint John communicating with, and meeting several, of the men who had served alongside her brother in Vietnam.

John Blake often expressed his feelings through poetry and hoped someday to write a book about his experiences. The task ended up falling to his younger sister. She has served him well.

Cathy Saint John wrote this book for family members too young to have known John Blake. It also serves, more generally, as an exploration of the general causes and effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

–Bill McCloud

Zero to Hero by Allen J. Lynch

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Allen J. Lynch’s Zero to Hero: From Bullied Kid to Warrior (Pritzker Military Museum & Library, 370 pp. $25) is a well-crafted, well-edited, and well-presented book.

In it, Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient Allen Lynch takes us from his childhood in industrial South Side Chicago, through multiple high schools he attended in Illinois and Indiana, and to a memorable Army experience. While life at home growing up was good, Lynch also went through many school-bullying episodes, causing low self-esteem and loneliness issues that haunted him for decades.

After high school graduation in 1964, college was not in his future, so after a few no-growth jobs, Lynch decided that the military offered the best way out of the neighborhood. He joined the Army and in the book tells of his military schooling and deployments. In Germany he decided that an assignment to Vietnam would realize his objective of becoming a warrior.

Lynch takes us through his moves in-country and then to his permanent assignment with the 1st Cav in the Tam Quan area of Binh Dinh Province in the Central Highlands. There he recounts his combat activities, including what happened during a December 15, 1967, firefight when his courageous efforts under fire rescuing fellow troopers resulted in Allen Lynch being awarded the Medal of Honor in 1970.

Upon returning to the States, Lynch’s planned Army career was truncated by family circumstances. With his father’s health declining, he stepped away from the military. He met, courted, and married the love of his life, Suzie. They had three children and remain together to this day.

Lynch later rejoined the Army through the Reserves, rising to the rank of 1st Sergeant. In a series of civilian jobs he worked as a Veterans Benefits Counselor for the VA, and later counseled veterans on employment opportunities.

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Allen J. Lynch

In his book Lynch does not shy away from describing what he calls “the dragon,” post-traumatic stress disorder, which he has had since returning from Vietnam.

He mostly dismissed the symptoms when they first appeared, but later realized he had PTSD, sought therapy, and received “the tools first to keep PTSD in check and then to defeat it when it reared its ugly head.”

In short, this is a very readable offering from a very humble—and ultimately successful—Vietnam War hero.

–Tom Werzyn

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