My War & Welcome to It by Tom Copeland

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Like most teenagers of the time, Tom Copeland had no burning desire to fight in the Vietnam War. But he was drafted into the Army and served for a year in Vietnam with the 1st First Infantry Division. His tour of duty in the war is the centerpiece of  My War and Welcome To It (Sunbury Press, 191 pp. $$19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), which is written in a voice ranging from youthful humor and wonderment to one of great fear of being killed. He prefaces this autobiography by saying: “I was aged beyond my years. I became an old man before my time.”

Copeland describes his life growing up in Southeastern New Mexico, mostly outdoors; getting drafted in August 1966; going through infantry AIT; operating from Lai Khe with a ground surveillance team with the Big Red One’s 2nd Battalion/2nd Regiment in 1967-68; and returning home and working his way up a corporate ladder. The last part was the most difficult.

He  describes military life largely by concentrating on the good and bad behavior of men of all ranks. Copeland highlights individualists such as a trainee who got away with impersonating the boot camp commander and drill sergeants, even in their presence.

He saw plenty of action, including fighting Viet Cong forces at Prek Loc II and Phu Loi, in the Ong Dong Jungle during Operation Paul Bunyan, and at Ong Thanh. Copeland writes in detail about the wounded and dead-and-maimed bodies in only one of those operations, Ong Thanh. That battle, he says, “marked a change in the way I saw the war and the value of human life.”

After the war, Copeland suffered decades of emotional stress involving his family, work, and schools without recognizing that he had post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2003, his nephew displayed PTSD symptoms following three deployments to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Copeland forced the young man to seek medical help. That’s when he realized he had the same emotional problems and went to the VA for treatment.

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Tom Copeland in country

In 2013, Tom Copeland went back to Vietnam to try to ameliorate the negative effects of combat that lingered within him. He and other Vietnam War veterans placed commemorative plaques and flowers at battle sites where friends had been killed.

The book’s concluding chapter is a deeply insightful distillation of the trauma serving in the Vietnam War inflicted on him. He closes that section—and the book—by letting us know that the war is still with him.

“Don’t think for a minute I have forgotten those things that took place years ago,” he writes, “They have just become easier to live with.”

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

Appalachian Free Spirit by Duke Talbott

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Irwin D. “Duke” Talbott says that his 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War amounted to a prolonged nightmare. He encountered increasingly inhumane and intolerable situations that separated him from normal behavior. Those traumatic experiences included seeing naked prisoners locked in bamboo cages cowering in the fetal position; consoling a witness to the murder of women and children at My Lai; and surviving sustained bombardments of LZ Bronco.

Talbott’s Vietnam War experiences are the centerpiece of his memoir, Appalachian Free Spirit: A Recovery Journey (Balboa Press, 266 pp. $35.95, hardcover; $17.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), which also includes his account of salvaging his life from PTSD and addictions. Talbott also includes letters he wrote to his parents from Vietnam and earlier from Somalia where he was a Peace Corps volunteer.

His stories about Somalia are entertaining and meaningful. Heading a school building project provided profound self-satisfaction. On the other hand, his exposure to war’s violence began during his Peace Corps days in Africa when he went to Yemen and found himself in the midst of several gun battles during a period of civil unrest.

Talbott sandwiches his Vietnam War stories between detailed accounts of his West Virginia upbringing and his college-oriented, post-war life. Describing his first “big gulp” of whisky in his mid-teens, he says: “My whole being glowed in the aftermath.” He also fondly recalls memories of Darvon. It was in Vietnam, he says, that he “first learned to mix alcohol, grass, and pills for maximum effect.”

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Duke Talbott

The Twelve Step Program was Talbott’s compass to finding emotional freedom, and he details every step he took. He explains that his escape from self-destruction followed a path available to everyone. He bases his message on logic and inspiration from God.

Our society overflows with people willing and capable of helping addicts, he says, and finding them is infinitely rewarding. He clearly convinced me that one’s strongest enemy in a battle for emotional independence is one’s own ego.

After earning a Ph.D. in history from West Virginia University, Duke Talbott taught at several colleges, including his alma mater, Marshall University in Huntingon, West Virginia, and West Virginia Weslyan. He is a Professor Emeritus of History at Glenville State College in West Virginia. His expertise focuses on Africa. From 2009-13 he served as the mayor of Elkins—West Virginia, of course.

—Henry Zeybel

Fifty Years in a Foxhole By Charles Kniffen

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Fifty Years in a Foxhole (Sunbury Press, 266 pp. $19.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is an account of Charles Kniffen’s seven months in the Vietnam War with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in 1966.  It is also a mosaic of the years since the war and the author’s struggles with PTSD. Kniffen writes with a rich style that has very vivid descriptions.

Some examples: “The Chief and I lounged like lizards in our bunker, playing with rats, chewing pineapple, and relaxing in the silence of the moment. Any time nothing is happening is a good time.” and “Or he’d manage to stay out of harm’s way, which was a tall order in these parts. Harm was as abundant and slick as a weasel in a tub of duck necks.”

I found two of Kniffen’s Vietnam War stories particularly well done. The first is about an ambush with a newbie named Henderson. Kniffen describes the noises in the jungle at night and the fear that NVA sappers were getting ready to attack. The choice was whether to blow the ambush or be quiet and hide. The second story involves Operation Prairie Map during which the author was wounded three times and survived a long night waiting to be medevaced out the next day.

The book jumps around and is hard to follow at times. In each chapter Kniffen tells a Vietnam war story, then flashes forward to say something about an incident from his life after the war. The after-war accounts were especially hard to follow

Kniffen talks about his ex-wife Claire and his two kids, Jim and Ivy. His also sprinkles in accounts of many sexual adventures with women such as Penny, Cindy, and his current wife, Rhonda. All of that left me asking many questions about his life that were left unanswered. Such as what happened to his first wife, why was his son in jail, how did he meet Rhonda, what motivated him to get an education and how long did it take to recover from his wounds. The book would have been much easier to follow if it was written in chronological order.

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Charles Kniffen

I found Kniffen’s epilogue the most interesting part of the book. “It was a stupid war motivated by fear of the unknown and, as is so frequently the case, political chicanery,” he writes. “Veterans of recent wars are more than usually afflicted with PTSD because these wars have been entirely without sound cause or purpose even after the supposed ‘lessons’ of Vietnam regarding unwinnable and inane military forays abroad.”

These opinions could have added some excellent perspective to the main sections of the book. Overall, though, the writing is first class and there are interesting sections, even as some readers may find it difficult to follow.

–Mark S. Miller

Invisible Scars of War by Dick Hattan

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At the age of twenty-five in 1971, Dick Hattan served in the Vietnam War with the 101st Airborne Division at Phu Bai. His intelligence and his college degree qualified him for a clerical position at division headquarters, a job he readily accepted.

“I didn’t live through any firefights,” Hattan says in his memoir, Invisible Scars of War: A Veteran’s Struggle with Moral Injury (Woodstock Square Press, 188 pp. $15.30, paper; $7.95, Kindle). “I never really thought that I was out of danger, though.” The danger came from occasional mortar rounds that struck the base and guard duty he performed along the base’s perimeter.

“This was my war, my life,” he says, “eleven months gouged out of my young life.”

Hattan discusses his Vietnam War tour in Invisible Scars of War, which also recounts life-long emotional problems he has had that were caused by betrayals from the Army, the United States government, and the Catholic Church. He describes himself as “a man of peace” who “suffered wounds that were not visible to the naked eye,” and cites God for going AWOL during the traumatic periods of his life.

The institutions in his life, Hattan writes, forced him to “do something against my better judgment, antithetical to my own moral code.”  Conflicted emotionally, he hated himself for participating in an unjust war, although he was proud to fulfill his duty.

When he was drafted into the Army, Hattan believed he would be a citizen-soldier who owed allegiance to his nation. His father and other neighborhood World War II veterans, as well as his Army instructors, overwhelmed him by emphasizing “My country, right or wrong.” He never considered fleeing to Canada or claiming conscientious objector status.

He debates the morality of war and the taking of human life at length in his book. Much of his argument relies on the teaching of Jesus. Regarding the Vietnam War, he writes that the United States failed to meet even one of seven principles that decide whether or not a war is morally valid.

A former altar boy and wannabe priest, Hattan felt betrayed by the Catholic Church after realizing that its bishops’ neutrality in not speaking out against it, condoned the Vietnam War. The acceptance of war by Army chaplains particularly offended him. Eventually, he left the church.

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Dick Hattan 

To my disappointment, he offers no solutions to stop our government from arbitrarily starting new wars. Still, Hattan characterizes America’s long-time involvement in Iraq as “an unnecessary war.” Sometimes his arguments lapse into a low-key style that sounds as if he is trying to convince himself of the validity of his feelings and conclusions.

Hattan’s post-war life confirms his sincerity, however. During forty-four years as a health care executive, Dick Hattan discovered that his calling was healing. He worked with war veterans to mend what he cites as “fragmentation of the soul.” Performing pastoral care in his church led him to expand his education and become a priest in the Independent Catholic Church in 2015.

Hattan summarizes the Vietnam War as a “seminal event in the lives of many young men who did what they were asked, often unwillingly, but were afraid to refuse.”

His website is dickhattan.com

—Henry Zeybel

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

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