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

Shandar: @killcongress.com by Wrigley Brogan

In Shandar @KILLCONGRESS.COM (Ink and Lens, 218 pp., $10, paper; $2.99, Kindle), Richard Baker, writing as Wrigley Brogan, offers up a noir-ish detective novel with a hard-boiled cop, Walter Checkers, at the center of the action. Most of the characters are Vietnam veterans (as is the author). A group of young Vietnamese women who work as prostitutes also are a big part of the action.

Somebody is blowing up bad people using C-4, making quite a mess in the city, and Detective Checkers is asked to figure out what’s going on. As the detective puts it, people are being blown to bits and there are no leads, nothing to go on, except a woman must be involved.

The book is filled with philosophical asides, many of which seemed priceless. For instance, “Anyone that believed we were fighting for American freedoms around the world was a fool at worst, and naïve at best.”

Later, Doc, a Vietnam veteran medic, says, “Don’t forget what we learned in the war.  Every decision we make in life is wrong. Do you shoot this person or that person?  Do you go down this trail or that one?  Do you save Bill or Jerry?  The decision is always wrong.”

There are many other references to the Vietnam War. The novel is permeated with the them. Keeping track of them was like trying to register snowflakes in a snowstorm. This is done with wit and intelligence, however, and is never cumbersome.

I highly recommend this mystery novel to all readers, especially Vietnam veterans who are hungry for a good read that is a salute to that dirty little war that most of us can’t seem to get out of our systems.

There’s lots to love in this book. At one point, it is said that the most worthy candidate for political office is the one who raises the least money. I immediately thought of Jim Webb.

Baker has respect for the American teenagers who trudged through the Vietnamese jungle during the war. Books that demonstrate that respect are needed in our literature.

—David Willson

Cao Bang: Brothers in Arms by Richard E. Baker

44444444444444444444444Richard E. Baker served in the U. S. Army with the 4th Infantry Band. He did not spend his time in Vietnam marching on parade grounds playing his horn, though. He was in the field, setting up ambushes and the like. He has suffered a life-long battle with PTSD.

Cao Bang: Brothers in Arms (CreateSpace, 276 pp., $11, paper)  is part of Baker’s French Foreign Legion in Vietnam historical fiction series. Baker has done thorough and painstaking research for his recounting of the “retreat from Cao Bang [which], marks one of the largest fiascos in military history,” as he puts it.

Both the French and the Viet Minh are presented precisely and accurately in a narrative populated with memorable characters of many nationalities and disparate personalities. Baker is first a fine storyteller, and then a historian. But he never pushes his research down the throats of his readers. Still, you will know a lot more about the French War in Indochina after you have read this book.

I especially enjoyed the characters that Baker brought alive and the context in which they lived and fought. Baker’s great gift of knowing what to include in a list benefits the reader again and again in a book that is populated with lists along with unforgettable characters, both European and Asian. Even Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the Viet Minh commander, a minor character in this book, comes alive in his few scenes. Baker has Giap say, “I’m not concerned about winning battles, just in winning the war.”

I am compelled to quote part of one of Bake

Richard Baker

r’s fine lists, just to show how he brings French Indochina in the 1950s alive.

“Tables of meat stood under cover: pig, dog, and cow, heads stripped of skin, buckets of entrails, tails undressed of hide, bowls of eyeballs staring blankly as if they could still see, thick tongues, brains piled like wet cauliflower, hooves, penises, legs crisscrossed across the wooden tables, and piano keys of ribs waiting for the delicate fingers of some mad and carnivorous musician.”

Baker shows the Legionaires “in search of small pleasures at cheap prices.” I could easily identify with them. Much is made of the pleasure that the soldiers took in smoking cheap cigarettes. I loved the comment from one of the villains: “With a single idea, much can be accomplished.”  This accomplishment is fired by cigarettes.

My favorite line comes near the end: “Many top generals were poor leaders; that is how they earned promotions and became top generals.” That was my impression from my one meeting with Gen. William Westmoreland.  All he wanted to talk about with me was that I needed a haircut. He had no interest in my theories about why he was losing the war.

This is a brilliant and enjoyable novel of the French debacle in Indochina, and it is prophetic of how the American War would go. We, too, were ignorant of history and scorned and dismissed both the French effort and the Viet Minh who beat them. America is always convinced of our exceptionalism. We turned out to be more like the French than we would admit.

I highly recommend this novel and all novels by Richard Baker. He is creating one of the great bodies of work about war in Vietnam—an entire shelf of books worth reading.

—David Willson

 

Stone Island by Richard Baker

Stone islanddddddddddddddddddddd.jpg222222222222222Richard Baker served with the 4th Infantry Band in Vietnam, and has suffered, he tells us, “a lifelong battle with PTSD.”  He’s the author of the novel, Incoming: The Piteous Recognition of Slaughter, which tells the story of a teen-aged Army band member sent to Vietnam and assigned to the bush to set up ambushes with no AIT or in-country training. Read that one first, then his Stone Island: Broken Soldiers in a Broken World (Ink and Lens, 198 pp., paper)

Stone Island’s main character, Rick, is a recently returned veteran of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who is “a Space Case, a bit abstract.”  He is missing a leg, due to a war injury. It was not blown off by an IUD, though.

He joins up with his Uncle Alvin, a cantankerous Vietnam veteran, the other main character. Together they rampage on their motorcycles through Southern California. It is a mission of debauchery that includes sex, drugs, and alcohol.

The novel includes a woman, of course, Debbie, along with her teen-aged daughter, whose name a birth was Emily Murdock, but is now called Windbreeze—much to her chagrin. There’s also  great bad guy, Bart, a brother veteran of our recent wars and his partner, Bad Billy.

In fact, Bart and Bad Billy are not really the bad guys they imagine themselves to be, just misunderstood victims of a war that seriously messed them up. There’s even a film director—of porn, natch. Many of the characters take part in the production of these little films, mostly in front of the camera. They all end up together on Stone Island, the author’s nickname for Morro Bay—a witch’s brew of damaged, dangerous characters.

Richard Baker

I started writing down the things the characters said in this novel that hit home with me with the idea of sharing them in this review. But when I completed the book, I had too many to share.

That said, I will share a few of them. Such as:

Rick asks, “Can you believe all the dumb asses who still believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?”

His Uncle Alvin says, “Caring about soldiers is only rhetoric to keep them enlisting. The war doesn’t exist for anyone in this country and this one is even more ridiculous than my war.”

The author says of Uncle Alvin: “There were no receptions, no parades. He didn’t want any. No one spit on him either, like most veterans claimed. He always mistrusted them.”

Alvin muses: “To understand the phrase of Vietnam veterans, ‘It don’t mean nothing’ was to understand a great deal. He never heard the new veterans use the phrase. Maybe the government had so warped them that they believed war actually meant something. Or maybe they were just too beaten down by multiple deployments.”

We encounter a poster in Morro Bay in a gift shop of John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima. I used to own that poster. That movie is one of the very few I saw with my father, a Marine veteran of Iwo Jima.  He was a living example of what Rick says in the book: “Going to war is not a problem, returning home is.”

Rick makes a speech to Bart near the end as Bart is trying to kill him. “There’s no pride in being a soldier,” he says. “No disgrace either. War is just a pile of bullshit shoveled out by cowardly fat-cats stuffed with greed and arrogance.” I wouldn’t even try to top that statement.

I highly recommend this philosophical thriller, which has a lot of bad behavior in it. All of it is enjoyable to read. Baker has written another fine novel, and I hope he is busy on another one.

—David Willson