The Wages of War by Richard Severo and Lewis Milford

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The Wages of War: When  America’s Soldiers Came Home: From Valley Forge to Vietnam, written by Richard Serevo and Lewis Milford and edited by Mark Crispin Miller (Forbidden Bookshelf/Open Road Media, 495 pp., $14.99,  E book), presents an intriguing history of American veterans’ post-war struggles through the Vietnam War. The common theme is how the United States has gone to war without a viable plan to take care of returning veterans

Part one of the book—first published in 1989 and now available in a new electronic edition—introduces Daniel  Shays, whose name is forever attached to a rebellion of veterans turned farmers in the Early Republic petitioning for their pay from a nation without a hard currency or the desire to give enlisted veterans their due. Twenty-five years after the end of the Revolution the most enlisted soldiers attained was land they acquired cashing in certificates at less than face value and little of their overdue wages. Commissioned officers, supported by Gen.Henry Knox and profiteers and bankers, fared much better.

Renewed debates over military pension followed the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. President James Monroe favored veterans benefits, but many politicians opposed them. North Carolina Sen. Nathaniel Macon, for example, described military pensions as “like sweet poison on the taste; it pleases at first, but kills at last.” Congress passed a Continental Army pension bill in 1819 over the objections of some southern Congressmen who looked on pensions as the purview of states rather than the federal government.

The peaceful years between the War of 1812 and the war with Mexico saw the standing army reduced to 6,000. But an unofficial survey found that of fifty-five recruits “nine-tenths enlisted on account of some female difficulty, thirteen changed their names and forty-three were drunk, or partially so, at the time of their enlistment.” The Mexican War ended in 1848 with veterans “given enthusiastic homecomings but little else.”

In 1862 American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote what could also apply to Vietnam War veterans. He predicted that after Union soldiers returned from the Civil War, “the quiet life of the New England villages would be spoiled and coarsened.” Elaborating on Hawthorne’s view, the  authors note: “For in the Civil War, as in Vietnam,  it was the youth of the poor and the working classes who dominated the ranks, constituting the cannon fodder and produced the survivors who would sully the quiet.”

The Civil War national rift was wide as veterans on both sides faced unemployment “amid parades and bounteous praise.” Gen. Grant’s election as president in 1868, coupled with the founding of the first powerful veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of The Republic, helped make the nation aware that veterans were rising as a political force.

Regardless of the politics leading to wars, this well-documented study establishes the fact that veterans’ pensions were always negotiable in post-war years. The late 1800s was a good time for Union veterans and their lawyers. The 1885 veteran pension budget was the government’s largest budget item.  In 1897 Union veterans received some $150 million in pensions and Confederate veterans just over $1 million.

The authors suggest that the cry “Remember the Maine” that led to the war with Spain mirrors the lack of credibility surrounding the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in Vietnam in 1965. One senator likened sending the ship to Cuba to “throwing a match into an oil well for fun.”

The troops arriving in Cuba in 1898 faced an unexpected triple threat : malaria, typhoid, and Yellow Fever. In August troops returning were quarantined in New York. Officials claimed that these diseases were not war-related and rejected many veterans’ claims, blaming their problems on “homesickness.” One War Department general opined: “Soldiers do not like sympathy; Sympathy is for women and children.”

The section on the Philippine War differs from the others. The authors provide vivid descriptions of the guerrilla tactics used against the Americans and the torture (water interrogation) and racism attributed to American soldiers. This seems to be off the subject of veterans’ benefits. Perhaps the authors meant to show the effect these grisly reports would have on veterans’ pensions after the war ended in 1902.

There are four chapters on the aftermath of World War I. They include reports on how African American and Italian veterans were treated in the racist atmosphere of the 1920s. The American Legion, founded in 1919, did little or nothing for black veterans. In 1930, the authors note, “Gold Star Mothers were offered a trip to Europe to see the graves of their sons. The black mothers were to travel separately.”  Most of them declined to go.

 
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The 1989 dust jacket

 

One chapter centers on how six million veterans were dealt with by the corrupt Charles Forbes, the first Veterans Bureau Administrator. Another examines the Bonus Expeditionary Force (Bonus Army) encampment in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1932. President Herbert Hoover had the World War I veterans who were demanding their promised bonuses evicted at gunpoint, vetoed the veteran bonus bill, and lost that year’s election to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

World War II victories in Europe and Japan in 1945 brought 16 million veterans home. Civilians who suffered through the Great Depression feared the return of the soldiers. The section on WWI vets focuses on the Servicemans Readjustment Act, also known as the World War II G.I. Bill, which Roosevelt signed into law over the objections of some economists, politicians, labor unions, and news purveyors.

Before moving on to the Korean War the authors examine women veterans, including testimony from Lynda Van Devanter, the first national womens director of Vietnam Veterans of America. In 1982 Van Devanter told the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that in VA hospitals “qualified gynecologists are not available and old retired physicians are doing the exams instead, in some cases in full view of men passing through the exam area.” As to whether women veterans were “actually military,” Van Devanter told the committee: “Some sixty-five women were held on Corregidor for the duration of WW II.” She asked, “Where are the studies of those women?”

The authors have presented a clear explanation of why “35 years after the end of the Korean War Washington remained without any memorial to honor the memory of those who served in Korea.” They reveal how Korean War troops were suspected of treason while held captive in North Korea. Two chapters,” Scapegoats” and “Scapegoaters,” succinctly describe how the red scare of the early and mid 1950s led to veterans being labeled as weak when they had succumbed to torture and brainwashing in captivity.

The Vietnam War chapters cover the health and political consequences resulting from 12 million gallons of Agent Orange and other toxic defoliants sprayed during the war. The human costs of the Vietnam War are well documented. This study also estimates that the war cost from $140-676 billion, with an additional $233 billion for veterans benefits.

Veterans benefits, especially Agent Orange compensation, are shown to be a budget buster and political football from the end of the war in 1975 through the Reagan Administration in 1988. The authors report that the Centers for Disease Control did not study the Agent Orange issue because accurate records of where troops served and when they were in areas that were defoliated were unavailable. The VA, as virtually all Vietnam veterans know, spent many years resisting responsibility for Agent Orange treatment.

A veteran went to the VA for “an Agent Orange health test,” the authors note, “only to be told by a VA doctor that he was simply trying to get more money from the VA.” A VA official is quoted saying, ” Part of my job is to say no. Absolutely nobody had an Agent Orange disability.”

VVA founder Bobby Muller is quoted, recalling his enlistment: “I remember joining the Marines and standing in my dress whites and hearing ‘The Star -Spangled Banner’ and crying like a baby.”

Muller came home from the war in a wheelchair and fought the VA, legislators on Capitol Hill, and the old-line veterans service organization for years before they started to recognize the physical and psychological problems unique to American veterans of the Vietnam War.

—Curt Nelson

Twin Marines in Hell by Jerry Byrne

Jerry Byrne’s Twin Marines in Hell: From Grade School to Vietnam (CreateSpace, 204 pp., $14,95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), is dedicated to his twin brother, John, who died at age 58 of cancer resulting from exposure to Agent Orange.

Jerry and John Byrne, identical twins, grew up in a family of four boys in Queens, New York. They learned to be good at fisticuffs, being raised in a tough neighborhood. Right after high school graduation in 1963, the twins joined the Marine Corps, and went through boot camp together. Jerry Byrne’s description of the harsh treatment they received at the hands of the drill instructors makes the reader truly comprehend the tough and unforgiving Marine Corps basic training at Parris Island back then.

In March 1966, Jerry Byrne, a long-time member of Vietnam Veterans of America, arrived in Vietnam and was assigned to 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Bn., 7th Marines in the Chu Lai area. Within days of his, the FNG went out on Operation Texas with his battalion. The author captures the intense loneliness and fear that a Marine new to his unit experiences in his first exposure to combat. He eventually attained the rank of corporal and became a squad leader.

U.S. Marines at Chu Lai in 1966

After five months, just when he began to think he had a good handle on being a squad leader, Byrne was transferred to the Chu Lai Defense Command along with fifteen other Marine “volunteers.” They were part of a newly formed CAP Unit (Combined Action Platoon) that worked with Vietnamese Popular Force soldiers to defend a village.

This is where Jerry Byrne’s growing disenchantment with the war really took off. He describes in detail the rampant corruption among the village leaders and his PF “buddies.” He even ran into his twin brother in the village one day, and the two of them managed to keep each other out of trouble.

Before Jerry Byrne got into official trouble due to his contempt for his PF allies, he was transferred to Camp Hansen, Okinawa, and served the rest of his overseas tour there. His welcome home from the war was nonexistent, even hostile. Like the rest of us, Jerry wasn’t prepared for the shoddy coming-home treatment he received. His writing captures the anger and disappointment he felt very well.

On the plus side, the book has nineteen pages of quality photographs. One negative is that more proof reading should have been done to insure that typos and misspelled words would be caught before the finalized manuscript went to press.

This powerful memoir is a bluntly told account of identical twin brothers growing up together, then facing their challenging journey together into the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.

—Jim Coan

The Siege of LZ Kate by Arthur G. Sharp

In the March/April 2013 print edition of The VVA Veteran we ran a feature story by Arthur G. Sharp that looked at 21-year-old Army Special Forces Captain William Albracht and his heroic actions in late October and early November of 1969 at Firebase Kate in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam near the Cambodian border. More than 5,000 NVA troops mounted a ferocious assault on the precariously situated firebase and its 150 American and South Vietnamese troops, primarily Montagnard special Civilian Irregular Defense forces.

“Albracht’s troops suffered a growing number of deaths and injuries,” Sharp wrote. “Morale plummeted as food, water, ammo, and medical supplies dwindled drastically. Albracht had taken shrapnel in his arm on October 29 as he directed a medevac helicopter attempting to land at the firebase. He was given the opportunity to leave with the other wounded, but refused—choosing to stay at Kate to lead the remaining besieged troops.” After more intense bombardment, Albracht led the men to safety through a long, treacherous trek through NVA lines under withering enemy fire.

The article went on to explain that Albracht, an active member of Vietnam Veterans of America’s Quad Cities Chapter 299 in Iowa, received a Silver Star for his actions that day. The men who served under him, though, began pushing in 2011 for him to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. That action is still pending.

Albracht receiving the Silver Star—his third—at a ceremony at the Rock Island Arsenal, Ill., on December 15, 2012 

Sharp’s new book, The Siege of LZ Kate: The Battle for an American Firebase in Vietnam (Stackpole: 256 pp., $24.95), tells this story in expanded form. It focuses on details of the escape and also looks at broader issues, such as the newly implemented Nixon administration’s Vietnamization policy.

Another book is due out on the same subject next February: Abandoned in Hell: The Fight for Vietnam’s Fire Base Kate, written by Albracht and William J. Wolf, with an introduction by Joe Galloway

—Marc Leepson

The Vietnam Trilogy by Walter C. Kuhlman

Walter C. Kuhlman, the author of The Vietnam Trilogy (Outskirts Press, 314 pp., $19.95, paper), served in Vietnam with the U. S. Army in 1967-68 as a gunner on a Quad .50. He is a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America.

The Trilogy consists of three plays: Survivor, The Innocents of War, and Rap. Plays are written to be performed, and it is always a challenge for a reader to visualize a playwright’s intent, no matter how rich the stage directions are. Reading these three plays has made me eager to see them performed.

Survivor is set in Phouac Binh Province in South Vietnam right after the start of the 1968 Tet Offensive. The characters are a squad of 101st Airborne Division Army paratroopers—Company A, 1st of the 506th. The men are sent out on a search-and-destroy mission, but it turns out that they really are bait to draw out the NVA.

In the play we are told by one character that the whole war is an exercise in population control. It is mentioned that after coming home the men were spat on and called baby killers by antiwar demonstrators.

The survivor of this patrol, Fred Mercer, later tells his wife that their son is a cripple because he was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.  America’s superior firepower is mentioned. Gen. William Westmoreland gets credit for his optimism about the light at the end of the tunnel.

This is a bleak play in which the ghosts of the dead soldiers Fred Mercer served with play important parts. His life after the war conforms to the great American cliché of how combat survivors spend their post war lives. He tries having a family, but is no good at that. He deals with his survivor guilt by drinking. He can’t keep a job. He becomes homeless and we see him putting a pistol to his head.

In The Innocents of War the protagonist, David, is the eldest son of a typical, very patriotic middle-class American family. The dad of the family, Olly, makes the point that the day after Pearl Harbor he volunteered for the Army.

Lots of hubris is expressed in this play. The family is convinced that David will go to Vietnam, kick ass, be back in a jiffy, and God will look out for him.

The family asks: How can little people in black pajamas hope to defeat Americans who have superior firepower and much better equipment? They laugh about how outgunned and out-performed the VC must be. Ollie regrets that Barry Goldwater is not president as he would drop the Big One and that would be that.

Walter Kuhlman

David leaves for Vietnam, time passes, and neighborhood boys start coming home in boxes. “We should have never let him go,” his mother says.

Uniformed Army men show up on their porch with bad news. David is MIA. Ollie says that this is not like any war we have fought before.

Time passes. David’s younger brother avoids the draft. Ollie dies. Eventually David’s commanding officer informs his mom what really happened to David. He was not missing. He was simply dead.

Rap is the third play. I can’t attest to the verisimilitude of how the rap group portrayed in the play is run. I’ve never been in such a group. I did approach a couple of such groups after I got back from Vietnam, but it was explained to me, none too gently, that they were for combat veterans only.

The leader told me that even some “girls” had applied. They’d been nurses in Vietnam and said they wanted to be a part of the group. “Can you believe that? They wanted to use up valuable time and energy needed for real combat vets.”

If the rap group portrayed in this play is representative, I missed nothing valuable. The leader of this group is clueless. She has sex with one of the group participants.

There is a schism between the Marines and the Army guys that sometimes leads to violence. Throughout the play the Marine Corps is referred to as “the crouch.”  That’s not right. My Marine Corps friends often lovingly called it  “The Crotch.” That oft-repeated mistake annoyed the hell out of me.

Also it is said in the play that the war was fought “on the cheap.” Really? The war I took part in was not fought on the cheap. Yes, there were distribution problems, but tons of money was spent.

This play did make me think, which is a good thing. I would love to see it performed. On the other hand, I have trouble believing that the sex scenes would not trigger audience laughter.

Agent Orange and malfunctioning M-16s are mentioned. The main point seems to be that the U. S. government poisoned us and then refused to care for us when we needed care.  It’s impossible to argue with that.

—David Willson

Dirty Copper by Jim Northrup

The poet, novelist, storyteller, and columnist Jim Northrup’s latest book is a short, fast-reading novel, Dirty Copper (Fulcrum Publishing, 203 pp., $15.95). In it, Northrup spins out the story of Luke Warmwater—the hero of his award-winning short story collection, Walking the Rez Road  (1993)—who is back home on the Anishinaabe reservation in northern Minnesota after surviving a harrowing tour of duty with the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam.

Jim Northrup enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1962, and served for four years. That included a thirteen-month tour of duty in Vietnam with India Company, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines in the 3rd Marine Division from 1965-66.

The Vietnam War is never far from Luke Warmwater’s thoughts in this engaging novel, which covers his first few years after getting home. Warmwater has post-war nightmares and daytime flashbacks after becoming the first Native American deputy sheriff in Carlton County, Minnesota. He then moves on to a job in the Waukegan, Illinois, Police Department.

Jim Northrup

Northrop tells Warmwater’s story in bursts of short, simple sentences. The style works well to illuminate the day-to-day details of this Vietnam veteran’s life, as well as his flashbacks and nightmares.

The themes are both broad (Vietnam veterans’ readjustment problems after coming home from the war; institutionalized racism and discrimination faced by Native Americans) and narrow (Luke Warmwater’s love life, family life, and work life).

Jim Northrup will receive the Vietnam Veterans of America Excellence in the Arts Award at our National Leadership & Education Conference next month. His website is www.jimnorthrup.org

—Marc Leepson

Vietnam to Western Airlines by Bruce Cowee

One of the missions of Vietnam Veterans of America since its founding in 1978 has been to counteract stereotypically negative images of Vietnam veterans in the news and entertainment media. That’s also the mission of Bruce Cowee in his book Vietnam to Western Airlines: An Oral History of the Air War (Alive Book Publishing, 536 pp., $36.95), a series of oral histories from thirty-three men who—like the author—flew in the military in the Vietnam War, then went on to become pilots for Western Airlines.

These men “are the cream of the crop of the generation that came of age in the 1960s,” Cowee writes. “They are my heroes, and their stories speak for themselves as a testimony to their courage and flying skill.”

               Bruce Cowee in Vietnam

Cowee received his commission as a USAF second lieutenant in December 1966 after completing Air Force ROTC at the University of California. He flew C-7A Caribous out of Cam Ranh Bay during his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour.

In his book, Cowee introduces each chapter with a few paragraphs about the Air Force, Navy, and Marine pilots in question. He then lets the men tell their pre-war, war, and post-war stories.

—Marc Leepson

 

Firebase Ripcord by Martin J. Glennon

Martin J. Glennon, who serves as the chaplain for Vietnam Veterans of America’s Chapter 905 in Porter County, Indiana, put in a 1969-70 tour of duty as a medic in Vietnam for six months in the field with the 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd/506th Infantry and later at the Camp Evans medical evacuation hospital unit, C Company, 326th Medical.

Glennon saw more than his share of the war’s carnage, and it affected him deeply. When he came home, Glennon writes in his memoir, A Decisive Battle at Firebase Ripcord: A Medic’s Story (98 pp., $5, paper), “I was not the same man who had touched down in the Republic of Vietnam a year earlier. The innocence of youth had been lost somewhere in the jungles of Nam.

“I was returning, now a different man: not just a man who had been forced to grow up before his time or a man changed by the sobering realities of war, but too, a man who had been profoundly changed by what I experienced on the July morning when I received Christ into my life.”

For ordering info, write to PO Box 1484, Valparaiso, IN 46384

—Marc Leepson