The Making and Un-making of a Marine by Larry Winters

Psychodrama provided the major impetus for Larry Winters’ recovery from PTSD. In The Making and Un-making of a Marine: One Man’s Struggle for Forgiveness (Millrock Writers Collective, 322 pp., $14.77, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle), Winters tells his life story, which was filled with anguish that began in childhood and continued into mid-life.

Winters’ father beat him repeatedly and, at times, unmercifully. Upon graduating from high school in 1967, Winters enlisted in the Marine Corps. “The way I saw it,” he says, “what could the Marines do that the old man hadn’t already done?”

His training at Parris Island answered that question. Many authors have described the punishing teaching methods used by boot camp instructors, but Winters offers a darker level of their physical cruelty than I had ever read.

After AIT and metalsmith training, Winters spent nearly two years stateside in a Marine Air Wing before sailing to Vietnam on the U.S.S. New Orleans. Exposure to the negative feelings of Vietnam returnees at home disillusioned him about the war’s purpose. He decided to go AWOL, but a traffic accident ended the attempt.

At Phu Bai and Marble Mountain, Winters joined what he calls the “dissident element.” He worked as a sheet metal repairman, spent three months on guard duty as punishment for the wrong attitude and misbehavior, and ended his tour as a CH-53 door gunner. He felt shame and guilt for serving in a war he did not believe in.

Discharged upon his return home, he married his high school sweetheart. Their happy marriage failed under the pressure of Winters’ difficulties with running his own business and failing to bond with a son his wife and he had carefully and lovingly planned for. He felt rejected in all relationships: parents, wife, child, and employees. Divorced, he drifted from place to place and job to job.

The book’s final section follows Winters (above) through his psychological rebirth. After he found Psychodrama, overcoming shame and guilt became his primary pursuit. Although taxing, the dynamic process of Psychodrama sessions shattered the emotional shield surrounding his PTSD.

The sessions fascinated me because of what they forced Winters to reveal. Part of his rehabilitation included a fatiguing trip to Vietnam where his travel group of veterans confronted and reconciled with NVA generals and foot soldiers. Eventually, Winters solved his own problems, and went on become a mental health counselor.

Originally published in 2007, the current book is a second edition. In a follow-on book, Live the Dream: No More Excuses, Winters explains his hard-learned strategies to gain financial freedom while maintaining balance between family, friends, and faith.

The author’s website is www.makingandunmaking.com

—Henry Zeybel

Everything Happened in Vietnam by Robert Peter Thompson

Robert Peter Thompson served in the U. S. Marine Corps from 1967-69.  In Vietnam, he was in Headquarters Battery of the 1st Battalion, 13th Marines.   In his book Everything Happened in Vietnam: The Year of the Rat  (Blue Moon Publishing, 234 pp., $11.95, paper) Thompson makes it clear that he was not a grunt, and that he was a clerk corporal who went along “as a warm body and a worker bee” on patrols. He also notes that he got jungle rot on his whole body, including on his lips. 

This is a phantasmagorical book, and often takes the form of a meditation on the deaths of his friends Tater, Johnny the New Guy, and Sandy. I’ve read a lot of Marine Corps memoirs, and this is an unusual one, and one that is very readable on every page.

It’s hard to explain why I find this book so singular. The author gives us some clues on the title page. “This is not a work of fiction,” he says, “although I have written it more like a novel than a narrative.”

He goes on to call the book, “true fiction,” and warns the reader that the final chapter contains an event that isn’t  “digestible as literal truth.” Thompson is right about that, but the book is filled with these kinds of events and is the better for it.

Some scholars of literature call this sort of writing magical realism. It works well with the material in this Marine Corps memoir.

Often there are passages and pages that remind me of Ernest Spencer’s great Marine Corps memoir Welcome to Vietnam, Macho Man, and sometimes of the poetry of Bill Shields, who served as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam and wrote a great book of poetry called Drinking Gasoline in Hell.

The language of the book is a mytho-poetic style that is often more poetry than prose, and the book is arranged in short, powerful chapters. It is very novelistic, as Thompson warns us early on.

Many of his phrases were so memorable that I found myself jotting them down. That includes this one, describing the view from a helicopter: as “the emerald embrace of the vegetal world.”

My favorite chapter is “The Letter.” It packs such a powerful punch in three and one half pages that I recommend buying the book just for that chapter alone. It is worth it.

His chapter “Mamason” contains the best description I have read about experiencing Agent Orange spraying on the ground. To wit: “I was walking through some bush that was black and withered and the only way that I can describe it is that it was slimy, like a million snails had oozed across every leaf of every bush and turned them black and shriveled in their wake and the slime was getting all over me.”

A bit later Thompson says, “This must be Agent Orange.” He goes on to offer a defense of the use of the stuff, as the defoliation aspect of it enabled him to see a landmine before he stepped on it. Agent Orange saved his legs and his life.

Some of the iconic recurring motifs of Marine Corps books appear in this book—in powerful guise. One of the VC sappers found dead in the camp wires, for example, is the Vietnamese barber who cut the author’s hair. At one point Thompson asks, “What would John Wayne have done?”  He says that it wasn’t like a movie in Vietnam, but more like a dream. Probably a bad dream.

The author keeps a “short time dream girl calendar” that he consults only when alone, and says is almost a “sacred object.” He heats C-Rats with C4. And survives doing it.

This fine book is dedicated to the author’s friend, Sandy, who died in Vietnam, leaving a beautiful “18 year old fiancée.”  Thompson shows us Sandy as a wraith at the end of the book. But our author is one of the lucky ones who goes home as living flesh and blood.  As he tells us, he “snuck back into the world. Like a thief.”

If you are up for reading another Marine Corps Vietnam War memoir, this is a fine one. It is short and sweet and can be read in one or, at most, two sittings. I read it in a great rush, eager for what was coming next.  You will too.

—David Willson

Ground Pounder by Gregory V. Short

Gregory Short joined the Marines in 1967 after quitting high school. He fully realized that by doing so he was headed for the war in Vietnam. “I did not volunteer to go to Vietnam as a gung-ho patriot or as someone who wanted to emulate John Wayne,” Short writes in his memoir, Ground Pounder: A Marine’s Journey Through South Vietnam, 1968-1969 (University of North Texas Press, 368 pp., $29.95). Rather, Short says, he went to war for “personal reasons,” which “probably had more to do with establishing my manhood and personal identity.”

Short arrived in Vietnam in early February of 1968 at age eighteen, right after the start of the Tet Offensive. He put in thirteen months, primarily as a mortarman with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment of the 1st Marine Division stationed at Con Thien near the DMZ.

It was an eventful tour, during which Short saw plenty of action, including at Khe Sanh during the seige—as well as some time in the rear. “I am not writing this memoir as a historical document,” Short says. “Instead, I am writing a personal history of the events and times as I had witnessed them.”

Short, who recently retired after more than thirty years of teaching history, also adds his perspective as a historian, including his views about how the war was fought. “If I have learned anything from my experiences in Vietnam,” he says, “it’s that stark military force isn’t enough to overcome the brutal acts of international terrorism or the revenge-filled atrocities committed in every civil and religious conflict.”

–Marc Leepson