Mission of Honor by Jim Crigler

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Jim Crigler, author of Mission of Honor: A Moral Compass for a Moral Dilemma (Panoma Press, 326 pp., $21.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), was drafted into the Army and served as UH-1 helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War.  A Warrant Officer, he was assigned to the 129th Assault Helicopter Company, and distinguished himself during thousands of combat missions. He has also distinguished himself in many ways as a civilian.

Throughout history, fighting men have been known as warriors. Recently, the term “Air Warrior” has emerged. This book is a great depiction of the men who wore Air Warrior wings in the Vietnam War, and the many challenges they faced every day in all aspects of their lives—before, during, and after their military service.

Crigler writes about being in high school, trying to find his niche in life. He notes the humility needed to admit failure and continue to strive for greatness. He had a moral compass, being true to doing what is right because it is right. He writes of finding a “right direction,” then following that direction, making adjustments along the way as he gained more knowledge in the course of his life.

An important aspect of this autobiography is Crigler’s realization that slowly but surely an emotional “coldness” has to be achieved in order to survive in war. This coldness is something that is achieved slowly enough that a person has little awareness that it is happening. In that regard, Crigler brings out memories of war in an eloquent manner.

He also shows very clearly that achievements in war require great tenacity and courage, but once that level achievement is reached the honors of life begin to be bestowed. I have always had great respect for those who have done this.

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Jim Crigler

Crigler writes of achieving a “oneness” with his mission, something that bestows honor. Honor has to be earned by a person’s actions, not words. Crigler notes this in repeated references to the commitment of his brother warriors, and through his paying tribute to those men.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to veterans, and also to Gold Star families and the families of those who have endured the ravages of war.

The author’s website is missionofhonor.org

—Edward Ryan

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Donut Dollies in Vietnam by Nancy Smoyer

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“I’d rather be heard than comforted,” Nancy Smoyer writes near the end of Donut Dollies in Vietnam: Baby-Blue Dresses & OD Green (Chopper Books, 250 pp., $15.00, paper). By that point in the book, Smoyer has fulfilled that goal in this memoir that looks at her time in South Vietnam during the war and its aftermath.

The core of Smoyer’s book describes the pride and dedication she developed toward servicemen as a Donut Dolly in Vietnam in 1967-68. “I still refer to it as the best year of my life,” she writes, “and the worst.”

Smoyer was one of 627 women in the Red Cross Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas program, which lasted from 1965-72. The largest number of women in-country at one time, she tells us, was 109 in 1969. All of them were college grads and volunteers. They inherited the nickname “Donut Dollies” from Red Cross workers who performed similar duties in Europe during World War II.

The women worked throughout South Vietnam. They took helicopter to the most forward positions. Their chores varied from serving 3:00 a.m. breakfasts to men girding for at-dawn assaults, to organizing C-ration picnics, to playing made-up games. Talking to the troops for any length of time, Smoyer says, “is the most satisfying part of the job. When we go to the field we just talk to the guys as they work.”

She was twenty-five years old. “We were there to boost the morale of the troops, plain and simple,” Smoyer explains. “Everything I did revolved around the men, and I don’t regret a minute of it.”

Being in-country and exposed to the same threats as the men in uniform, Donut Dollies encountered common war and post-war problems. After coming home Smoyer suffered PTSD, predicated on survival guilt, which was compounded by her brother’s death in action a few months after she returned to the United States.

On a visit to Vietnam in 1993, Smoyer says she overcame her PTSD by learning compassion for the Vietnamese—something that she had not allowed herself to feel before.

The second half of the book deals with post-war events. Many scenes involve emotional encounters at The Wall where Smoyer began serving as a volunteer guide shortly after its 1982 dedication. “Those days when emotions were raw, none of us knew how to act,” she says, “but we connected on such a deep and immediate level.”

Over the years, Smoyer extended her volunteer work to many other areas dealing with veterans. Serving in Vietnam gave her life its ultimate purpose.

111111111111111111111111111111111She closes the book with letters in tribute to her brother—a Marine lieutenant—from his teachers, coaches, and friends.

While telling her story, Smoyer makes references to the experiences of many other former Donut Dollies. She has maintained contact with them through email, letters, tapes, reunions, musings, and conversations.

Like Nancy Smoyer, they have a lasting commitment to helping veterans.

Smoyer is donating proceeds from the sale of her books to the Semper Fi Fund.

—Henry Zeybel

The Odyssey of Echo Company by Doug Stanton

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Doug Stanton’s The Odyssey of Echo Company: The 1968 Tet Offensive and the Epic Battle of Echo Company to Survive the Vietnam War (Scribner, 337 pp. $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) centers on the author’s quest to help former infantryman Stan Parker answer the most pressing question of his life: “What happened to me in Vietnam?”

In an effort to deal with his post-war emotional problems, Parker sought to find meaning for himself and his fellow U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division soldiers who were killed and wounded during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Days after graduating from high school in 1966, Parker enlisted in the Army. He won jump wings and learned long-range reconnaissance skills. In December 1967, as a volunteer, he arrived in Vietnam, turned twenty, and was assigned to a recon platoon in Echo Company of the 1st Battalion in the 101st’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. The small unit, he says, was “supposed to be the eyes and ears of the battalion, to find the enemy, to probe, size up, and report to the battalion so that the line companies—the ‘line doggies,’ the other grunt soldiers—can come in and fight.”

The recon platoon operated near Cu Chi in the Iron Triangle. For six months, Parker says, “Nothing ever changes, and yet nothing ever is the same.” He went out on many patrols until he was wounded for the third time in May 1968.

Much of the book focuses on killing and remorse, killing and sorrow, and more killing—and pain. Friends and foe alike suffer. By recording grotesque incidents told to him by Parker and other Echo troops, Stanton (the author of the bestsellers In Harm’s Way and Horse Soldiers) captures the essence of Vietnam War combat.

With chilling, detailed accounts, Stanton shows the disintegration of the minds of men repeatedly exposed to injury and death. Anguish, grief, hate, and sorrow filled their days. Shredding other men with gunfire, they rued their task while knowing it was their salvation: kill or be killed. They recognized their actions as counter-intuitive behavior of man toward his fellow man.

Guilt created conflict in the minds of many Echo Company men. Despite their heroic actions, Parker and others questioned the reasons for the war. At the same time the men built a brotherhood, akin to being in “a new fraternity.” Still, those associations did not last beyond the war.

Based on many firefights described in the book, one could call Parker the consummate warrior. He had total intensity toward a mission. He ignored vulnerability and pain. Best of all, he reacted creatively to apparently unsolvable problems.

“War is really about elimination—eliminating, erasing, wasting, greasing, making nonexistent,” he says. “You kill the other guy, until there are more of you than there are of them.”

For several years, Parker’s post-war life was nearly as violent as his time in Vietnam. As a civilian, he reacted to physical threats with unreserved violence.

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Doug Stanton

Parker and Stanton returned to Vietnam in 2013, with Parker still filled with guilt and questions about his and his unit’s role in the war. They visit places where Parker was wounded. Surprisingly, they befriend a former enemy soldier who fought at one of the sites. That brief encounter created a bonding to help Parker find a modicum of relief from the PTSD that had pursued him after the war.

The book developed from a long acquaintanceship between Stan Parker and Doug Stanton. At its heart, it is Parker’s memoir of the start of his military career based on his own words, along with Stanton’s interviews with other Echo Company soldiers, letters from the time, and official reports and records.

The realistic writing style of The Odyssey of Echo Company flows easily and should appeal to military nonfiction fans.

The author’s website is www.dougstanton.com

—Henry Zeybel

Planet Vietnam By Steve Tate

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Planet Vietnam (CreateSpace, 132 pp., $9.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is the account of Steve Tate, who served as a nineteen-year-old with the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion in the 1st Calvary Division in Vietnam in 1968-69. The book follows Tate to Bunker 48, Dau Tieng, Tay Ninh, and finally an aviation unit performing helicopter maintenance.

At the end of the book Tate questions whether he was “in the shit” or in “the rear.” He goes on to talk about “a new type of discrimination” in the Army in which many soldiers looked down on those with rear echelon assignments.

There are many interesting issues relating to the war that Tate addresses. He vividly describes, for example, the widespread use of drugs and alcohol. “Alcohol was responsible for more deaths and destruction than will ever be admitted,” Tate says. He also recounts how “they” planted two bags of pot in his grip when he was out of the barracks in hopes of framing him.

I found a couple of incidents in Planet Vietnam very interesting. In one, a friend of Tate tries to commit suicide when he receives a Dear John letter from his girlfriend near the end of his tour. Tate also writes about a buddy who shot down his own helicopter firing an M79 shell through the top of the chopper. He also mentions seeing UFOs in the spring of 1968 near the DMZ. “We were being buzzed by UFOs,” Tate says, “and never knew, or cared.”

This is a short book in which Steve Tate brings up many topics I wish he would have explored further. Overall, Tate describes the Vietnam War in a unique way, and I would recommend his book.

—Mark S. Miller

Eye of a Boot by Jerry Lilly

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Looking back to when he was twenty years old, Jerry Lilly tells his readers, “I know that to relax can get me killed. I treat the Vietnamese respectfully.”

Much of what he recalls in his memoir, Eye of a Boot (CreateSpace, 160 pp. $24.95, paper), is told in what Lilly calls “progressive present tense.” In this way, readers can get a better sense, he says, of the “urgency, confusion, and intensity of being there.” In other words, Lilly’s style creates the illusion that his men and he are performing their duties right before the reader’s eyes.

From November 1967 to December 1968, Jerry Lilly served as a Marine infantryman in I Corps, most of the time as a squad leader. At first, he resisted taking the position. Then, he says, “someone of higher rank gave me the responsibility. I had to accept it.”

A deep sense of responsibility for his men’s welfare infused Lilly’s behavior. His worries were purposeful and productive. He tried not to expose his squad to VC or NVA attacks, yet he pressed fights with the enemy. In the field, he constantly believed he was under surveillance from an enemy waiting for the most opportune time to pounce.

His description and analysis of this attitude make the book an outstanding study in leadership. Many chapters provide lessons about the right and wrong ways to work with superiors and subordinates. Lilly describes missions that caused him to question the logic and sanity of his company and platoon commanders, but he nevertheless gave them his utmost support and effort.

The intense manner in which Lilly depicts the flow of combat had me reading well into the night. In particular, Lilly describes a two-day recon mission that ended in daylight when he single-handedly pursued and killed with hate and rage. Compassion emerged at the end, of the fighting, though, when the young Marine realized that he must never forget what happened.

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The imbalance of tactical skill and training between Marines and Viet Cong upset him. He stared at bodies and thought, “My God, look what I did to you. I’m sorry.”

Minutes later, what Lilly did paled in comparison to the actions of a fellow Marine who vengefully and barbarously murdered a wounded VC prisoner. In despair, Lilly wondered, “What is shock?” and “What is real?” His concern for his men grew stronger.

Jerry Lilly’s mind, heart, and soul fill every page of Eye of a Boot.

—Henry Zeybel

Vignettes from Vietnam by Brice H. Barnes

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In Vignettes from Vietnam: Brief Moments of Sanity and Belated Notes of Gratitude (Outskirts Press, 232 pp. $14.95, paper) Texan Brice H. Barnes writes mainly about his two tours of duty in the Vietnam War.

His first tour encompassed the Tet Offensive, during which Barnes earned the Distinguished Service Cross at the Battle of Widow’s Village with the 2/47th Infantry, a mechanized infantry battalion in the 9th Infantry Division. During his second tour he commanded an infantry company during the incursion into Cambodia and then worked as an advisor with the ARVN.

Barnes devotes the book’s largest portion to vignettes that say thank you to people who helped him during his thirty-year Army career. With a light-hearted tone, he recognizes friends and acquaintances—such as church ladies who shipped overwhelming quantities of cookies to troops overseas.  Barnes retired as a colonel.

The book also includes a collection of Barnes’ other writings. He presents reflective thoughts on Tet 1968 and the battle for Widow’s Village, a small hamlet near Long Binh. He presents several pages of poetry and poetic tributes, followed by short on-scene reports that he wrote for the Austin American-Statesman during his second tour in 1970. He ends the book with a history of the 5th Division.

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Photo from “VC/NVA ATTACK ON LONG BINH AREA DURING TET 1968,” by Larry F. O’Neill 

Barnes’ collection of writing covers many years and shows a highly individualized view of the American Army and the Vietnam War.

For ordering info, go to the Outskirts Press web site.

–Henry Zeybel

Behind My Wings by BJ Elliott Prior

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As a stewardess for the Military Airlift Command in 1969-71, BJ Elliott Prior developed a life-long love for members of the armed forces. Back then, she served on flights that carried troops to and from South Vietnam. Often she saw the same men before and after their tours. Decades later she found Vietnam War veterans and interviewed them about their participation in the war. She  has recorded their experiences, with the help of Linda Lou Combs Wiese, in Behind My Wings: Untold Stories of Vietnam Veterans (Burkhart, 228 pp. $15.99, paper).

The stories come from former officers and enlisted men who talk about the past in similar ways: search-and-destroy missions, living in the jungle, exposure to Agent Orange, massive artillery and air firepower, emotional swings, PTSD, failed marriages. At the same time, Prior finds idiosyncrasies that give each man individuality.

She examines the apprehension of young men en route to a war they did not fully understand and the fragmented personalities of those who survived combat with drastically altered values. She describes one veteran who talked “as though part of him was left back on those battlefields.”

The book’s subtitle notwithstanding, most of these accounts add little new information about the Vietnam War. However, the mens’ observations rank beyond the ordinary when described through Prior’s innocent eyes. She suffers when they suffer and pays a psychological price along with them.

Behind My Wings is not totally gloom and doom. The MAC routing from California to Vietnam included aircrew rest stops in Hawaii, Guam, Philippines, Okinawa, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. They provided opportunities for romance, which “was everywhere during our layovers,” Prior writes. “We were quite young, fun and wild.” How wild? Prior had “Coffee Tea or Me” embroidered on her garment bags.

Prior went on to put in a forty-year career as a flight attendant with Continental Airlines, which contracted MAC flights during the Vietnam War.

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BJ Elliott Prior

Her two years with MAC exceeded by a year the airlines’ recommended time frame for attendants’ “well being.” Afterward, in the midst of “drinking and dating to fill the void and pain in [her] life,” Prior says, she began a “journey with God.”

She accents Behind My Wings with passages from the Bible. “My story is God’s glory,” she says.

The author’s website is behindmywings.com

 

—Henry Zeybel