Combat to Conservation by F.J. Fitzgerald

F.J. Fitzgerald’s Combat To Conservation: A Marine’s Journey through Darkness into Nature’s Light (Koehler Books, 166 pp. $23.95, hardcover; $15.92, paper; $7.49, Kindle), is both haunting and inspiring. Fitzgerald presents an account of the horror of combat tempered with the beauty of nature with his life story beginning with a happy childhood and including details of his tour of duty as a Marine with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam.

Growing up in Southeast Minnesota farm country, Francis Fitzgerald loved the tranquility of the fields and woods. Walking and often sitting for hours, he came to love every animal, plant, and tree, especially white pines. His accounts are so compelling that readers can readily see themselves traveling the back country with the author.

Exceptionally bright and talented, Fitzgerald wanted a college degree and a career as a game warden. Yet doubts about his youth and his lack of experience, combined with a yearning for action and adventure, inspired him to join the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school in the summer of 1969. He arrived at LZ Baldy, a fire support base in the hills south of Danang, in the spring of 1970.

Fitzgerald writes with exceptional style; his descriptions are at once spare and poetic. With tight sentences and concise accounts of what he saw and endured, he presents a stark picture of the environment in which the Marines operated. He includes one eerie anecdote after another from patrols in dense jungle, as he strained to find his way through a claustrophobic world too often dark—and always wet.

Particularly striking are his graphic depictions of the misery of trench foot and the difficulty of treating it in a place where dry feet were every Marine’s futile wish; of sitting next to a tree limb and finding himself face to face with a poisonous snake and realizing he was an intruder in the animal’s world. And of sighting and killing an elusive enemy, then feeling little afterward, except that it was a consequence of war, as certain as night following day.

Then there is Fitzgerald’s account of coming to grips with post-traumatic stress disorder. As a way to try to fight it, Fitzgerald returned to nature when he returned to civilian life. He found that every waking moment he spent in the great outdoors was a balm for his troubled spirit. To move and breathe in the air and the light—to be continually reminded of the beauty of the world—empowered him. It continues to sustain and heal him.

Combat to Conservation is an excellent read; it’s a book as subtle as it is inspiring.

Fitzgerald’s website is www.fjfitzgerald.com

–Mike McLaughlin

The Eagle on My Arm by Dava Guerin & Terry Bivens – OCT. 13

The Eagle On My Arm: How the Wilderness and Birds of Prey Saved a Veteran’s Life (University Press of Kentucky, 218 pp. $26.95, hardcover and e book) by Dava Guerin and the late Terry Bivens is the story of the life of Patrick Bradley. And what a story it is.

Bradley, who is in his early 70s, is one of the founders of the Avian Veteran Alliance, a program that uses birds of prey as a form of therapy for military veterans and others coping with chronic physical and emotional trauma. This type of animal-assisted therapy often uses large birds that have been seriously injured, making them wounded warriors as well.

Bradley served in the Vietnam War as a Green Beret in a team whose main job was to infiltrate enemy lines for information-gathering purposes. The authors describe how his team experienced high casualty rates on its dangerous forays into North Vietnam. “Out of his original team of sixteen, only three would survive, and two of them would commit suicide within a few years.”

Bradley returned from Vietnam as an explosively angry young man. Several incidents nearly landed him in the stockade at Fort Leavenworth. His first post-military job involved counting bald eagles in the Canadian wilderness. For three years he worked alone, using his Army survival training and experience in Vietnam as he lived off the land. Only a few weeks after he started observing the eagles Patrick Bradley found his anger issues had dissipated.

He moved on, and spent a few years working odd jobs at wildlife centers and preserves, where he found himself drawn to hawks. Bradley noted that working with a wounded bird seemed to calm both him and the animal. His personal life didn’t improve, though, as he continued to experience occasional violent, PTSD-fueled outbursts. Each failed relationship would cause him to get closer to his birds as he tried to fight the demons he continued to face.

As Bradley eventually felt a sense of healing from his relationships with several large birds, he began working with a VA hospital and became one of the founders of the Avian Veteran Alliance in Florida. That program has helped helping thousands of veterans with PTSD and others who have been through major illnesses.

The authors wrap up their book with the following words: “To live one’s life on one’s own terms, to touch others through passion and perseverance, to be fearless of rejection and hopeful that our better angels will prevail: that is the story of Patrick Bradley’s life.”

Bradley (right) demonstrating how to hold an eagle

It was great to read a story about a man who was filled with anger and fear upon his return from the war in Vietnam, but learned to harness his emotions and go on to help thousands come to terms with the darkest times in their lives.

The book’s Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/pg/guerinpr/posts/

–Bill McCloud