My War & Welcome to It by Tom Copeland

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Like most teenagers of the time, Tom Copeland had no burning desire to fight in the Vietnam War. But he was drafted into the Army and served for a year in Vietnam with the 1st First Infantry Division. His tour of duty in the war is the centerpiece of  My War and Welcome To It (Sunbury Press, 191 pp. $$19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), which is written in a voice ranging from youthful humor and wonderment to one of great fear of being killed. He prefaces this autobiography by saying: “I was aged beyond my years. I became an old man before my time.”

Copeland describes his life growing up in Southeastern New Mexico, mostly outdoors; getting drafted in August 1966; going through infantry AIT; operating from Lai Khe with a ground surveillance team with the Big Red One’s 2nd Battalion/2nd Regiment in 1967-68; and returning home and working his way up a corporate ladder. The last part was the most difficult.

He  describes military life largely by concentrating on the good and bad behavior of men of all ranks. Copeland highlights individualists such as a trainee who got away with impersonating the boot camp commander and drill sergeants, even in their presence.

He saw plenty of action, including fighting Viet Cong forces at Prek Loc II and Phu Loi, in the Ong Dong Jungle during Operation Paul Bunyan, and at Ong Thanh. Copeland writes in detail about the wounded and dead-and-maimed bodies in only one of those operations, Ong Thanh. That battle, he says, “marked a change in the way I saw the war and the value of human life.”

After the war, Copeland suffered decades of emotional stress involving his family, work, and schools without recognizing that he had post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2003, his nephew displayed PTSD symptoms following three deployments to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Copeland forced the young man to seek medical help. That’s when he realized he had the same emotional problems and went to the VA for treatment.

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Tom Copeland in country

In 2013, Tom Copeland went back to Vietnam to try to ameliorate the negative effects of combat that lingered within him. He and other Vietnam War veterans placed commemorative plaques and flowers at battle sites where friends had been killed.

The book’s concluding chapter is a deeply insightful distillation of the trauma serving in the Vietnam War inflicted on him. He closes that section—and the book—by letting us know that the war is still with him.

“Don’t think for a minute I have forgotten those things that took place years ago,” he writes, “They have just become easier to live with.”

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

Appalachian Free Spirit by Duke Talbott

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Irwin D. “Duke” Talbott says that his 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War amounted to a prolonged nightmare. He encountered increasingly inhumane and intolerable situations that separated him from normal behavior. Those traumatic experiences included seeing naked prisoners locked in bamboo cages cowering in the fetal position; consoling a witness to the murder of women and children at My Lai; and surviving sustained bombardments of LZ Bronco.

Talbott’s Vietnam War experiences are the centerpiece of his memoir, Appalachian Free Spirit: A Recovery Journey (Balboa Press, 266 pp. $35.95, hardcover; $17.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), which also includes his account of salvaging his life from PTSD and addictions. Talbott also includes letters he wrote to his parents from Vietnam and earlier from Somalia where he was a Peace Corps volunteer.

His stories about Somalia are entertaining and meaningful. Heading a school building project provided profound self-satisfaction. On the other hand, his exposure to war’s violence began during his Peace Corps days in Africa when he went to Yemen and found himself in the midst of several gun battles during a period of civil unrest.

Talbott sandwiches his Vietnam War stories between detailed accounts of his West Virginia upbringing and his college-oriented, post-war life. Describing his first “big gulp” of whisky in his mid-teens, he says: “My whole being glowed in the aftermath.” He also fondly recalls memories of Darvon. It was in Vietnam, he says, that he “first learned to mix alcohol, grass, and pills for maximum effect.”

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Duke Talbott

The Twelve Step Program was Talbott’s compass to finding emotional freedom, and he details every step he took. He explains that his escape from self-destruction followed a path available to everyone. He bases his message on logic and inspiration from God.

Our society overflows with people willing and capable of helping addicts, he says, and finding them is infinitely rewarding. He clearly convinced me that one’s strongest enemy in a battle for emotional independence is one’s own ego.

After earning a Ph.D. in history from West Virginia University, Duke Talbott taught at several colleges, including his alma mater, Marshall University in Huntingon, West Virginia, and West Virginia Weslyan. He is a Professor Emeritus of History at Glenville State College in West Virginia. His expertise focuses on Africa. From 2009-13 he served as the mayor of Elkins—West Virginia, of course.

—Henry Zeybel

Fifty Years in a Foxhole By Charles Kniffen

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Fifty Years in a Foxhole (Sunbury Press, 266 pp. $19.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is an account of Charles Kniffen’s seven months in the Vietnam War with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in 1966.  It is also a mosaic of the years since the war and the author’s struggles with PTSD. Kniffen writes with a rich style that has very vivid descriptions.

Some examples: “The Chief and I lounged like lizards in our bunker, playing with rats, chewing pineapple, and relaxing in the silence of the moment. Any time nothing is happening is a good time.” and “Or he’d manage to stay out of harm’s way, which was a tall order in these parts. Harm was as abundant and slick as a weasel in a tub of duck necks.”

I found two of Kniffen’s Vietnam War stories particularly well done. The first is about an ambush with a newbie named Henderson. Kniffen describes the noises in the jungle at night and the fear that NVA sappers were getting ready to attack. The choice was whether to blow the ambush or be quiet and hide. The second story involves Operation Prairie Map during which the author was wounded three times and survived a long night waiting to be medevaced out the next day.

The book jumps around and is hard to follow at times. In each chapter Kniffen tells a Vietnam war story, then flashes forward to say something about an incident from his life after the war. The after-war accounts were especially hard to follow

Kniffen talks about his ex-wife Claire and his two kids, Jim and Ivy. His also sprinkles in accounts of many sexual adventures with women such as Penny, Cindy, and his current wife, Rhonda. All of that left me asking many questions about his life that were left unanswered. Such as what happened to his first wife, why was his son in jail, how did he meet Rhonda, what motivated him to get an education and how long did it take to recover from his wounds. The book would have been much easier to follow if it was written in chronological order.

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Charles Kniffen

I found Kniffen’s epilogue the most interesting part of the book. “It was a stupid war motivated by fear of the unknown and, as is so frequently the case, political chicanery,” he writes. “Veterans of recent wars are more than usually afflicted with PTSD because these wars have been entirely without sound cause or purpose even after the supposed ‘lessons’ of Vietnam regarding unwinnable and inane military forays abroad.”

These opinions could have added some excellent perspective to the main sections of the book. Overall, though, the writing is first class and there are interesting sections, even as some readers may find it difficult to follow.

–Mark S. Miller

The Rakkasans by Andrew Robbins

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Andrew Robbins’ stimulatingly dismal reflections on military life and combat triggered my entire repertoire of WTF reflexes. His book, The Rakkasans (December 1967 through October 1969): A Vietnam Veteran’s Memoir (CreateSpace, 298 pp. $18.95, paper) rounds up—and convicts—the usual suspects.

Robbins served in Vietnam with the 3rd Battalion/187th Infantry Regiment, aka the Rakkasans (“Parachutists” in Japanese), in the 101st Airborne Division. He confronted two big problems . First, he questioned the purpose of the war. Second, he despised the lack of leadership and battle skills of his officers. At one point, Robbins says, he seriously sought a sergeant’s approval to shoot a junior lieutenant who could not read maps and frequently became lost.

A teenage enlistee from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Robbins paid close attention during basic training, infantry AIT, and Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol school. Beyond that, while helping train reserve officers, he sat in their classes and learned combat tactics, mastering map reading. In his spare time, he “devoured writings on guerrilla warfare and Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Chiang Kai-shek, Ho Chi Minh, and Che Guevara,” he says.

In Vietnam, along with taking part in many search-and-destroy missions, Robbins fought in three large engagements: Operation Rakkasan Chaparral in March 1968, Ap Trang Dau, and Fire Support Base Pope, both in September 1968. He describes the action in vivid detail . Between the first and second engagements, he spent three months locked up in Long Binh Jail. Upon returning to his unit, he voluntarily extended his combat tour.

Self-confidence based on his study of the guerrilla mentality prompted him to question superiors when they devised risky or incomplete operational plans. His habit of questioning authority led to the court-martial in a trial during which he was barred from the courtroom.

The book describes many Vietnam War leadership practices that defy reason. Robbins saw how irrational leaders destroyed esprit and caused unnecessary deaths. He provides example after example of avoidable combat disasters to prove his point. Based on his observations, the foremost goal of officers in-country seems to have been winning command positions to advance their careers. Victory was secondary. Furthermore, the way the military gave out medals to officers damaged military valor, Robbins says. He spends a chapter demeaning the combat awards of generals that he cites by name.

Robbins’ blunt complaints are supported by operation orders, daily entries in duty officer logs, eye-witness accounts, excerpts from the Abrams Tapes, other personal narratives, and his letters from Vietnam to his mother. His research reveals cover-ups of events that might have damaged officers’ careers and false battle claims such as inflated body counts.

The book takes on a tone of international intrigue after Robbins meets “SBC” (his moniker for a unidentified “Skinny Black Contractor”) and Mr. Q. while in LBJ. Based on Robbins’ map reading skill, LRRP training, and familiarity with firearms, the two mysterious men unexpectedly and without explanation enlisted him for secret missions.

Long after the war when Robbins worked for the Department of Defense, he met SBC at the Pentagon. Their conversation then proved equally as mystifying as their relationship had been in Vietnam. SBC related complicated ideas that finally showed Robbins the true purpose of the war. His explanation gives an entirely new dimension to Southeast Asia. At least that is how I read it.

To clarify a long-ago war for present generations, Robbins includes two appendices in The Rakkasans. The first reviews Vietnamese history. The second explains the influence Ho Chi Minh exerted on his nation. Robbins’ message: Vietnam’s savior built a dictatorship using imported revolution.

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Andrew Robbins

Following the account of his time in Vietnam, Robbins applies a logical approach to long-term health care by calmly discussing the war-incurred medical problems for which he sought treatment from the VA: malaria, hearing loss, exposure to Agent Orange, impaired vision, and Post-traumatic stress disorder. Unproductive encounters with VA doctors and administrators—as well as unreasonable policies that hindered his treatment—eventually reduces his logical argument to an emotional one unfavorably comparing the VA to “real hospitals” and “true medical” facilities.

He sums up years of unfulfilled VA medical care, particularly for PTSD, by saying: “I tried the VA’s mental health program and found it to be a complete failure. VA treatment is unreliable, inhumane and not in any patient’s best interest.”

In 2004, Robbins wrote It Took My Breath Away: One Man’s Experience May Save Your Life, an investigation into problems associated with working in toxic environments.

Robbins’ web site is http://www.therakkasans.com/page-4/

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam Abyss by Michael J. Snook

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Michael J. Snook’s Vietnam Abyss: A Journal of Unmerited Grace (Southwestern Legacy Press, 234 pp. $25, hardcover; $16, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is the author’s journal of his struggles from April 14, 1996, to November 5, 1998. It details how he ultimately found God and a new wife and pulled himself out of his dark times.

Snook is a veteran of the Vietnam War, but barely discusses his experiences in Vietnam in this book, which he wrote with Michael J. Snook. The book, instead, focuses on Snook’s battles with alcoholism, PTSD, and mental illness. After his service in the Vietnam War, Snook was divorced, lost his job, and went back to Vietnam to work.

This is not a feel-good book and is hard to follow in places. It also is unpolished and repeats the same stories. On the plus side, Snook uses lists in his journal—an interesting approach.

Here’s one example, in which he debates what to do with his life:

Retire and screw it all,

Live on the street,

Get drunk,

Kill myself

The last thirty pages describe how the author escaped from alcoholism and PTSD, found romance and God, and now lives a useful and happy life.

This book is not for the faint of heart, but may be useful to those suffering from the same problems that Michael Snook faced.

—Mark S. Miller

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

Hornet 33 by Ed Denny

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We were flying south of Song Be in our C-130 the first time I heard a helicopter pilot in trouble. He came up on Guard and said, “I’m hit. Going down. Somebody come and get me,” with less emotion than I use to order breakfast.

Beginning with Bob Mason’s groundbreaking Chickenhawk in 1983, Vietnam War helicopter pilots have written memoirs that keep readers on the edges of their seats. Simply flying those cantankerous machines requires the best of anyone, but performing that feat in combat demands skills possessed only by pilots at a level higher than mere human beings. Of course, big balls help, too.

Memoirs by helicopter pilots who saw lots of combat such as Bill Collier, Robert Curtis, Tom Messenger, and Jim Weatherill rank as favorites. Ed Denny has grabbed equal billing with Hornet 33: Memoir of a Combat Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 296 pp.; $29.94, paper; $9.99, Kindle). This memoir tells the story of a draftee who volunteered for a helicopter training and went straight to Vietnam as a Warrant Officer.

Denny wastes no time with background. The book begins with his arrival in Cu Chi in March 1970. Assigned to fly the Huey UH-1H with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company, known as the Hornets, he became a leader within the group.

Denny’s word pictures of battles—particularly a large-scale friendly fire fuck-up during the opening day of the May 1970 Cambodian invasion—should erase any vestige of “the glory of war” from the minds of sane readers. He did and saw things that far exceeded normal levels of fighting, suffering, and killing, and describes many gory scenes. In one case, his description of a shattered and dying woman that he rescued reaches a graphic pitch almost beyond belief. Similarly, his actions during Operation Lam Son 719 in February and March of 1971 begin as a classic history lesson but evolve into another bloody and inhuman tale.

Denny’s imagination was his worst enemy. In daylight, because his commander taught him to “just take it” when the world exploded around his helicopter, Denny did not think past the moment. At night, however, he couldn’t ignore dreams flooded by gore. Predicated on the day’s latest horror, his imagination created nightmares that made Dante’s Inferno look like a Sunday school picnic. Despite therapy, imagination of his own painful death pursues him to this day.

Treatment for PTSD gave birth to Hornet 33. Denny wrote eighty-five true stories to expose the trauma of his war experiences for others to see. Guided by a desire to eliminate redundancy, he distilled those stories down to forty-five chapters, most of which concern combat and flying.

“How many times can a person say that the bastards tried to shoot me again and missed by a couple of inches one more time,” he rhetorically asks.

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Ed Denny in front of the Denton, Texas, County All-War Memorial – photo by Jeff Woo, Denton Record-Chronicle

Along with telling combat stories, Denny deals with with drugs, fragging, prostitution, Donut Dollies, R&R, PTSD, returning home, and Americal Division tactics. The Hornets flew with both the 25th Infantry at Cu Chi and 101st Airmobile Division at Chu Lai, thereby seeing first hand the difference between good and bad leadership. Denny’s opinions are highly personalized and do not follow the logic usually associated with these subjects.

Ed Denny has a way with words, using fresh similes and metaphors, few clichés, and conveying a sense of awe and wonder. The book tightly held my attention from start to finish.

The author’s website is hornet33.com

—Henry Zeybel