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

No Strings Attached by John W. Carlson

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John Bultman enlisted in the Marine Corps and arrived in Vietnam at age nineteen in 1967. He spent thirteen months as a courier for the First Marine Air Wing at Da Nang. He also helped defend the base perimeter as a rifleman during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Bultman’s courier runs to outlying posts by helicopter, Jeep, light aircraft, and river patrol boat exposed him to “war’s dreadful brutality,” he says. The sight of dead bodies, “especially women and children,” created his “most horrible memories.”

Later in life, Bultman talked fervently about the Marine Corps to John W. Carlson, a drinking buddy and a feature writer for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana. Fascinated by what he heard, Carlson has written a book about Bultman’s life called No Strings Attached: John Bultman’s War as a Marine in Vietnam, and Its Aftermath (CreateSpace, 78 pp. $10. paper).

This short book provides a lucid image of Bultman’s personality, depicting his weaknesses as well as strengths. Best of all, Carlson shows that Bultman has a sense of humor about the world in general and an ability to laugh at himself when appropriate.

As the subtitle suggests, Bultman’s war experiences fill only half of the book. The “Aftermath” focuses on Bultman’s playing the banjo and battling PTSD.

After the war, John Bultman bummed around on beaches near San Diego, worked with Vietnam Veterans Against War, returned to college but dropped out, and then discovered and taught himself how to play the banjo. Love of music led him to the love of his life—Janan—who played the piano, flute, and mandolin. They married, had two daughters, and enjoyed success in the music business until PTSD overwhelmed him.

Bultman’s years of treatment for PTSD included two months as an in-patient at a VA hospital. Survivor guilt haunted him.

267x267-2d1fdaa5-3bb0-474e-8476f194863d8de0“When John describes his treatment, it takes on the aura of sweaty, physical effort,” Carlson writes, “’Oh, shit,’ he recalled. ‘It was hard, hard, hard work. My life changed dramatically,’ he said, though he noted his treatment wasn’t exactly a panacea. ‘I was not as angry.’ Still, even in the face of success, he doesn’t take such good news, such progress, for granted. He admitted, ‘I’ve never met a Vietnam vet that wasn’t grumpy. Every day, it’s always something. It’s just that now the level is different, of course.'”

To me, these four quotes quietly explain that PTSD is a lifelong problem. Along the way, a VA doctor declared Bultman one hundred percent disabled by the disorder.

Carlson’s No Strings Attached is what it is. Basically, he adds another witness to confirm the severe damage incurred by young minds exposed to traumatic situations.

—Henry Zeybel

Eternally at War by Robert Lathrop and Jeanette Vaughan

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Tragedy played a big role in the life of Robert G. “Gene” Lathrop. When he was two years old he witnessed a crashed B-17 engulfed in a tower of flames as high as he could see. The fire was “permanently etched into the synapses of [his] mind,” he said. In his early twenties as a Marine Corps pilot, he ejected from an F9F-8 Cougar fighter jet that disintegrated moments after takeoff. His parachute malfunctioned, and he landed in the airplane’s blazing wreckage. Suffering severe burns and multiple bone fractures, he barely survived. A year later, he arrived in Vietnam.

These scenes comprise the opening act of Eternally at War (Age View Press, 332 pp., $14.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) by Lathrop and Jeanette Vaughan. The book is a memoir put together by Vaughan based on Lathrop’s writing about his past as part of a PTSD recovery program. The pacing of the writing brings events to life in an exceptionally vivid manner. Lathrop’s thoughts and behavior blend realistically, magnifying and complementing the other.

For most of his year in Vietnam, 1968-69, Lathrop flew F-4 Skyhawks with MAG 12, VMA-311 Tomcats at Chu Lai. The unit’s mission sent him into battle over I Corps, the DMZ, North Vietnam, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Primarily, he flew close air support for Marines fighting the North Vietnamese Army.

Chu Lai was the hub of Marine Corps flying in I Corps. While trash-hauling during the time Lathrop was in Vietnam, I crewed on C-130s that occasionally landed at Chu Lai. Everything on the base appeared constantly in motion, or as Lathrop said on his first day there, “It seemed like there was a plane taking off or landing every ten or fifteen seconds.” Judging by what I saw countrywide, Marines never rested.

“Overworked” and “overstressed” perfectly describe Lathrop’s experience with the Tomcats. At times, he flew as many as four missions in twenty-four hours. He took part in or witnessed events more devastating than his crash in the Cougar.

Lathrop saw death and destruction on a daily basis. These events tried his psyche, but his devotion to duty overrode doubts about his actions. “As far as I was concerned,” he said, “when I landed, I lived until I flew again. Nothing would impact me if I could help it. Once I learned to live only for the moment, the stress of war didn’t bother me.”

After seven months in the cockpit and against his wishes, Lathrop became commander of a company that guarded the perimeter of Da Nang Air Base, a move that again proved that every Marine is basically an infantryman.

A turning point in Lathrop’s life began when he returned home after thirteen months in country. “Being home was torture,” he said. He wanted to be left alone and avoided contact with people. After-effects of the injuries he received before going to Vietnam made it progressively more difficult for him to fly, so he resigned his commission in 1970.

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Gene Lathrop

Successfully employed as a forester, he grew increasingly restless and depressed. He divorced his wife, gained custody of the younger of his two sons, and remarried. But the bouts with depression came more frequently and lasted longer and longer.

In 1984 he began to suffer the full effects of PTSD. Flashing back to the war, he experienced mental and physical disorders that transcended the worst he encountered in his fiery crash or in combat. Counseling and hospitalization did not help. Anguish and guilt haunted Gene Lathrop until the day he died from heart failure in 2012.

As a victim of fire, Lathrop repeatedly delivered the same punishment to his enemies in the form of napalm, which formed the core of his guilt. At one point he tells us, “From my very first day in Vietnam, I was conscious of the continual emissions of fire.”

That war-induced recognition dictated the images in his mind and the course of his post-war life.

–Henry Zeybel

Kissing the Tarmac by James Hansen

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James Hansen in Vietnam in 1968

The wonder of it all never ceases: Young men go to war, survive unimaginable trauma, come home emotionally troubled, and struggle to get on with their lives. Draftee James Hansen’s memoir—Kissing the Tarmac: Winning the War With PTSD (Stories To Tell, 164 pp. $14.95, paper)—is the latest book written by a veteran who found it difficult to understand how and why he deserved to live through the Vietnam War.

During nine months of search-and-destroy missions, Hansen says that he accumulated a burden of “sorrow, regret, shame, and guilt.” Forty-nine men from his unit —Charlie Co., 2/501st Infantry, 101st Airborne—died in action during 1968-69 when Hansen served

Luck played an inordinate role in Hansen’s survival, a fact that he fully recognizes. He graphically describes how men died around him and in his arms while he remained relatively untouched physically. Every death, however, added to the emotional toll. Decades passed before he began to understand and work on the psychological effects of his post-traumatic stress disorder.

In civilian life, Hansen filled all the squares: He married, found success in his work, and built a family. At the same time, though, he felt restless, frequently changed jobs, moved from town to town, drove his wife to a divorce, and abandoned his family.

Hansen wastes no words in recalling the past. He tells what he did and what he saw in combat without seeking sympathy or understanding from the reader. He takes a similar approach to his PTSD. Overall, the book fulfills its goals: first, to cure Hansen, and second, to offer a plan of relief for others confronted by PTSD.

“There’s nothing groundbreaking here in the field of PTSD research,” he writes, “but these ten steps worked for me.” Writing the book was a big part of the treatment that helped to rid him of suppressed anxiety.

Hansen also wrote the book for his two sons and three grandsons, with whom he “never shared anything about the Vietnam War until now.” An in-country diary that he calls the Little Red Notebook and 224 letters  he wrote home served as guides to his recalling the war as part of PTSD counseling. That material had sat untouched in storage for decades.

It is easy to find interest in Hansen’s accounts of searching for the NVA. He jumps from one sudden, unexpected action to another. Although he describes much that has been written about before, he presents those events in a unique voice that makes them special to him. The mercilessness shown by men in his unit appalled him, for example, and yet he admits to having behaved in equally merciless ways.

In Vietnam, James Hansen was a young man within a man searching amid chaos to find an identity. He ended up lost and required most of his life after coming home to reach that goal.

For ordering info, send an email to hansen22769@aol.com

The author’s blog is jameshansen.wordpress.com

—Henry Zeybel