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

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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

Losing the Will to Live by Arnie Burzynski

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Rising above depression, personal tragedy, and alcoholism is central to Arnie Burzynski in his book, Losing the Will to Live: Why?!! (Xlibris, 145 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $19.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), but it is not directly related to his Vietnam War service.

Burzynski devotes the first chapter to his father’s service in the Korean War. In the next chapter he enumerates the ever-present  tragedies he lives with daily, making  his psychological treatment in a VA Hospital in Minnesota necessary after his hardship discharge from the Navy in 1975. He married  in 1977 but the  marriage failed.

In February 2006, Burzynski writes, “I went to see the doctor and I was diagnosed as depressed.” That summer he began drinking. “I remember at work, I was asking an older man, he was 74 at the time, ‘What happens when you lose the will to live?’ There was no answer.” This stayed with Burzynski “a long time,” and perhaps led to his trying to find the answer for himself.

In 2008 Burzynski started his treatment at the VA, and he started keeping a journal. He includes transcripts of his counseling sessions in this book. Burzynski records his lapses into drinking, attributing them to events such as his father’s death or partying with friends with drinking problems.

His journal describes his impending divorce and the difficulty he has had finding and keeping meaningful work. He keeps his Alcoholics Anonymous and VA appointments but has continuous trouble with friends taking advantage of his good nature. VA psychological testing discovered that he “carried around the burden of many family conflicts, suicidal attempts, and losses for many years, trying to maintain his emotional center and keep himself together.”

Burzynski occasionally begged people to end his life out of frustration but with the help of counseling from a VA priest, his veterans disability benefits being approved, and maintaining his sobriety, he rose above a troubled life, completing his valuable self-help project.

His artwork on the cover illustrates the climb from depression’s depths to regaining his will to live.

The author’s website is www.arnieburzynski.com

—Curt Nelson

The Dark Side of Heaven by Robert G. Lathrop

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Retired Marine Corps Capt. Robert G. Lathrop’s The Dark Side of Heaven (AgeView Press, 68 pp., $24.99), as the title suggests, is a dark book. Lathrop, a former A-4 Skyhawk pilot, arrived in Vietnam during the  1968 Tet Offensive. In fifteen months, he flew more than 275 missions. His squadron, VMA-311, flew 54,625 sorties and dropped some 9 million tons of bombs.

We’re told this record will never be broken. I believe it. This is a book for those who believe that if we’d only dropped more bombs on Vietnam, the outcome of the war would have been different.

Lathrop was tortured by his role in the Vietnam War and he wrote some moving and powerful poems about what he viewed as war atrocities.  “He wrote them to honor the men and women who served,” the book’s collaboration Jeanette Vaughan writes.

The poems often moved me to tears, as did reading Gene Lathrop’s biography and how he spent his time after the war. He was born in Walla Walla, Washington on June 8, 1942.  He graduated from Dayton High School in 1960.  This overlap with my own biography and the skill of his writing, often made me feel as though I could have easily ended up in his shoes.

His being the exact same age as I am—and being born and raised in Washington State—was often on my mind as I read his verses.  The old cliché, “There but fortune go I,” dogged me throughout the book.

After the war, Lathrop endured PTSD and sought treatment at the VA’s American Lake Hospital near Tacoma, Washington, where many of my close friends also have  been treated. Lathrop spent much of his retirement “in periods of solitude,” writing down his memories of his experiences in Vietnam, seeking “answers and meaning to the controversial questions, occurrences and mysteries that took place during the Vietnam Conflict.”

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An A-4 Skyhawk in the skies over Vietnam

Lathrop was a lucky man, in that he married the love of his life, Joy.  “She was his confidant and supporter as PTSD threatened to unravel Gene’s mind and destroy relationships with friends and family.” Gene Lathrop died on June 13, 2012, “while out on his farm doing what he loved, working the land in solitude.”

This small book of verse is dark and honest and tormented. The titles of the thirteen poems include  “As I Lay Dying,” “After Mission 186,” “The Field of Despair,” and “The Phantom Battalion.”  It’s difficult to quote from a book of this sort, so I won’t even try, but the language of war and of pilots has never been served better in any book I’ve read.

“All of the missions described in this work are purely from the imagination of the author,” Vaughan writes. “Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”  Okay, I buy that, but Gene Lathrop paid the dues that made each of the poems seem to me to be the purest of truths.

The pen and ink drawings by Laura Brown and L. Lederman are perfect to support and amplify the poems. This is a book that everyone concerned about the costs of war should read.

—David Willson