Walking Point by Robert Kunkel

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As many war veterans have done before him, Robert Kunkel has created a memoir based on short stories he wrote to try to free his mind of haunting memories that caused post-traumatic stress disorder. Along with his own serious physical wounds, Kunkel had several friends killed in action, which ingrained his brain cells with psychological scars for an eternity, he says.

“There are thousands of stories like mine, but each is very different because of perception and what was in the mind at the time of an encounter, whatever that encounter may have been,”  Kunkel notes in Walking Point: A Vietnam Memoir (Thunderbrook, 479 pp. $18.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle).

Bob Kunkel is a savvy guy. His recollections of infantry life are as informative as any Vietnam War memoir I have read. A stickler for detail, he presents an unfiltered view of what took place in his own mind and speculates about the thoughts of others. His descriptions of combat, suffering, and death leave little to the imagination. His stories describe meaningful encounters on and off the battlefield. Bad actors generally receive a comeuppance.

At the same time, many of Kunkel’s stories are humorous. He labels laughter as “a smokescreen to keep from crying.”

He primarily served with B Company, 5th/7th Cavalry in the 1st Cavalry Division, operating out of Camp Radcliff near An Khe. The men of his company were determinedly aggressive against the NVA and Viet Cong during Operations Irving and Thayer in Binh Dinh Province in September and October 1966. The Americans relocated hamlet populations, burned hooches, destroyed food sources, and pursued the enemy with a take-no-prisoners policy. Kunkel reveals both heroics and atrocities performed by his company.

Drafted into the Army earlier that year at the relatively advanced age of twenty-two, Kunkel frequently assumed the role of platoon spokesman by differentiating between what had to be done and what was illogical. He counterbalanced a borderline wise-ass attitude by volunteering for dangerous tasks such as walking point and clearing underground bunkers as a tunnel rat. He was devoted to his fellow soldiers.

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Bob Kunkel

In his first large-scale battle, Kunkel suffered wounds to his head, back, and buttocks. Evacuated to Japan, he spent three painful months convalescing and then willingly returned to the field. Eventually the company commander recognized Kunkel’s inability to carry a full pack due to muscle damage and moved him to guard duty—a job that turned out to be more dynamic than expected.

For several years after returning to civilian life, Kunkel struggled to establish a purpose for his existence. Eventually, he found a “marriage and career made for him,” he explains.

Kunkel spent eighteen years writing Walking Point. He started it in 1999 after retiring from a thirty-three year law-enforcement career. Jean Doran Matua—who owns, publishes, and edits the Tri-County News in Minnesota—helped him with editing and designing the book.

The author’s website is walkingpoint.us

—Henry Zeybel

 

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Post 8195 edited by Bobby White

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Twenty-three men recall “untold truths” in Post 8195: Black Soldiers Tell Their Vietnam Stories (Beckham, 228 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper) edited by Bobby White. Far beyond their confrontations with the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, the men still battle post-traumatic stress disorder.

These twenty-three men served in every branch of the service and performed the duties expected of them with lasting pride. A majority of them were infantrymen and remember horrific episodes from the thick of combat. Their gut-level candidness exceeds what is found in most Vietnam War books.

They focus on fears that nearly overpowered them. They emphasize challenges more than heroism, although they acted heroically in times of crisis. They often still show amazement for what they did and saw long ago. Even today, they dwell on how “Vietnam was a big hell spot,” as Ismael Rolle, Jr., put it. “We had no alternative but to fight and survive.”

Mostly draftees, the men express controlled anger regarding racism during their time in Vietnam. They recognized that a racial bias existed, but lived with it. Several became squad leaders.

Eulas Mitchell Jr. says, “I had a squad of fifteen men; all were black.” They performed with “perfection,” which “didn’t sit well with the powers.”

His unit was broken up. Then, Mitchell says, he “was given thirteen southern boys nobody wanted.” He turned them into a “good group” that simply “wanted a proven leader.”

The VFW Post in West Park, Florida, under the guidance of Bobby White, began a program to counsel veterans in multiple ways, especially those with PTSD. Called Stone of Hope, the program is an extension of one offered by the local Vet Center. White, retired from a thirty-two year career with the VA, organized a rehabilitation program that emphasized transcendental meditation, yoga, and chiropractic.534951_lno7y3kp

Post 8195 grew from this program and enhanced the men’s recovery from PTSD. Today, most of the men are in long-term marriages, have families and children, and enjoy retirement benefits earned from civilian careers.

The VFW post plays a major role in the lives of four hundred African Americans, White says,  providing them with both guidance and “the place” for adults to “hang out.”

—Henry Zeybel

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

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

Tin Can Treason by Terry Nardone

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Terry Nardone’s Tin Can Treason: Recollections from a Combat Tour of Vietnam (CreateSpace, 159 pp. $12.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a tell-all memoir about life aboard a United States Navy destroyer and the dynamics of the relations between crewmen. Worried about the draft and an infantry assignment, Nardone enlisted in the Navy the day after his eighteenth birthday in 1971. Despite getting his dream sheet fulfilled, he ended up on a ship that went to war.

“Are we men or boys?” Nardone asks several times while thinking through his Vietnam War experience aboard the USS Bordelon (DD881). As part of his treatment for PTSD and guided by “a diary of events,” he writes about his shipboard life in the voice of his younger self in a quest to understand the trauma he still feels nearly fifty years later.

Fear and depression played significant roles in the lives of men on the Bordelon during her round trip from Charleston, South Carolina, to the South China Sea between October 1972 and April 1973. Nardone describes attempts to sabotage the ship as proof that the crew hated the war and wanted no part of it.

Off the coast of Vietnam, the Bordelon primarily provided gunfire support for ground forces and took part in Operation Linebacker. Except for one engagement when he went topside, Nardone spent his combat time below deck setting fuses and moving artillery shells.

His contempt for the war peaked when the Bordelon bombarded and “killed about eighteen [friendly] Marines,” he says. He felt an equally tragic loss when he saw a close friend “cut right in half by the steam” from a ruptured 600-PSI line. In combat, tasks that stressed the ship’s structure made “the old beast feel like she [was] going to disintegrate,” Nardone writes, and the crew twice retreated to Subic Bay for repairs.

Nardone talks about the boredom of sailing long distances and says a few crewmen likened it to a prison sentence. He seemingly holds back nothing in describing stops that developed into orgies of drinking booze, smoking dope, and finding whores or girlfriends in port after port. A confessed self-abuser, Nardone nevertheless questioned his behavior, wondering if he “would still have nightmares and problems if [he] did not get stoned.” Frequently in trouble with the ship’s captain, Nardone once spent three days in the brig on bread and water.

The book’s title is deceptive: “Treason” is not clearly defined and might be viewed from multiple perspectives. Suspected of the most flagrant crimes, the ship’s captain was relieved of his command, confined to quarters, and arrested upon returning to the United States.

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Terry Nardone

You could call this a coming-of-age story except that Nardone was a world-wise young man who exerted significant influence on his shipmates. He makes an airtight case for the strength of friendships and confidences that develop among workers in physically restricted surroundings, such as the hundred men on a destroyer.

Reviewing something like a memoir a week for “Books in Review II” for the past year and a half, I have read few accounts of the Vietnam War written by sailors. Until now, the most memorable book I’ve read about the Navy was Brown Water Runs Red by Bob Andretta, which mainly covers action on South Vietnamese rivers.

Tin Can Treason differs by telling more about people and the ship rather than the action. Yet Terry Nardone clearly spells out the impact that the war had on everyone and everything.

He closes his book with a history of the Bordelon from its 1945 commissioning to its 1977 sinking as a target.

—Henry Zeybel