There have been many books written about Vietnam, many by veterans, but Brothers Like These is the book I’m highlighting today.
Joseph Bathanti was North Carolina Poet Laureate 2012-2014, and he chose as his signature project to work with ‘returning combat veterans, all veterans, and their families to harvest their stories . . .’ to provide a safe place to tell their stories in whatever form they would take.
Joseph worked with Dr. Bruce Kelly, a primary care physician at the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, NC, and together they launched a writing program for Vietnam combat veterans who were under Dr. Kelly’s care. Some of the veterans were hesitant at first – arts to release what they’d been holding in for years? During the following two years as these men met in this inaugural program, they surprised themselves by their writing, their healing, and in finding the understanding they’d been looking for since returning home. They didn’t come into the program seeing themselves as poets or writers, but the honesty and eloquence in their stories and the strength and details of memory say otherwise.
The poems, essays and stories are short – the whole book is only 69 pages – and I think it’s in their brevity that they pack such a punch. Some memories reveal themselves in layers, others come out in sharp tight narrative, but as you can see from all my sticky notes, every piece contained a line or image that evoked a strong reaction. I don’t have permission to reprint any of the works, but I do want to honor each writer with a brief comment.
On Saturday Hubby and I attended the local Veterans’ Day parade, and as the area high schools’ ROTC cadets marched by, I thought of Michael Ireland’s prologue, Service, where he laments – rages? – about how the country’s young people were taken from all they’d known, molded into soldiers, and after they’d given their all were returned to a country they no longer recognized and one which didn’t recognize them. I thought about how disorienting and unmooring this must have been for those young men.
The collection is divided into three parts – Before Vietnam where we read about the lives these men left behind, In Country is the largest section filled with images that haven’t faded, and And After where the signs of hope, healing, and recovery are evident.
Allan Perkal begins Before Vietnam with Where I’m From to Where I was Destined to Be in his hometown of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, and ends seeing returning troops with the thousand-mile stare. He immediately understands these men have been through something he can’t imagine but will soon discover for himself.
Stephen Henderson writes in The Day before I Left Home about returning to combat after his 30-day leave. He finishes his essay with the image of a river and the rocks, and it struck me what things remain so vivid in memory on an emotional day like that. And also how difficult it had to be to return home, finally relax and get reacquainted with family, and then leave again.
Ed Norris’s last line in Where I’m From made me pause. Cathy Smith Bowers, NC Poet Laureate 2010-2012, always talks about the abiding image, the image that stays with you. Ed gives us this short, moving bio and finishes with an abiding image that stuns.
In the section In Country, the poets and writers bring the Vietnam War right to us. It’s understandable how and why these soldiers carry still, those years in combat.
In Arrival, George Durden hones in on all the sights and smells that assault the senses once the plane lands at Bien Hoa Air Force Base.
And yet, Glenn Beane in My Time on the Hill, contrasts the hardships of war with sunrises and sunsets, of finding a slice of beauty within all the other images.
Ed Spangler’s Because I Didn’t Want to Know Names illustrates the real emotional pain of being in country. There’s the hard fact of the average length of combat a WWII infantryman saw in the South Pacific – 40 days – compared to the average length of combat for a Vietnam War soldier – 240 days. How could they not have been completely depleted of all inner resources?
Ron Toler takes us into Jungle School in What Would Save Us, and reveals just how astute and dangerous the enemy was.
Music from the Sky by David Rozzell offers an honest picture of spending Christmas away from home.
I was reminded there were other things for the soldiers to be alert for other than the Viet Cong in Charles Erskine’s It Wasn’t a Tiger as he describes a night in the jungle.
Moments of respite were rare, but Paul Wayne Heflin finds one in Crystal Blue Persuasion that brings ‘home’ to the senses and bolsters the heart enough to jump back into the jeep and carry on.
There are abiding images and for John Hoffman in An Enduring Image, it’s the American flag and all it stands for, symbolizes, and what it means to an American soldier.
Robert Earwood captures the everyday rhythm of the war in Remembering Camp Evans. There are fires, explosions, mortars and rockets that are commonplace and keep everyone on alert, and then those few hours when letters to home are written. Each carries a different energy, but the same weight.
And After, the men return home and bring the war home with them.
How often do we catch a whiff of pipe smoke and immediately think of our grandpa? Or the aroma of pumpkin pie takes us right back to family Thanksgivings with all the trimmings? Troy “Butch” Gudger writes in his powerful poem, Helicopter, that it doesn’t take much to send a vet back to the jungles – a scent, a sound.
In Memories and the Last Mission, John Hallimore admits some memories are still locked away, and for the time being will stay there. And he pointed out some dangers about a soldier’s last mission that I’d never considered.
So many emotions in Robert West’s Handbook for U.S Forces in Vietnam and his writing leaves the reader experiencing all of them. Let us all pray handbooks have been rewritten.
Lester Davis chronicles his return in My Road to Recovery baring his soul in both his struggles over the years, and in his love for his wife.
David Cole experienced loss overseas, but it’s back home in Bull Creek where loss continues in a heartbreaking and profound way.
The collection’s title comes from David Robinson’s poem, Across the Sea. David brings together all the images and emotions, the coming home and years of trying to forget. But ultimately understands without all these experiences he would have never met brothers like these.
These pieces made me cry, caused my stomach to tighten, bubbled up anger – reactions good writing and good stories are supposed to create. They also deepened my gratitude for all those who served, and who continue to serve in our armed forces, and for their families who support them.
I thank Joseph and Dr. Bruce Kelly for opening the space for these men to explore a new way of healing. I especially thank the following writers for their powerful stories and for their service: Glenn Beane, David Cole, Lester Davies, George Durden, Robert Earwood, Charles Erskine, Troy “Butch” Gudger, John E. Hallimore, Paul Wayne Heflin, Stephen Henderson, John T. Hoffman, Michael Ireland, Edward Gene Norris, Allan Perkal, David Rozzell, David Robinson, Charles “Ed” Spangler, Ron Toler, and Robert E. West.
Brothers Like These is available for $10.00 through Bookshop, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.