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Reluctant Soldier, Uneasy Veteran
By Larry Kerschner (reviewer)
Reluctant Soldier, Uneasy Veteran: A Year in Vietnam and Beyond
by Mark Fleming
Mark Fleming's book, Reluctant Soldier, Uneasy Veteran: A Year in Vietnam and Beyond, is a memoir of a middle-class honors college graduate who ended up in the infantry in Vietnam in 1971. This honest book can easily stand on the bookshelf with A Rumor of War by Phil Caputo, The Ground You Stand Upon: Life of a Skytrooper in Vietnam by Joshua E. Bowe, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, and other Vietnam memoirs.
When Mark graduated from college, he knew he would likely be drafted soon. He decided to enlist in the Army for two years, hoping that his college degree would lead to a non-combat assignment. The Army had a different plan. After initial training, Mark was assigned to the infantry with orders to report to Vietnam.
He was placed with the 1st Cavalry Division, which carried out combat operations about 60 miles east of Saigon. His first combat patrol began January 12, 1971, with a helicopter ride to a landing zone (LZ). "The Huey gained altitude quickly. The ride was jarring. The aircraft shuddered under its big rotor blades; screaming turbines created a chaos that pierced my brain."
This was the beginning of his five months in the bush. His unit "crashed through the brush up and down the ridges. The terrain was challenging enough, but I was climbing with at least 60 pounds of gear on my back, an M16 in one hand and a heavy ammo box in the other. I remember cursing each step, the mountain, the Army, the officers, the heat–fucking everything." After two months in the bush, his unit had a short R&R where he realized that his platoon mates were "the only people in the world who could understand my situation. We were all in this together."
He reflects that he could not dwell on the omnipresent danger because it would paralyze him. "Yeah, I might die any minute but that was just a fact of life then and there was very little I could do about it other than not fuck up and hope that my command didn't fuck me up either."
After five months in the field, Mark talked his way into the job of Company Clerk in the Battalion rear base. As a permanent REMF (rear echelon motherfucker), he reveled in clean clothes, hot food, and available showers. He was glad to trade the bush for "the world of Army bureaucracy. My life was not at risk, but my sanity was sorely tried by pettiness and stupidity."
In 1971, "we were at the tail end of the war, the last men asked to risk life and limb as our country withdrew troops and told the American public that the war was over." 2,357 Americans died in Vietnam in 1971, far less than the 16,592 who died in 1968, but that was still 200 needless deaths each month.
Drug use was common among the troops in 1971. "Smoking pot was definitely about stealing from the Army. I was angry about the whole goddamn war, about me being part of it, about the aggression that was now part of my life. Whatever time I could withhold from the Army was that much less of me that was part of the war." Smoking marijuana and the increasing heroin use were a small part of the overall erosion of morale and growing resistance to the war among the soldiers. In August of that year, President Nixon decided to begin his War on Drugs in Vietnam. As Company Clerk, Mark was in a position to appoint an enlisted member of the Battalion drug control council. "I perversely chose one of the biggest heroin addicts in the company for that role." The council never met.
On the whole, Mark had a negative view of the command higher-highers. "In a war with meaning, officers and enlisted ranks share a sense of purpose. America's war in Vietnam held no meaning for me beyond my own country's ignorance, hubris and stupidity."
On January 3, 1972, back in the states, Mark mustered out of the Army. Planning for graduate school and hiking by himself in Virginia's mountains filled his time those first months back. "I did not forget about Vietnam, but as long as I stayed focused on my present, Vietnam was simply a part of the background of my life. ...The one aspect of the experience that remained was the sense that I was different from all the other people around me who had not gone to war."
"Being exposed to combat left me with a life-long wariness. Even now my brain often interprets simple, benign events as life-threatening possibilities...That was a loss of innocence—my world had always been safe and secure—that I could not walk back after Vietnam...Learning to kill is a lesson that never goes away. Properly equipped, killing another person is very easy."
After almost 50 years, Mark still questions why he went to Vietnam. "I went because I was afraid to say 'no' to my country. I feared that refusing the draft or orders to Vietnam would forever keep me from anything like a normal life. That was not a chance I was willing to take. I was more afraid of disapproval than I was of risking my life." "All Americans were betrayed by their country in Vietnam. We grunts were simply the Americans who got the worst of it. The Vietnamese got even worse."
Mark tries to give some meaning to his Vietnam experience by speaking and writing against war and militarism. He has become an independent VA claims agent to help veterans and active duty members of the military prepare claims with the VA, especially for PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Mark ends his book with posts from his blog, Unsolicited Opinions, and a collection of Vietnam-related short stories and poetry. Both give further insight into his time in Vietnam.
Larry Kerschner is a lifetime member of both VVAW and VFP. He is in the 17th year of a weekly peace vigil inside Trump country. Find Larry online at: www.livejournal.com/~larrywrites