The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
January/February 2005

A Daughter In Touch:
Karen Zacharias's Hero Mama


Regular readers of this newspaper know the name Karen Spears Zacharias, one of the leading lights in Sons and Daughters in Touch. Zacharias also is an accomplished journalist who has written many SDIT columns in these pages and has won feature- writing awards. Her book, Hero Mama: A Daughter Remembers the Father She Lost in Vietnam—and the Mother Who Held Her Family Together (Morrow, 367 pp., $24.95), melds Zacharias’s writing ability and advocacy on behalf of families who lost loved  ones in the Vietnam War.

Zacharias was nine years old in 1966 when her father, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. David P. Spears, was killed in Vietnam. It was a blow that hit Karen and her family—her mother, Shelby, her older brother, Frankie (who was 11 at the time), and younger sister, Linda (six)—particularly hard. “As I tried to sleep that first night, fear blanketed me,” Zacharias says. “Never warm, it at least wrapped me up real tight. I took refuge in fear’s cocoon. Sometimes I still do.”

Hero Mama—the title comes from a statue Zacharias saw in Danang—lives up to its subtitle. It is a loving tribute to David and Shelby Spears and an insightful memoir of their oldest daughter’s quest to deal with her father’s death. Karen Zacharias took a giant step in that direction in 2003 when she was among the SDIT members who went to Vietnam on a trip co-sponsored by VVA. Zacharias writes movingly of what she calls “the trip of a lifetime.”

“I did not go to Vietnam seeking closure,” she says. “Grief is a journey with a beginning, but it does not have an end, not in this life anyway. But my trip helped me realize that Vietnam isn’t the scary jungle I’d always imagined it to be.”

Here’s what I look for in a detective novel, a mystery, or a thriller: a rapid read, a clever plot that keeps me guessing, a few laughs, a few memorable characters, and a decent dose of insight into the human condition. Nelson DeMille’s Night Fall (Warner, 480 pp., $26.95) comes through splendidly in all of the above.

DeMille, a 1st Cav LT Vietnam veteran, has been spinning out bestsellers for more than two decades. Night Fall proves that DeMille is getting better in his middle years. DeMille brings back his wise-cracking, former NYPD detective John Corey, who—to put it mildly—does not put up with bureaucratic B.S. It’s the summer of 2001, and Corey’s working for a federal terrorism task force in New York, a job that leads to his completely unauthorized investigation into the events surrounding the explosion of the TWA jet that exploded in 1996 off Long Island.

What Corey finds through dogged detective work and uncompromising anti-establishment stubbornness is the heart of this compelling page-turner. Night Fall is a riveting tale that DeMille tells perfectly. Plus, the ending’s a mystery right up to the last page.

Books that offer up stereotypical maladjusted Vietnam veterans—and writers who either cannot or will not create multi-dimensional, fully fleshed out characters—are not well received. Often, the result is a clichéd Nam vet who is as untrue to life as he is an insult to every Vietnam veteran who came home from a rough tour, took a deep breath, and went on with his or her life.

On the other hand, we welcome those writers who come up with true-to-life Vietnam veteran characters who—like all the rest of us human beings—have flaws, and who— like many of those who came home from the war—suffered psychologically and acted  antisocially. That is the case with the two veterans at the center of Lisa Reardon’s The Mercy Killers (Counterpoint, 256 pp., $24), a well-executed novel that tells the stories of some working-class folks in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Two of her characters get drafted, undergo bruising Vietnam tours, and come home to lives of petty crime and substance abuse. It’s not a pretty picture, but Reardon makes it all work. She bores deeply into the veterans’ psyches, and we discover they are victims of child abuse and abandonment and were troublemakers before they went into the Army. Their stories, in other words, are eminently believable. 

Reardon acknowledges the help she received from Vietnam veterans, including members of VVA Chapter 109 in Jackson, Michigan. She listened to the voices of experience. Her gritty, readable book is the proof.

Michael Lund’s Route 66 to Vietnam (Beach House Books, 217 pp., $14.95, paper) is an engaging tale that flashes back to the narrator’s Vietnam War tour. “Ninety-five percent of my experience in Vietnam,” he says, “was, at least on the surface, either banal or comic. Unfortunately, the remaining five percent was especially tragic.” This is the sixth book in Lund’s Route 66 series. The author served as a U.S. Army combat correspondent in Vietnam in 1970-71.

VVA Life Member Mike Sutton’s No Survivors (Author House, 375 pp., $19.75, hardcover; $12.25, paper) is a well-told novel that does not shrink from graphically portraying brutal in-country Vietnam War action. Sutton, who served three Vietnam War tours, evokes the ground war well from the perspective of a small advisory team working in the Delta. His epilogue, set in 1986 at The Wall in Washington, is a moving and cathartic tribute to those he served with.

John F. Mullins’ Into the Treeline (Pocket Star, 357 pp., $6.99), is an action-heavy, evocative, broadly sketched Nam novel focusing on a Green Beret LT who becomes a Phoenix Program op. This is the second in Mullins’ “Men of Valor” series. Mullins did three Special Forces tours in the Vietnam War.

Robert Vaughan’s Brandywine’s War: Back In Country (Skyward, 259 pp., $24.95) is a sequel to the author’s 1971 novel, Brandywine’s War. In the new book, the title character, an Army CWO helicopter pilot, gets involved in a series of misadventures revolving around the publication of his novel. The dialogue-heavy book moves swiftly with a wacky cast of characters. Vaughan flew helicopters in the war.

In Voices of War: Stories of Service from the Home Front and the Front Lines (National Geographic, 336 pp., $30), editor Tom Weiner has taken the stories of Americans who took part in the two world wars and the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf I Wars and shaped them into a meaningful narrative. Weiner and a group of National Geographic staffers combed through the more than 30,000 oral histories collected by the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project and chose the impressions of some sixty men and women. 

Two Vietnam veterans—former Sen. Max Cleland and Sen. Chuck Hagel—contribute the introduction and the afterward. The book contains scores of brief entries organized by topic and war, enhanced by dozens of photographs.

In 1969, while hundreds of thousands of troops were in Vietnam, life continued back home. That year, three New York teams—the Mets, the Knicks, and the Jets—won world championships. Art Shamsky, the former Met outfielder, and writer Barry Zeman tell that amazing story in The Magnificent Season: How the Jets, Mets, and Knicks Made Sports History and Uplifted a City and the Country (Thomas Dunne, 266 pp., $24.95).

The authors put those big seasons in their social and political context by giving the thoughts of, among others, Vietnam veterans, including New York VVA members Ned Foote and Stanley Kuchewski. Listening to the Jets win the Super Bowl over the radio at a remote firebase, Kuchewski said, was one of the few things that “could bring you away from the war.” Following the Mets that season while he was recuperating from his war wounds at the VA Medical Center in Albany, Foote said, “made me feel good. It took my mind off my problems. There wasn’t much else to make me feel good.”

Charles Henderson does an exceptionally thorough job of setting forth the details of the end of the American presence in Vietnam in Goodnight Saigon: The True Story of the U.S. Marines’ Last Days in Vietnam (Berkley, 420 pp., $24.95). Henderson, a Marine Vietnam veteran who has written three books about the war, turns the story into a personality-driven tale, featuring the voices of those who took part in the April 1975 events on the ground and in Washington. And there are plenty of voices from all sides, including former NVA high-ranking officers and VC cadre and the thoughts of then-President Gerald R. Ford. It makes for a solid, inclusive, and very readable tale. 

Few people are more qualified to write about the Soviet Union’s impact on the American war in Vietnam than Ilya V. Gaiduk, a senior research fellow (and Vietnam War expert) at the Institute of General History in Moscow. Gaiduk’s Confronting Vietnam: Soviet Policy Toward the Indochina Conflict, 1954-1963 (Woodrow Wilson Center/Stanford University, 286 pp., $55) is a well-researched look at the Soviet’s early Vietnam War policy.

Based on his reading of newly released Russian archival documents and other materials, Gaiduk dismisses the notion that the Vietnamese communist war against South Vietnam was part of an international conspiracy. “Although not averse to a Communist victory in the region, the Kremlin ascribed to Indochina no geo-strategic importance and did not want the crisis there to be an impediment to the process of detente with the United States and its allies,” Gaiduk says.

What’s Going On? California and the Vietnam Era (Oakland Museum of California/University of California, 220 pp., $49.95, hardcover; $29.95, paper) is a photo-filled collection of essays that focuses on the Golden State and the Vietnam War. Editors Marcia A. Eymann and Charles Wollenberg chose an excellent group of scholars—including Marc Jason Gilbert, George Mariscal, Robert D. Schulzinger, and Andrew Lam—to look at various aspects of the war. Navy Vietnam veteran John F. Burns, the former California state archivist, provides an excellent chapter on Vietnam veterans. Burns notes that some 260,000 Californians fought in Vietnam and that more than 5,800 were killed. The book was published last November in conjunction with the Oakland Museum’s extensive exhibit of the same name.

Gene D. Phillips’ Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola (University of Kentucky, 464 pp., $35) contains a long, and enlightening chapter on Coppola’s two Vietnam War films, Apocalypse Now and Gardens of Stone. Phillips, an English professor at Loyola University in Chicago, provides inside-baseball anecdotes on both films, including the fact that the producer of Gardens convinced the Pentagon to cooperate with that film (as it did not with Apocalypse) by reminding a “high-ranking general” that Coppola wrote the screenplay for the movie Patton

Marine-turned-author Johnnie M. Clark’s latest book, Gunner’s Glory: Untold Stories of Marine Machine Gunners (Presidio/Ballantine, 302 pp., $6.99, paper), focuses on seven Marines who fought from WWII to the Vietnam War. The profilees from Vietnam are Melvin Earl Newlin, who received a posthumous Medal of Honor, and Jack Hartzel. The stories (except Newlin’s) are told in the first person by the one-time machine gunners.

The classic village-level “hearts and minds” examination of the Vietnam War, Stuart A  Herrington’s 1982 memoir Silence Was a Weapon, is out in a new paper edition re- titled Stalking the Vietcong: Inside Operation Phoenix: A Personal Account (Presidio/Ballantine, 279 pp., $6.99). Herrington writes of his 1971-72 tour as an Army intelligence officer in Hau Nghia Province and especially about the life-threatening pressures faced by South Vietnamese villagers from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, as well as from their own military and government.

New in paper: Bill Shanahan’s top-notch Vietnam War memoir Stealth Patrol: The Making of a Vietnam Ranger (Da Capo, 296 pp., $15.95), written with John P. Bracken and first published in 2003.


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