Book Talk: The Big Apple Goes to Vietnam

November 3, 2013 | CUNY Matters, The University

By Gary Schmidgall

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I escaped the funnel into Vietnam in 1969 by 48 hours. My second — and unevadable — draft notice arrived in the mail on a Monday, but I had enlisted in the reserves of the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps the previous Saturday (I did not reveal that I was thinking of dropping out of Stanford Law School). Boot camp was at Fort Ord, charmingly situated near the scenic Monterey Peninsula, and I served my six years at the world’s most beautiful fort, the Presidio of San Francisco. Happily, both installations are now demilitarized zones. The Army was pretty good to me, even allowing me a year’s leave of absence for pre-doctoral study in art history (not war) at London’s Warburg Institute.

My younger brother was not so lucky: He ended up a copter gunner in Vietnam. He kept his war experience to himself at first, but over the years, he has made it clear my posh military service was far from the reality of being “in-country,” as veterans refer to time spent in Vietnam.

So I had an inkling of what I was in for in Philip Napoli’s Bringing It All Back Home (Hill and Wang), an oral history that focuses on the stories of about two dozen New York City Vietnam veterans. Napoli, a professor of history at Brooklyn College, where he is director of the Vietnam Oral History Project, drew his book from interviews with more than 200 vets and about 600 hours of tape. His skillful listening and deft way of placing the monologues within the broader context of the extensive literature on Vietnam were doubtless honed when he conducted many of the interviews Tom Brokaw used in his best-selling The Greatest Generation and The Greatest Generation Speaks. Adding to the study’s authenticity is Napoli’s promise that he uses no pseudonyms and the obvious fact that no expletives have been deleted.

Napoli had a large cohort to choose from: Of the 80,000 New Yorkers who went to Vietnam all but 1,741 made it back alive. He has succeeded in presenting a highly varied but broadly representative cross-section. Most began their service in the later 60s — after all, between 1965 and 1968 the number of soldiers in-country escalated from 82,000 to 525,000. Many left the service before 1970, living a military afterlife of 40-plus years, some of them victims of their own demons, Agent Orange, PTSD or a shamefully ungrateful nation.

This Vietnam “tour” is inevitably a roller-coaster experience of harrowing downdrafts followed by inspirational uplifts, though in the end the former predominate. If any theme seems to stand out, it is that for many veterans there is really no “post” in PTSD. Their war has a weird, nightmarish, indelible presence. Napoli gives the last word to Rudy Dent, a former copter gunner and retired city firefighter, who was asked if he had flashbacks: “How about a flash-present? It’s there every moment of every day … It’s always there. It doesn’t go away.”

Throughout his book Napoli introduces pertinent data; for the hospital scenes he notes that the average stay was four days.

One of Napoli’s interviewees brought him to CUNY’s former chancellory on 80th Street, to meet senior dean Robert Ptachik. His story begins on two bum notes, dropping out of Brooklyn College (and thus getting drafted), then getting wounded by a booby trap just three months into his tour. After discharge with a 40 percent disability rating, the arc of Ptachik’s career brightened. He got his undergraduate degree (from SUNY Stony Brook) and a job in CUNY’s Application Processing Center, where he rose up the ladder; he also earned an NYU Ph.D. in public administration. After putting his war experience behind him for two decades, Ptachik became more of an activist, helping to found the Brooklyn chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, then in 1984 becoming involved in fundraising for the city’s Vietnam Memorial (he worked on the commission that raised $5 million for it).

Other veterans perhaps fit the more stereotypical tailspin arc of the Vietnam veteran.

Herbert Sweat came out of the tough ghetto of Bed-Stuy, into an elite airborne unit, and into the jungles of Nam, where he became what he calls a “boonie rat”— a soldier “running around in the jungles, eating, killing, very rarely sleeping.” Out of the army at 19 in 1970, he spun out of control with a murder charge, three marriages, VA institutionalization and homelessness. Finally, he found a purpose in the Black Veterans for Social Justice, founded in 1979. He ran its Veterans Action Group for years and was elected chair of its board in 2010 — cosmic payback, he feels, for being a “boonie rat” for a year nearly 45 years ago.

The funniest moment in Bringing It All Back Home has, like most all military humor, a touch of the gallows. Fred Louis returned from his Vietnam tour late in the evening at Kennedy Airport. Decked out in his full-dress uniform, he got in a cab and asked to be taken to deepest, darkest Flatbush. The driver refused such a dangerous fare only relenting when he was offered 10 dollars over the meter. “That’s my hero’s welcome,” Louis wryly mused.

Many a Vietnam vet has muttered the same words.


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