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Alone in Vietnam : tour of duty in South Vietnam, June 3, 1968-June 3, 1969

by Robert B Boyd, Jr.

  Print book : Biography

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Alone In Vietnam - One Vietnam Veteran's stories about his war experience.   (2010-09-11)

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Alone in Vietnam by Robert B. Boyd Jr.

Alone in Vietnam is about the experience of an American 20-year-old American who is drafted and arrives in the jungles South Vietnam six months later on June 3, 1968. He is in the Army’s 196th Light Infantry Brigade in Company D called “Black Death” in the northern-most military region of South Vietnam, I CORP, near the DMZ. He eventually becomes his squad’s machine gunner. He carries an M60 on his shoulder. Counting down the days of his 365-day tour of duty gives him little relief from the horrible reminder, from those dying around him, that his chances of surviving until June 3, 1969 are grim. In fact, his fear only seems to increase the closer he gets to that date.

Boyd tells us about his war experience in a very simple style, in his own voice, the way it happened, without trying to be literary or philosophical about the subject. His stories are primary without interruption-with very little reflection and asides. The book begins when he is drafted and abruptly inducted and ends when he returns from war. The stories all happen within those two points in time. Not only is it a glimpse into a formative year and half of one man’s life, but also the into the world of a combat soldier in Vietnam when that war was at it’s height – in 1968 when there were over half a million troops inside the country and they were dying at a rate of over 1300 a month.

Immediatly following Boyd’s book I read Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried, and during the first pages I wanted O’Brien to shut up and tell the stories! Of course that feeling went away as I continued reading - The Things They Carried is so well written and thoughtful that you can’t finish it without being moved. O’Brien is probably the preeminent writer on the subject of serviceman’s war experience in Vietnam, and and in this particular book he drew not only from his own experiences but also from those of other veterans. Boyd draws only from his own experience in Vietnam. I like both books and neither way of story-telling is better than the other. Surely O’Brien is the more thoughtful and talented writer and has contribution of ideas and questions are invaluable, and some will complain of even making a comparison. But I make it because I read their books back to back and in the first pages of O’Brien I missed Boyd’s simple narrative. Boyd wrote without the pretense of being a writer, and I was drawn in by his raw, plain-spoken voice and his well told stories. While reading - yes it is a cliche, but true -I found it hard to put the book down.

As can be expected with war stories, some of Boyd’s are tough to read, but they are told with honesty, not bravado. He is open about the fear and confusion he felt during much of his 365 day tour. There is humor in some stories and the author has no problem pointing out the ironies and absurdities of situations he finds himself in. For example he compares being a 20-year-old in the US, with being a 20-year-old soldier in Vietnam. When he was home on leave before shipping to Vietnam he was kicked out a local bar in his hometown because he wasn’t old enough to drink. Two weeks later he is in Vietnam and they give him as many weapons and explosives as he can carry. His comment: “Go figure.”

Boyd take’s no overt political stance on the war and there is nothing in his narrative about historic events of 1968 -1969. The My Lau Massacre, Tet Offensive, Walter Cronkite’s famous editorial report from Vietnam, LBJ’s decision not to seek re-election, the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Nixon’s election, all happened in those two years. Did Robert B. Boyd Jr. know that Andy Warhol was shot on the same day Boyd arrived in Vietnam? Was he aware of the Apollo missions that were leading up to the Moon Landing - an event to take place a month after his return? However aware Boyd or any other Army infantry grunt in Vietnam were about these historic events, it is likely that they were diminished, if not completed obliterated, by the larger, immediate reality of death and survival in combat. In his book, Boyd’s only mention of anti-war protests is on the day he arrives home from Vietnam. Half delirious with malaria and the surreality of change - he is confronted protesters as abruptly as he was his induction into the Army a year and half before.

Boyd includes stories about his basic training, and receiving orders to report for advance infantry training at Tigerland, Fort Polk, Louisiana. After he received the orders the drill instructors and officers in basic training suddenly treated him more kindly, but also gave him “the look”, as Boyd put it. Boyd learned what the look meant–he was heading for combat in Vietnam, but he’d never heard of Tigerland (the movie didn’t come out until 2000!). Tigerland, was a training camp that simulated the jungle combat conditions of Vietnam including villages, enemy Viet Cong guerillas, and intense training exercises in which capture meant torture. The trainers, other young men with first hand combat experience, did their best to prepare and instill in the trainees the realities of jungle combat, and of being a grunt in Vietnam. The trainees were told in the frankest terms that they would probably not come back alive, and those that did would be damaged.

As with many Vietnam combat veterans, the author suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for years and was only diagnosed late in his life. Part of his treatment was narrative therapy, in which he remembered, owned and re-told his experiences. This process of getting-out his experiences  eventually lead to the collection of stories and the book Alone in Vietnam. 

Boyd never mentions PTSD in his book and as a reader I never felt like I was listening to a man in therapy. But reading these stories did help me understand just a little better the amazing stress of combat, combat fear, and the specific loneliness that many Vietnam veterans experienced. Alone in Vietnam does not deal with Boyd’s life after June 1969, but I imagine he continued to live alone with his war memories. On occasion, in the context of a specific incident ,Boyd does say how his experiences had a profound effect on the way he continued to see the world around him, ever day, in both positive and negative ways. It was always there.

Writing can be therapeutic and many Vietnam Vets have published war stories. Some like Boyd’s are a result of  narrative therapy for PTSD. Other infantry men, marines, Huey pilots etc. have written down their stories at least in part for similar reasons. Some like Boyd’s were self-published. Boyd printed and hand-bound his first copies of <i>Alone in Vietnam</i>-and I image that the physical process of binding his pages between covers, and then sharing his books with others was a courageous (and perhaps frightening) step toward healing.

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