For Michael Clark the road to Vietnam was as twisty and convoluted as a walk through the forest: stunning and green with its richness, covered with underbrush and sticker bushes in other areas, smooth and flat and compacted where it should be.
In One Man’s Story: Memoirs of a Vietnam Vet ( Lulu, 176 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $13.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) Clark takes us through the four phases of his life, focusing on the most traumatic event of his life.
We get details of his childhood and youth; his draft induction, training, and misdirection in the Army; his 1970-71 tour in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division as a medic attached to the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Phu Bai, and his prolonged struggle to come to terms with what he endured in the war.
Clark’s childhood in Michigan gives way to outdoors as a youth, hunting, fishing, the Boy Scouts, high school, love, marriage, and the dreaded menace of a faraway war breathing on his neck. There is a not-so-funny recounting of how an Army trains, assigns, and mis-assigns people into military occupations. Clark wanted to be a Light Vehicle, Wheeled Mechanic, so they sent him to schools to be a medic and a physician’s assistant. When he arrives in Vietnam, there is no ‘open slot’ for him to fill.
Yet, as war heats up, choppers full of dead and dying men are medevaced and he is plunged into the nonstop gore: triage, eighteen-hour days, hideous wounds, burn casualties, blast injuries, limbs that cannot be re-attached or saved, shrapnel wounds, and the stress of doing everything, then losing more men than he can count. It’s a routine of ultra-long days, nights without food or rest, a dogged effort to survive, and memories seared into his soul.
Clark comes home in 1971 to an indifferent America, and begins the struggle to maintain a marriage, find work, and pay bills. He struggles with alcohol. The precision, the care, and the dedication of his work in Vietnam leads him to rebuild all of himself and his shattered psyche in slow measured steps.
During the next forty years Clark polishes his skills as a PA in operating rooms and emergency rooms. He also moves, changes jobs, restarts, and build houses, cabins, retaining walls, and wells–and he still feels the loss, anguish, and the isolation. He is blessed with a strong wife who struggles with him. It is clear that the cancerous growth that was his Vietnam experience eats at his psyche before he wrote his story and purged his soul of his war memories.
Throughout the book, we get Clark’s reluctance to serve, his opposition to the war, his reluctance to be drafted and be moved around for a disjointed mix of training and stateside military bureaucratic mistakes. Yet, when ordered to report for Induction, Michael Clark did his duty.
Michael Clark’s post-war demons were not unlike those of many other veterans. In his last chapter, Clark goes into excruciating detail about the many repair, remodeling, and building projects he undertook, including what seems like details on every nut, bolt, and screw he used to rebuild homes, cabins, garages, wells, septic systems, and retaining walls to shore up his Wisconsin properties.
It is also clear that the detail, the precision, and the struggle to find and keep work—and to keep putting things in order–is Clark’s way to try to make sense his war experiences.
As the book closes, he gains a sense of how precious and fragile life, war, and devotion to family can be—and how lucky he is to have survived utter hell itself.
The book again proves how precious and fragile our allegiance to our great nation can be during very confusing and trying conditions. And it clearly demonstrates how a decent and honorable man earned the right to be called a citizen-soldier and a patriot through his courage, skill, determination, and will to survive.
The author’s website is www.vietnamvetmemoirs.com
—Robert M. Pacholik