Vietnam is the war that never ends.
Now, Philip Napoli brings the New Yorkers who served in that war into sniper-sharp focus in his riveting new book, “Bringing It All Back Home: An Oral History of New York City’s Vietnam Veterans.”
Every local ‘Nam veteran will relate. Every returning veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan should read this book so that they might avoid some of the horrors their ‘Nam counterparts suffered after returning to the war over their war back home.
I first met Napoli — a Brooklyn College history professor who did many of the interviews for Tom Brokaw’s 1998 “Greatest Generation” book — about eight years ago when he interviewed my brother John and me. I’d written a column about John’s experiences as a medic with the 173rd Airborne in the central highlands of Vietnam during the ferocious Tet Offensive of 1968.
I wrote about how Vietnam had divided two brothers, inseparable kids who grew up playing make-believe war games on the streets of Brooklyn. And how Vietnam heaved us from childhood into adulthood in a split-teenage-second the morning I walked Johnny from our Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, apartment to the subway, hugged him goodbye and watched him heft his duffel bag and march in spit-shined boots off to a real war 9,000 miles away. Napoli read that column and interviewed John some 30 years after the Vietnam War officially ended, one of 175 Napoli conducted with local Nam vets over eight years and included in his book.
“Bringing It All Back Home” crackles with the kind of extraordinary voices Studs Terkel mined from ordinary people, winning rave reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus.
Stories, in their own words, of G.I.s like Rudy Dent, a helicopter door gunner and retired New York City firefighter. “Someone had asked me about flashbacks,” Dent says, “and it’s not about a flashback; how about a flash-present? It’s there every moment of every day … It’s always there. It doesn’t go away.”
“Everything that you responded to in life was always interpreted through this lens of Vietnam,” adds Brooklyn-born Joan Furey, an Army nurse who served in Pleiku in 1969. “The reason I spent so much of my professional life working in this field of PTSD and veterans health care was to … figure out a way to get people to understand what this experience is about, so the next generation of people don’t have to go through that.”
So now it was my turn to interview Napoli to get a historian’s take on guys like my brother who came home from Vietnam forever changed. “There had never been a book about New York Vietnam vets,” he says. “I was 15 when the Vietnam War ended. So I had no personal experience.”
He was a blank canvas when he contacted the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 72 in Brooklyn.
“Bob Ptachik, founder of that chapter, and Luigi Masu and Duane Paulson came to trust me and they introduced me to other veterans and it just sort of snowballed,” he says. “And I began to see a variety of patterns. Many of the 250,000 veterans who returned to New York faced adversity, but somehow their military training and war experience gave them the fortitude to lift themselves up from drugs, homelessness, unemployment, post-traumatic stress disorder. Secondly, the stereotype in the media and the public that most Vietnam veterans were crazy was just silly. Most had gone on to live productive lives.”
Napoli also noticed many Vietnam vets chose jobs with a broad level of community involvement. “These were people who learned in the military about personal commitment,” he says. “They believe this is their country and they have a responsibility to help fellow Americans.”
Listen to Joe Giannini, a ‘Nam vet who became a lawyer: “It didn’t make me bitter and it didn’t make me angry. It made me more caring. Being so close to death and watching people die, in the end I came out caring more.”
“History is more than a compilation of events, dates and statistics,” says Napoli. “History is the human experience. Wars continue long after the veterans return home. … My next project will be about the 80,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan from New York City. I want to hear their human voices.”
Haunting voices like Vietnam veteran Bob Ptachik’s: “I still have this little trick …. When I lie down and go to sleep, if there’s something bothering me, I say, ‘You’re warm, you’re dry, and there is no one shooting at you.’ ”
“Bringing It All Back Home” gives lasting thanks to that veteran and all those New Yorkers who served in Vietnam.
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