Vietnam: The war that wouldn’t quit

In one way or another, everyone in the baby boom generation was marked by the Vietnam War. Choices made during those years come back to haunt male politicians decades later, even the ones who served heroically, like John Kerry. Those who avoided service (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Donald Trump) scramble to tell us why.

Veterans may still suffer PTSD nightmares all these years later, or have illnesses stemming from exposure to Agent Orange, the herbicide so nonchalantly employed to clear the triple-canopy jungle.

Meanwhile, the aftereffects of the antiwar movement have been slow to dissipate. Some still resent Jane Fonda for her trip to Hanoi in 1972, even though she has repeatedly apologized. “I made a huge, huge mistake that made a lot of people think I was against the soldiers,” the actress said in 2015.

Given the central place of Vietnam in the collective psyche, it’s instructive to read a first-hand account from someone who was there. A high school classmate of mine, Michael A. Montigny, supplies one in his new book, “A Few Good Angels.”

Mike delivers a raw, riveting narrative of what it was like to be a 19-year-old marine at Khe Sanh. This self-published book (available on Amazon in paperbook and Kindle editions) has such immediacy that you feel you are beside him as he navigates the perils of combat and the hazards of the environment itself, from poisonous snakes and giant scorpions to monsoons, mud and heat.

Unable to attend college directly after high school, Mike got sucked up in the draft and wound up as a marine. He vividly describes the harsh discipline—at times bordering on the sadistic—of his training. He was assigned to be a machine gunner, a dangerous job.

“Life expectancy for a machine gunner is about 15 minutes in combat,” his gunnery sergeant told him, since snipers “will always try to kill you first.” Indeed, Montigny notes that only half of his class of a dozen machine gunners made it home alive.

Life in Vietnam was desperately difficult. Mike describes bathing out of his helmet, trying to sleep as rats the size of chihuahas nipped at him and marching through deep mud lugging heavy weapons.

Over it all lurked the specter of being killed or gravely injured at any moment. In fact, Mike had so many close calls in Vietnam that he came to believe he was being kept safe through supernatural intervention—by the “few good angels” of the title.

Mike goes on to describe the letdown he felt upon coming home to a country that seemed indifferent to what its fighting men had endured. With the nation so torn over the war and even top policymakers ambivalent, there was no hero’s welcome. “It took more than thirty years for someone to say to me, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Mike writes.

No one who reads this book will ever say those words casually again. This moving memoir makes you appreciate what “service” really means in a war zone.

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