A Viet Nam Memoir
by Rod Kane; Orion/Crown; 314 pages.
Rod Kane is not a historian—his account of the Vietnam War chronicles few of that conflict’s actual events—yet Veteran’s Day is nonetheless an affecting historical document. Kane went to Vietnam in September 1965 as a combat medic for the airborne infantry. His father had fought in the Second World War and his uncle had been a paratrooper in Korea. “I was raised to be a soldier of Christ,” he writes. Kane saw action in the central highlands near An Khe and treated troops in forgotten hamlets in the Happy Valley and the Ia Drang. He was nineteen.
A year later Kane returned to the United States, bitter but relieved to be alive. On his first day back he was refused a drink in a local tavern. “You’re gonna have to wait almost a year ‘fore you can drink in this state, young fella,” the bartender told him. Home life was not much better. His brothers, both of whom would later serve in Southeast Asia, waited for their draft notices with resignation and dread. His father, a troubled alcoholic, offered little support to a son who was desperate for companionship and succor. He turned to the memory of dead friends in Vietnam, writing them letters and drafting responses. “I didn’t have anyone to talk with when I got to the States,” he writes. “I kept [them] alive so I could express what was going on with me.”
What followed for Kane was a series of low-paying jobs and empty relationships punctuated by bouts with alcohol and drugs. Involvement with the antiwar movement briefly motivated him, but Kane continued to spiral downward, finding relief only in the journal he had kept since Vietnam. Readers of Roger J. Spiller’s article “Shell Shock” (page 74 of this issue) will recognize the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder in Kane’s account of his life after Vietnam, but it took the author fifteen years to recognize that he needed help. He found it in a support group at the Washington, D.C., Veterans’ Administration Hospital. There Kane made friends he could talk to. “It is good,” he writes, “to see eye-to-eye with so many others.”
Veteran’s Day culminates in the opening of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1982, an event Kane and his fellow veterans looked forward to with hope and despair. “IJ ain’t gonna change nothin’,” one of them said. Yet on the day, veterans found themselves greeting one another with smiles, hugs, and pride. “Welcome home,” everyone said.
It isn’t history in the traditional sense, but Kane’s memoir provides a powerful coda to any reader’s study of America’s involvement with Vietnam.