Kindred Warriors Meet in Vietnam Battle
Extraordinary Valor: The Fight for Charlie Hill. William Reeder Jr. Lyons Press. 296 pages. $27.95
By Col. Keith Nightingale, U.S. Army retired
William Reeder Jr.’s book Extraordinary Valor: The Fight for Charlie Hill is indeed extraordinary. It is lucidly written, smoothly flowing, brilliantly researched and a paean to the extraordinary valor of leaders in the most trying of circumstances.
While it is a homage to retired Maj. John Duffy—who received the Medal of Honor earlier this year for his actions depicted in the book—it is also an equal homage to Maj. Doan Phuong Hai, Col. Le Van Me and other leaders in South Vietnamese airborne brigades. The deep research and biographical description of Duffy and the Vietnamese leadership provide a rare insight into what brought them all together on the battlefield.
Extraordinary Valor clearly shows that the Vietnamese were every bit as professional and dedicated as their U.S. counterparts in the Vietnam War. They demonstrated this routinely to Duffy as he went to extraordinary lengths to be with them in the crucible of combat. They were kindred battlefield souls.
Author Reeder was a Cobra helicopter pilot in Vietnam and a participant in the battle who saw Duffy and Hai demonstrate a most extraordinary level of valor, leadership and combat competency. Reeder not only flew over the participants. In this book, he dives into their mentality and undertakes the more difficult task of analyzing their relationships and how they fed off each other to achieve true greatness.
Reeder describes an incredible action by the Vietnamese 11th Airborne Battalion, with Duffy as senior adviser and Hai the battalion commander. A North Vietnamese Army regiment assaulted the 11th on a hillock in the Central Highlands named Charlie Hill, almost overrunning the unit. With Duffy calling in support and Hai constantly reorganizing the unit, they were able to both hold the hill and inflict severe casualties. This is a battle, common to many, that was lost to history since it was a Vietnamese action, not a U.S. action.
Had the battle for Charlie Hill been publicized, it would have changed many opinions as to the quality of the Vietnamese in wartime. Had it been an American action, awards would have been showered on the survivors and their actions chronicled at service schools and institutions. As it was, it would take a participant, Reeder, to explain a forgotten but unforgettable narrative.
Duffy was forced to fight, improvise and provide the calm control so desperately needed by the few survivors of the battle. At the final moment, Duffy was able to bring in a helicopter that rescued the few remaining, with both Duffy and Hai having been wounded multiple times.
Unlike most books by Vietnam veterans, Reeder uses the lives and relationships of both the Vietnamese and Duffy to explain their performance on Charlie Hill as the ultimate demonstration of combat competency. It is deeper than the typical Vietnam tale.
While the book describes the key battle, it is more a picture of the mentality and camaraderie of men of differing cultures working in common cause. Duffy and Hai had somewhat similar upbringings and were equally driven to lead soldiers in combat. Extraordinary Valor testifies to the spirit, resiliency and dedication of the Vietnamese airborne leaders, with Duffy as both messenger and catalyst of their performance.
Col. Keith Nightingale, U.S. Army retired, served two tours in Vietnam, participated in the 1980 Iran hostage rescue attempt and managed the U.S. Southern Command’s program to capture Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. After retiring from the Army, he joined Science Applications International Corp., known as SAIC, and managed several security teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. His most recent book is Phoenix Rising: From the Ashes of Desert One to the Rebirth of U.S. Special Operations.
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Soldier at His Best on the Razor’s Edge
Scars and Stripes: An Unapologetically American Story of Fighting the Taliban, UFC Warriors, and Myself. Tim Kennedy and Nick Palmisciano. Atria Books. 416 pages. $30
By Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie Spencer, U.S. Army retired
Tim Kennedy is the boy your mother warned you about: “Stay away from him; he’s trouble.” And you don’t have to take her word for it. Kennedy, with the help of co-author Nick Palmisciano, confirms in Scars and Stripes: An Unapologetically American Story of Fighting the Taliban, UFC Warriors, and Myself that in his youth, he was that kid. He and his fellow preteen scofflaws were looking for adventure in all the wrong places, with Tim in the lead.
And like most boys, he wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps. In Kennedy’s case, that meant becoming a cop. But he had a problem: He sees danger as a challenge and only feels alive when he’s in life-or-death situations. Remarkable accomplishments followed heartbreaking defeats. Fortunately, the failures served as lessons learned and helped lead to success.
Like many of the post-9/11 generation, Kennedy was a patriot. He wanted to fight for his country. He answered the call and enlisted in the Army. But only the most difficult, challenging and dangerous assignments the Army had to offer would excite young Kennedy.
He volunteered for elite Special Forces training to join the Green Berets. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, he also attended Army Ranger and sniper schools. Combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq followed.
With death seemingly lurking around every corner, over every hill and in the moonless night, Kennedy was at his best.
Fighting was not just something he did in combat. Kennedy began competing in sanctioned mixed martial arts fights while still in college. After joining the Army, he rose through the ranks of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and when the Army instituted servicewide tournaments, he competed and won.
His departure from active military duty and retirement from professional fighting was anything but an opportunity to decompress. Kennedy and a dozen of his colleagues embarked on a secret mission during America’s chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan in August 2021. He and his team rescued over 12,000 American and Afghan men, women and children from harm’s way.
Kennedy today is an entrepreneur who owns some dozen companies. He is an actor who has been featured on the History Channel show Hunting Hitler, as well as the Discovery Channel’s Hard to Kill. He’s a husband, father and soldier who considers himself an unapologetic American.
Kennedy is no longer the kid your mother warned you about. He has become the man you want standing next to you in time of peril. He is a fighter in every sense of the word. He is one of the good guys.
Scars and Stripes is a book that will inspire you. Before I read it, I thought someone like Kennedy only existed in superhero movies. I was wrong.
Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie Spencer, U.S. Army retired, held assignments with infantry, Special Forces and Ranger units during his 32 years of active military service. He is the former director of the Association of the U.S. Army’s NCO and Soldier Programs and is an AUSA senior fellow
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Veterans Need to Share Their Stories
War and Homecoming: Veteran Identity and the Post-9/11 Generation. Travis Martin. University Press of Kentucky. 204 pages. $27.95
By Kayla Williams
Travis Martin was a sergeant in the U.S. Army who served two deployments in Iraq. In his book War and Homecoming: Veteran Identity and the Post-9/11 Generation, Martin explores how veterans see themselves—and how that is influenced by the way civilians see them. He delves into stereotypes of military service, then argues that veterans can craft their own identities by telling their own stories.
Martin examines “the American unconscious,” exploring how daily interactions, film and literature have created common notions of what it means to be a veteran. There is a confluence of competing positive and negative stereotypes used to label veterans as “heroes” or “wounded warriors.” Pressure to conform to these labels, he argues, prevents veterans from defining themselves and finding their own place in society.
When considering the concept of heroism, Martin differentiates between three types. The sacrificing hero and the attacking hero are familiar from inspiring stories such as those depicted in film and Medal of Honor citations. The third type, he writes, is a modern development: the “enduring hero.”
Society has framed all who join the military in the post-9/11 era collectively as heroes simply for signing up, regardless of what they did while serving, then pressures them to be silent, particularly about any experiences or opinions that do not fit stereotypes. It is this last type of hero that Martin believes aligns with a trend of considering veterans as victims, “wounded warriors” whose injuries are “purposefully undefined so as to serve the needs of civilian imaginations.”
Such civilian stereotypes deny veterans “their rights to self-definition, continued growth, and an individualized identity,” Martin writes. The way to combat this problem is for veterans to become storytellers: to share their experiences with the broader community through writing or other forms of art. Martin explores many examples from his students and colleagues at Eastern Kentucky University, ranging from fiction to photography to dance. To form rich and full post-service identities, he asserts, veterans must express themselves authentically, through creative works.
This sharing would be worthwhile not only for veterans, Martin argues, but also for civilian society, which would benefit from learning about veterans’ genuine experiences and their resiliency. Unfortunately, in the location perhaps best suited for this type of engagement and sharing, universities “section off veterans from the rest of the student population” by giving them their own separate, veteran-specific resource centers, lounges, cohort classes and even graduation ceremonies.
Some fellow academics even warned that Martin’s choice to encourage storytelling workshops could be “psychologically damaging.” Despite these concerns, other universities are following the example he set by launching the Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, where veterans and nonveterans alike learn together.
While the primary audience for this work appears to be Martin’s fellow academics, all readers may enjoy engaging critically with his ideas. It would likely be particularly satisfying to discuss the examples and assertions with fellow veterans, such as in a book club setting.
I found some (but not all) of his arguments compelling. As an author and a veteran, I clearly concur on a personal level that sharing our stories is important, for example. Left unanswered, however, is one fundamental question: How do we get civilians to pay attention to the stories veterans want to tell?
Kayla Williams is a senior researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rand Corp. and the author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army and Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War.
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‘Jumpin’ Jim’ Sets Example for His Troops
Gavin at War: The World War II Diary of Lieutenant General James M. Gavin. Edited and annotated by Lewis Sorley. Casemate (An AUSA Title). 240 pages. $34.95
By James Fenelon
Gavin at War: The World War II Diary of Lieutenant General James M. Gavin is the wartime diary of airborne pioneer James Gavin who, at 37 years old, became the U.S. Army’s youngest major general commanding a division since the Civil War.
After running away from home at age 17, Gavin enlisted as a private and later, earned his commission after graduating from West Point. He served in both the Mediterranean and European theaters during World War II and, after more than 30 years of service, retired as a lieutenant general. He was pivotal in the evolution of airborne doctrine, commanding both a parachute regiment and an airborne division in combat. Coupled with his habit of always jumping first, his four combat jumps earned him the moniker “Jumpin’ Jim.”
The diary chronicles Gavin’s thoughts from April 1943 to September 1945, which coincides with his arrival in North Africa until his occupation duty in Berlin. There is a lot in those three years for readers to dig into: war stories, coalition politics, joint planning, affairs of the heart, personality conflicts and career ambitions. But the most interesting and relevant entries offer glimpses of a soldier’s inevitable struggles with self-doubt under the burden of leadership.
With D-Day looming in the summer of 1944, Gavin confessed some of his anxieties about Operation Overlord: “This invasion is going to cost many lives. Although it is imperative that I present an optimistic front at all times, nevertheless I am not very happy about our prospects.”
The 82nd Airborne Division did suffer heavy casualties, but thanks in no small part to junior and senior leaders, it accomplished all its assigned tasks.
Months later, in January 1945, as the Army headed into its largest land battle of the war—the Battle of the Bulge—Gavin took a few minutes to document what he had learned about leadership’s relationship with combat effectiveness. “Soldiers must be taught to be tough and, in teaching them, officers must set the example,” he wrote. He continued, recognizing his responsibility in the equation: “Commanding this division is quite a task and a feat. I hope that I measure up to it well. These troops are the best in the world and are deserving of the best leadership. Given it, they will do anything.”
Some of Gavin’s most insightful observations are those related to the personal toll of maintaining his leadership standards and his role as an “axe man.” Speaking of leadership, he said: “If a unit commander does not have it, I do not see how in the world I can keep him. I have been a bit ruthless, and have hurt many people, but I have had many people killed too. … If you do nothing, many lives will be lost needlessly, and your unit will not function satisfactorily. … If you kick a man out, you make many enemies, lose lots of friends, and certainly make no new ones. I wish the … war was over and I were back to blueberry pie.”
Gavin’s writing provides a primer on leadership and reminds us that it is a constant cycle of learning and improving, coupled with the moral obligation to make difficult personal choices.
This is a diary, however, and as such, there are unfinished sentences and unresolved stories. A glossary helps with period acronyms, and editor and annotator Lewis Sorley’s prologue and epilogue are excellent bookends to the diary’s content. Those wanting deeper insight into the supporting cast of personalities and a wider period context should consider supplementing the diary with Gavin’s autobiography, On to Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander 1943–1946.
James Fenelon is a former paratrooper and author of Four Hours of Fury: The Untold Story of World War II’s Largest Airborne Invasion and the Final Push into Nazi Germany.