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Author Interview: 'They Were Soldiers'


And finally today, Memorial Day is tomorrow - a day to honor and remember those who died in service to the country. We wanted to talk about a new book that takes a fresh look at the aftermath of the Vietnam War. And when people think of that war, it's often framed in terms of devastation - tens of thousands killed, many more wounded physically and emotionally. And, of course, there was the political turmoil.

And that's all true. But in a new book, two distinguished journalists push us to remember something else - a generation of servicemen and women - some well-known, others not - who lived through all the hardship and trauma of the war but went on to contribute great things. The book is called "They Were Soldiers: The Sacrifices And Contributions Of Our Vietnam Veterans." And here to tell us more about it are the co-authors, who both spent years covering the war, Joseph L. Galloway and Marvin J. Wolf.

Mr. Galloway, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JOSEPH L GALLOWAY: Thank you. Good to be aboard.

MARTIN: Mr. Wolf, welcome to you as well.

MARVIN J WOLF: I'm very pleased to be talking to you, Michel.

MARTIN: Mr. Wolf, I'm going to start with you because something you wrote in your introduction really struck me. You wrote, the false and misleading generalization persists that Vietnam veterans are a legion of broken soldiers, sailors and marines, a lost generation warped and wounded by wartime experiences and rejected by the greater society. You still feel that's true all these years later?

WOLF: Not so much now. It began to change with the second Gulf War, when suddenly it became very shishi (ph) to be supportive of the troops. But the fact that we were treated so badly when we came back had stuck in all of our craw. It's very hard to get that out. Even the passage of time hasn't dulled our remembrance of how poorly we were treated.

It is true that a new generation of people, younger people, regard us as, quote, "the troops." And that's great. But our war was our war, and it was not our fault that we went there, and it was not our fault that it was a bad war to be in. We just did our duty as best we could.

MARTIN: Well, you write in your forward to the book - you wrote, Mr. Galloway, those battles changed my life, changed my heart. Men died all around me. Others were horribly wounded. Not one of us left that place unchanged from the men who arrived there just days before.

But part of your - really, this book really is about change - about how people took those experiences and transformed them, you know, to the benefit of others in ways that I just think people just don't think about very much. And it's just - it's really remarkable, I mean, what you've assembled here. But - so I'm going to start with you, Mr. Galloway. And just why don't each of you start by picking one of the stories that you want to highlight?

GALLOWAY: OK. I would happily pick Diane Carlson Evans, the Army nurse.

MARTIN: Tell us about her.

GALLOWAY: She went through nursing school and immediately joined the Army and was sent to Vietnam. And she was put in a seaside resort hospital, and she couldn't stand it. She volunteered to be moved to Pleiku in the Central Highlands, into an area where the combat was very heavy and very fierce and a hospital that sometimes received 300 or 400 casualties a day and came home with a fierce case of PTSD and struggled even as she became a mother and a wife and all of those things.

And along came 1982 and the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And they dedicated a statue at the end of the memorial of three male GIs. And Diane's reaction was, where's the woman? Where in any of this are the women who served, like me? And out of that was born a campaign to create the women's Vietnam memorial up in the trees above the wall in D.C. And she thought it might take two years. It took 10 years. But Diane was there every step of the way overcoming just horrendous obstacles.

MARTIN: Mr. Wolf, what about you? What - can you pick one of the profiles? And I know it's hard because there's so many great stories as part of this. Can you pick a profile to share with us?

WOLF: Yes. Let me talk about Jeff Fredrick. Jeff Fredrick was a Florida boy - is a Florida boy. He's no longer a boy, of course. Went to Vietnam intending somehow to get himself into the special forces. He was what we among the troops would have called gung-ho. He really wanted to be a soldier. Unfortunately, he lost a leg above the knee. And at the age of 19, he was a veteran walking around with an ill-fitting prosthesis, limping, afraid to go to the beach because he didn't want anybody to know he had lost his leg. He thought, what woman would ever marry me now?

But then he had a little talk with himself, and he decided, hey, I'm 19 years old. I've got my whole life ahead of me. I'm not going to let this screw me up. I'm not going to let this stop me. I'm not going to be one of these bitter old men who never did anything because they lost a leg.

So he went to college, got a degree in business. Then he got another degree in physical therapy. Got a job when he got out working for a company that made prostheses, and he learned how to make prostheses. And after five years, he quit, and he borrowed some money, and he started his own business making customs prostheses - legs, hands, arms - for people who needed them.

MARTIN: When you were working on it, there's no way that you could have predicted that it would be coming out in the middle of a pandemic. And I do want to ask what this brings up for you. I mean, is there something that you think the country needs to learn right now from the men and women whom you profiled in getting through this experience - which is, of course, not the same? But for many people it is very traumatic, and a lot of people are suffering, albeit not in the same way. So maybe, Mr. Wolf, I'll start with you.

MARTIN: Yes. The thing about combat is, it's real. If you've seen men die, if you've seen friends die, if you've nearly been killed yourself, then you realize - sooner or later, but probably sooner - that every day after that is a gift, so you can squander it or you can use it. And I would say to people now in this terrible time where nearly 100,000 of our countrymen and women have died from this pandemic, it's a gift. You're going to survive this, make sure you use your time wisely. Do something useful for yourself. Do something useful for your families, for your community.

MARTIN: Mr. Galloway.

GALLOWAY: Here's your opportunity to offer a hand to your neighbors, your friends, strangers - to do something good. And it will enrich your life. You can come out of this a better person.

MARTIN: Joseph Galloway served four tours in Vietnam for United Press International. He's gone on to co-author with the late Lieutenant General Hal Moore "We Were Soldiers Once And Young." It was a New York Times best-seller. And I do also want to mention that he was decorated with a Bronze Star - the only medal of valor the U.S. Army awarded to a civilian in the Vietnam War. His co-author is Marvin Wolf, who is the author or co-author of many, many books and a Vietnam veteran himself.

Mr. Galloway, Mr. Wolf, I just want to thank you for your work. And thank you so much for joining us today.

WOLF: It was a privilege. Thank you.

GALLOWAY: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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