|Vietnam Veterans of America|
My Brother’s War: An Artistic Reflection
For decades now, mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters of Vietnam War veterans have written worthy books about what it was like to be at home during the time their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers were taking part in the war — and what happened after they came home. Few, if any, are as creatively produced as Jessica Hines’ My Brother’s War (Dewi Lewis, 184 pp. $49), a heavily and powerfully illustrated remembrance of her brother Gary.
Jessica Hines was eight years old when her brother — who had been drafted into the Army — arrived in South Vietnam on November 4, 1967. He went on to put in an at-times intense tour of duty with the 178th and 132nd Assault Helicopter Companies in Chu Lai, including during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Because of a not-stable environment in their St. Louis home, Jessica Hines — an accomplished photographer whose work has been widely exhibited in the U.S. and around the world — was sent to live with relatives, a situation that lasted for more than a decade. “When my brother and I said our ‘good-byes,’ ” she writes, “it was the last time that we would see each other for years.”
Gary Hines returned to Vietnam as a civilian about a year after he got out of the Army in late 1969. He told his family he did so to find a good-paying job, but Jessica Hines later learned that that was not the case. He had fallen in love with a Vietnamese woman and went back to make arrangements to marry her. But Gary came home without the woman. “What the problem was and the identity of his girlfriend remains a mystery,” Jessica Hines writes.
After that Gary Hines struggled emotionally, eventually was diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and received a 50 percent disability rating from the VA. Ten years later, on March 8, 1980, he shot and killed himself. That traumatic event strongly affected his younger sister. Her book is both a tribute to her brother and an attempt to come to terms with his loss.
The project began years after her brother’s death when Jessica Hines discovered a white cardboard box “packed away high up on a closet shelf” in her mother’s house. It contained her brother’s letters home from Vietnam, his Vietnam War photographs, medals, notebooks, and more. “Inside the box,” she writes, “I found the information that I needed, the clues to discover my brother’s past.”
That path to discovery led to trips Jessica Hines made to Vietnam in 2007 and 2008 to try to walk in her brother’s footsteps; a visit to a 178th and 132nd AHC reunion; and a pilgrimage to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. She incorporates those events into the book in the form of images, which also include some of the many letters he wrote home (in color and hi-definition), in-country and post-war photos, and evocative photomontages, some of which meld images from Gary’s childhood (including toy soldiers) and love notes he wrote to his Vietnamese fiancée.
It all adds up to a powerfully emotional picture of the decades-long impact of Gary Hines’ too-short life and the experience of loss his death had on his younger sister. In My Brother’s War, Jessica Hines succeeds exceptionally well in, as she puts it, shedding “light on the invisible side of the aftermath of war.”
Michael Robert Dedrick was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1966, not long after, he says, he flunked out of the University of Washington. After Basic, he beat the draftee odds; that is, he didn’t get sent to Infantry AIT. Instead he found himself in Intel school at Fort Holabird in Baltimore. Then came Vietnamese language training at Fort Bliss.
No surprise that Dedrick’s next stop was South Vietnam. He landed early in 1968 at the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion Interrogation Center in Saigon, and served as an interrogator-linguist during his tour of duty.
That included the Tet Offensive when Viet Cong units were running amok in Saigon and during the months of fighting that ensued. Spec.4 Dedrick, among other things, interrogated a captured member of a small, secret, elite Viet Cong cadre, a kind of special forces group called the Biet Dong — the unit that staged the famous attack on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
That 1968 experience — along with the fact that Dedrick became an active member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and has been a member of Veterans for Peace since 2002 — forms the basis for Southern Voices: Biet Dong and the National Liberation Front (University Press of Kentucky, 188 pp. $30, hardcover; $20.99, Kindle). This short book, published in both English and Vietnamese, examines a part of the Vietnam War that has rarely been covered in this country.
After a brief history of the Biet Dong, Dedrick presents a first-person look at his 2014 trip to Vietnam (he also visited in 2013 and 2017), during which he interviewed five surviving Biet Dong and three former National Liberation Front (AKA, Viet Cong) fighters. He tells those stories in eight short chapters of annotated oral history.
The interviewees start with each person explaining why they joined the fight against the South Vietnamese and the Americans. Their reasons had less to do with love for communist ideology than a visceral hatred of the South Vietnamese government due to its ruthless persecution of citizens who peacefully protested against its excesses, and those who joined the communist-led revolution.
Nguyen Thi Bich Nga, for example, told Dedrick that she joined the revolutionary movement when she was a schoolchild after she and her classmates in a small village school “were forced to witness some Saigon soldiers killing a Viet Cong.”
“After shooting him,” she said, “they dragged his body to the school. I was so young that image provoked my hatred. Ever since, I longed to [join] the armed revolution.”
She goes on to describe her training and several missions, including a 1967 mortar attack on Gen. Westmoreland’s headquarters that killed 16 American troops and wounded 13 others. Nguyen Thi Bich Nga was captured by the South Vietnamese in May 1968 and spent seven years in the infamous Con Dao Island prison in the South China Sea, where, she told Dedrick, she was beaten and tortured and locked up for a year in a tiger cage.
What Dedrick writes in Southern Voices thoroughly reflects his antiwar views, which may be disconcerting to American Vietnam War veterans. He refers, for example, to what is commonly known on these shores as “the fall of Saigon” as “Liberation,” writes of Biet Dong units fighting in South Vietnamese and American “enemy territory,” and characterizes the Biet Gong as “tenacious and courageous.”
Dedrick also points out that none of the former enemy fighters he spoke to directed “rancor or anger” at him, and they all voiced “some sympathy toward U.S. soldiers, especially draftees and Black Americans.” Plus, they “generally admired” Americans for our “principles of freedom and for technological superiority. Any criticism usually [focused] on how the U.S. got involved in Vietnam in the first place and on the kill-anything-that-moves tactics the Americans employed.”
If you can handle being called the “enemy” and Mike Dedrick’s enthusiasm for the Viet Cong’s courage and tenacity, this book will help you understand what motivated many people in South Vietnam to rise up against their government and its U.S. ally.
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