This is a coming of age memoir of a young soldier that was written twenty-seven years ago. The author, E. Michael Helms, was kind enough to send me an e-copy while also sending me another one of his book’s, “Deadly Spirits” for review. In “Proud Bastards,” we follow Helms from his brutal experiences during boot camp to the unspeakable acts of violence he witnessed in combat. I have never read a memoir about Vietnam before, so even though I had heard of the horrors I was still often shocked reading (and mentally seeing the pictures in my mind) of a Marine grunt’s experience of life and death inside a foxhole. The book begins with an 18-year-old Helms, joining the Marines with John Wayne glory in his eyes. As a mother, I found the brutality of boot camp difficult to read. The recruits are immediately thrust into the stressful whirlwind of in-processing, haircuts, uniform and gear issue. It appeared to me that from day one, the recruits must begin to learn how to cope with emotional and physical abuse. Just as in the movies, confused kids really were screamed at from the moment they woke up till the moment they went to bed. “Get out of them goddamn racks you goddamn shit maggots.” The author was such a sweet kid, after any day where he might be forced to eat his own vomit, he writes home “Dear Mama….I am getting along fine.” His charming ways allowed me to continue reading without breaking down for this poor disillusioned boot camp abused kid.
It has been said, Marine Corps recruit training will be the most difficult thing one endures in life that is unless you are sent into the Vietnam War. I thought boot camp was an impossible situation to live through, and then I read about combat and realized boot camp was a piece of cake compared to what went on during the Vietnam War in 1967. I found myself in hell with the author and his buddies – especially when he wrote of watching friends die violent combat deaths. Reading about teenagers with peach fuzz on their chins in horrifying battles scenes often had me in tears. (Think of the movie “Full Metal Jacket”). Helms is a talented writer who managed to capture every horrifying experience down as if he experienced it yesterday. It amazed me that even at war he managed not to lose his natural humor and wit (which I think helped keep him alive) into his writing. When he first arrives in Vietnam and is meeting his fellow soldiers, he makes a comment that doesn’t come out right and thinks “Way to go Mikey. Real smart move, boy. How to win friends and influence people.” How can the reader not like this kid?
In this riveting memoir, the author does not talk about politics or of the controversy that surrounds the Vietnam War. Instead, he gives the reader a mix of emotions he felt during the good times (usually the bonding with other young men) and bad times (literally everything else.) So many heroes, so much maiming and killing of young men had me thinking of the author’s story long after I finished the last page of his memoir. Helms always made me think, he often made me cry and he frequently made me laugh. I highly recommend reading this memoir, even if you are not interested in war stories. I found it hard to put down, needing to know what would happen next to our endearing and very brave 18-year-old “grunt.”
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