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Marc Levy: Chronicler of Combat and Postwar Chills
By Jan Barry (reviewer)
The Best of Medic in the Green Time: Writings from the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath
by Marc Levy
(Winter Street Press, 2020)
Marc Levy's startling essays and poems have long graced VVAW's The Veteran and many other publications. He's now collected these and many other memorable war and peace stories, by his hand and those of other vets, in The Best of Medic in the Green Time: Writings from the Vietnam War and its Aftermath. Marc has curated the website medicinthegreentime.com since 2007.
"Most civilians live with stunted understanding of what war even is, and of the complex needs of veterans after war," Janet McIntosh, professor of anthropology at Brandeis University, notes in the book's introduction. "This is why we need writers like Marc Levy, who take us so far beyond rituals of flags and salutes and 'thank you for your service,' far beyond any 'baby killer' confessional, to the everyday sounds and smells of that war, starting with 'the dim rustling of one hundred packs, helmets, weapons reluctantly lifted, slung, shifted to place…'"
Among veterans' needs, she adds, is to share deeply buried stories. "In The POWS, Marc recounts a day with a man from the same platoon, when their conversation turns awkward, the complex sadness too much to bear. Marc is reminded both are still captives of that war, even if they were never literally imprisoned."
Much of the book is focused on recollections by veterans of Vietnam and more recent wars who responded to Marc's requests to join him in writing about tough topics such as war jokes, drug use, nightmares, being overrun in combat, and being thanked for "your service." He's interacted with and encouraged other vet writers at the William Joiner Institute, Warrior Writers Boston, Salem Writers Group and the Walnut Street Café open mic.
Among the most bizarre, unexpected stories is Roger Byer's account of going home to Grenada after surviving a tour in Vietnam as a medic and becoming a pilot. In October 1983, the US military invaded the tiny Caribbean island and suddenly Byer was treated as an enemy in his own nation by US troops.
"Standing in my bedroom in front of an open closet was a private first class. He was gingerly holding up my US Army dress greens jacket with its four and a half rows of assorted medals … The platoon sergeant's eyes blazed and his nostrils flared, his head swiveled around threateningly. He barked … 'Just who the fuck does this jacket belong to?'" Byer was saved by his combat medals from being mistreated by hard-core troops like those he served with in Vietnam.
Other stories recount all sorts of haunting memories, surprising turns of survival.
…Now I'm crying
and I'm screaming "Medic,"
but I have to keep shooting.
At this point, I always wake,
and big, black Jerome
and little, white William,
are not dying beside me
I can still smell their blood,
I can still see them lying there.
You see, these two,
they've been taking turns
dying on me,
again and again and again
for all these long years,
and still people tell me,
—Dave Connolly, "Why I Can't"
Years after the war, trying to escape such nightmares, Marc Levy backpacked through much of Southeast Asia, including old battle zones in Vietnam. One morning, a local guide stopped his motorbike on a deserted road. "My heart dropped when Thanh said, 'We are here. This Quan Loi.' In fact, the huge American base is gone now, flat as a field …Thanh said at war's end scavengers and resettled peasants stripped the base clean …
"Still, he said, beneath the soil Vietnam is littered with old mortar and artillery shells, rotting 40 mm grenades, high explosive five-hundred-pound bombs. Much land is permeated with Agent Orange. To this day all take their toll on the Vietnamese people."
"I continued travelling in Asia, Indonesia, Europe, then at last flew home," he added. "It took decades to understand that Vietnam was more than a memory of firefights, ambushes, the joy of living one more day, the dread of enemy contact. Though nothing could recapture my youth, or the unrepeatable friendships made in combat, it took years to understand that the VC and NVA, the Vietnamese civilians, were human beings no different than us. That was the heart of it. The sorrows and losses both sides felt, the hope to make it meaningful. And maybe, one day, to let it all go."
Jan Barry resigned from West Point after a tour in Vietnam. He is the author of A Citizen's Guide to Grassroots Campaigns, Earth Songs, and co-editor of Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans, among other works. A co-founder of VVAW, he is active in Warrior Writers, which provide creative arts programs for vets of all wars.