“Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Forgotten Impact on the Wives of Vietnam Veterans” by Andrew Wiest. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, 2018. 400 pages, $28.
Andrew Wiest is a university distinguished professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi. His history of Charlie Company, 4th battalion of the 47th Infantry, which served in Vietnam, “The Boys of ’67,” was the inspiration for the National Geographic special “Brothers in War.”
But as Wiest would tell you, “The Boys of ’67” is only half the story. In his new work, “Charlie Company’s Journey Home,” Wiest tells a different history of Charlie Company. This time from the side of the ones not fighting on any front but from the families left behind. A second subtitle on the cover is: “The Boys of ‘67 and the War They Left Behind.” Using personal interviews, letters from the soldiers and their families and recordings from members of Charlie Company and their families, Wiest is able to tell a compete and vivid story often overlooked by historians.
The year 1967 saw America enter into a period of great social and political change and turmoil. Some in the country tried to forget and others opposed the Vietnam War, but for a handful of young women and their families there was no forgetting. These women were wives of the soldiers of Charlie Company, and they had married the war with all of its horrors and heroism. The war put their husbands in danger, but half a world away these women faced hard times of their own. Visions of their lives and futures with their husbands and families were put on hold for the reality of the day-to-day life without their husbands. For many, this was the start of difficult times. The men of Charlie Company returned home changed: Once they had been young, happy and idealistic, but now many of the wives welcomed home men whom they could hardly recognize. Men who struggled with dark personal emotions. For many of these men and their families, alcohol, drugs and physical abuse became the norm. They had left the war, but that did not mean the war had left them.
There were more than one million wives and 600,000 children waiting at home for the soldiers who served in Vietnam, a number much too large for a comprehensive study. So instead, Wiest used the same format as in “The Boys of ’67,” telling the story by looking at the families of just one infantry company, Charlie Company. Although this made for a small study group, with just 24 wives, it was quite varied and ranged from the company’s commander, chaplain and medic to enlisted men. Wiest also had eight collections of letters, which added a very personal touch to the story.
If anything, the limited number in the group provides for a much more personal and human story. It allows the reader to feel more connected to the people portrayed in this history. While Wiest interviewed all 24 of the wives, the main focus was with the eight unique stories that unfolded from the letter collections. These letters, which traveled to and from home, told the story of real lives and dreams forever altered by the brutality of a war which is a common-enough theme when dealing with the soldiers of any war. However, it is not often addressed in terms of the family members left at home. From the beginning of the book, Wiest points out one important common theme: that the women he interviewed all asked why anyone would be interested in their stories. All felt that they were not the important ones, that honor was for their husbands alone. From the beginning of their lives as servicemen’s wives they were alone. While training, their husbands were building bonds of trust and friendship, but most of the wives were on their own. Many had gone from their parents’ homes to being married and so had never been alone before. That was the first transformation they faced, but as the book points out, it was hardly the last.
Loss is a big part of any war, and the stories in “Charlie Company’s Journey Home” are no different. From the loss of ideals to the ultimate loss of life, Wiest’s work makes the reader feel the razor’s edge these men and their families lived on from day to day. Charlie Company had 26 members who never made it home, of which seven were married. Wiest allows the widows of those soldiers lost to tell their own personal experiences. In a painful but touching chapter, the author shows how war touches and changes more than just the men who fight it. For the widows of these seven men the war was over. It would take time, but for those left behind, the pain would fade and they would be able to move on to live their own lives.
While the widows faced their own grief, many of the wives of the returning soldiers faced their own difficulties. Many of the couples had not been married for long and so they had to learn how to live together all over again. They also had the added burden of living with the memories of the war. Often the man who had returned was not the same man who had left; they were battle-tested soldiers who had seen death firsthand. Both the death of an enemy and even more terrible, the death of friends. For too many of the couples, the return home seemed almost like a movie. This is a theme which is a large part of the book. Included are stories which illustrate how hard this was for the children who had never met fathers and husbands unable or unwilling to speak to wives about the war. Like most young soldiers, those men had arrived in Vietnam believing, at least secretly, in their own immortality, believing they would make it home unscathed both physically and mentally. But returning home wasn’t the end of it as they had hoped. The war had made them hard, mean and angry and these were not things they could just turn off or forget. Nor were they things the men wanted to share with their families.
“Charlie Company’s Journey Home” is an excellent 360-degree history not simply telling the story of soldiers or of war, but of all the minor or seemingly insignificant human elements often overlooked in a military history. The book tells the story from when young wives say tearful goodbyes to happy reunions and then completing the story by telling what comes next. Using personal interviews, letter collections and painstaking research, Wiest weaves together a brilliant history of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. An aftermath which would affect not only the soldiers, but also their families for the rest of their lives. This work is for more than just military history fans. It is a touching work which will appeal to any fan of the human heart. Truly a story of love and heartaches.
– Reviewed by Lyrae Borders of Glasgow.