A book review
While being born an Englishman in 1944 has me slightly ahead of the so-called Baby Boomer period, which in American terms, ergo the U.S. Census Bureau, is defined as those born between January 1st, 1946 and December 31st, 1964, American and British people born in those ‘boomer’ years after WWII share many attitudes.
However, there is one stark difference between the UK and the USA regarding that period; the Vietnam War.
U.S. military advisors arrived beginning in 1950 and that U.S. involvement escalated in the early 1960s, with U.S. troop levels tripling in 1961 and tripling again in 1962.
Many good young Americans paid the ultimate price for that involvement (58,220 U.S. service members died in the conflict).
Why do I mention this? Because just as so many Americans have no idea of the scale of enemy bombing that England suffered during WWII, just as many Brits have no idea of the scale of the ‘draft’ (i.e. conscription) that was employed by the U.S. Government as the Vietnam involvement grew.
Now keep that in mind as a means of adding context to what follows.
Until Tuesday is a book of many extremes. It is a powerful book, a disturbing book, and a book about the beauty, dignity and, sadly, the madness of man.
I have been talking to a good friend of my life-long Californian pal, Dan Gomez. Let me just call him Tom. Tom saw service in Vietnam. This is how Tom describes his early experiences.
I was young and keen for some adventure. I had watched many war movies so I knew exactly what war was all about. So I enlisted as a soldier and was shipped out to Vietnam. After 60 days, I had experienced sufficient to know that things were not as they were portrayed by the media and the reality of Vietnam was very different to those movies. I had seen enough and was ready to come home.
Except that it didn’t work that way. I was there for a full tour of duty.
It became increasingly apparent by our behavior that we were not there to liberate the masses. We were there because some politicians had a theory and because of it didn’t want the locals to have a democratic election. So good people were put into harm’s way, died or were severely injured for no other reason than some politicians had a theory – that proved to be false in the end.
Through it all, the biggest pain that I suffered was to see my Government operating under false pretences, with no integrity and no dignity. It left me with a deep anger and mistrust of government that is still deep inside me.
Tom’s very personal and intimate sharing of his experiences of Vietnam resonates powerfully with what Captain Montalvan experienced in Iraq. Here’s an extract from the book,
I am an American soldier. I am an expert and I am a professional.
But at the same time, I was coming unmoored, my mind dwelling on the hand-to-hand struggle for my life, the Syrian ambush, the sandstorms, the riots, and Ali, Emad and Maher, the men left behind.
I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.
The wife of one of my best men from Al-Waleed had become pregnant during his midtour leave. The foetus was fatally deformed, but Tricare, the army’s health service, doesn’t provide abortions under any circumstances, and she was forced to carry the child to term. I will never accept defeat. Little Layla was born without a nose and several internal organs. Her parents had no financial resources on a soldier’s pay to provide her comfort. I emailed everyone I knew for help – hundreds of dollars were sent to the sergeant and his family. Nevertheless, it was heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking, to hold Layla in my hands. I will never quit. She lived eight weeks, and the difficulty of her life, and the inhumanity of forcing that existence not only from her but her parents too – I will never leave a fallen comrade – fuelled my downwards drive.
I was angry with the army. Not on the surface, but underneath, in the depth of my mind. Why did Layla and her parents have to endure that pain, especially after everything they had already endured? Why were they forcing our regiment back to Iraq just ten months after our return? Why weren’t they helping us cope with our pain? We were badly banged up. We were undermanned and underequipped. The army didn’t care. They were churning us through. They cared more about getting us back to Iraq and making the numbers than they did about our health and survival.
It was the summer of 2004. Victory was slipping away. Everyone could see that, but the media kept pounding the message: ‘The generals say there are enough men. The generals say there is enough equipment. The generals say everything is going well.’ It was a lie. The soldiers on the line knew it because we were the ones suffering. We were the ones who endured days of enemy mortar fire when we arrived in Iraq without weapons or ammunition, as my eighty troopers had in Balad in 2003; we were the ones going back in 2005 without adequate recovery time or armour for our Humvees. And that is the ultimate betrayal: when the commanding officers care more about the media and the bosses than about their soldiers on the ground. [Chapter 5, An American Soldier, pps 88-89]
So the first thing that most definitely comes out of the pages of Until Tuesday is the depth of disconnect between Montalvan as an active soldier in the front line and his nation. Just like Tom in Vietnam!
It’s not until Chapter 8, The Thought of Dogs, that the author moves on from his obsessiveness about his military experiences to his future world. Please realise that when I use the word ‘obsessiveness’, in no way is it used as a derogatory term. One of the symptoms of mental insecurity is the ease with which we can obsess on things in our lives.
Here’s how Chapter 8 starts,
I can’t tell you how much my life changed when I read the email on 1 July 2008. (A Tuesday, I just realised. I’ll have to add that to my list of fake reasons for Tuesday’s name.) The Wounded Warrior Project, the veteran service organisation I went with to the Bruce Springsteen concert, forwarded the message. They forwarded messages every day, actually, but I usually didn’t read them. This tagline intrigued me: ‘WWP and Puppies Behind Bars’. Puppies behind bars?
The message was almost as simple: ‘Dear Warriors, please note below. Puppies Behind Bars has 30 dogs a year to place, free of charge, with veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan who are suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injuries or physical injuries. I’ve attached the Dog Tags brochure which explains the programme, as well as the Dog Tags application.’
As soon as I read the attached description, I knew the programme was for me. I suffered from debilitating social anxiety, and the dogs were trained to understand and soothe emotional distress. I suffered from vertigo and frequent falls, and a dog could keep me stable. Because of my back I could barely tie my own shoes, and a dog could retrieve and pick things up for me. I was the perfect candidate. I was down, but I was working towards a future. I was a leader, so I would never give up. And I was lonely. Terribly, terribly lonely.
From this point onwards the remaining 189 pages of Until Tuesday are about Luis Montalvan’s recovery built upon the foundation of his beautiful relationship with Tuesday, his service dog.
Of course there are ups and downs, as there are in all our lives, but the overall message is clear. A dog loves a human in the most beautiful and purest fashion of all. That unconditional, undemanding love for the humans in that dog’s life unlock even the most damaged souls. Tuesday unlocked the private hell that Captain Montalvan endured for so long.
In the privacy of a deep hug of your dog lays release. From that release comes peace, understanding and the desire to re-connect with the larger world. There is no greater gift than that.
So standing back in terms of reviewing this book (I reviewed the UK edition) here are my thoughts.
- It’s a deeply moving book which many, but especially dog owners, will be touched by.
- It’s a book that offers real hope and inspiration, most certainly for those who are going through their own private hell.
- It’s a very American book and, at times, when reading it I did wonder if some UK readers might find themselves culturally disconnected.
- Overall, this is a book that needs to be read.
Perhaps I should close by saying this. I didn’t have to pay for the book, it was sent to me on a complimentary basis once I had agreed to do the review. In the UK Until Tuesday is published by Headline Publishing. However, having read the book I realise that to have missed the opportunity of reading it would have left my life a little poorer.
A note for all those that have been good enough to read to the end! This post published today is the 1,000th post since Learning from Dogs first saw the light of day on July 15th, 2009. That it has reached this point is a direct result of the number of readers and the support that so many of you give to this rather crazy enterprise! Thank you all!