Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Wednesday, March 18, 2015: Maximum Shelf: Legend

Crown: Legend by Eric Blehm

Crown: Legend by Eric Blehm

Crown: Legend by Eric Blehm

Crown: Legend by Eric Blehm

Legend: A Harrowing Story from the Vietnam War of One Green Beret's Heroic Mission to Rescue a Special Forces Team Caught Behind Enemy Lines

by Eric Blehm

Journalist Eric Blehm has made a career of writing about men on the primal fringes of civilization, where distinguishing right from wrong becomes subservient to surviving and where behavior is driven by a sense of sacrifice and service. He is something of a "hero chaser," tapping the stories of military warriors and outdoorsmen for whom extreme stress is the norm and survival a very real challenge. The power of his books comes from his unrestrained access to those closest to the story and his dogged determination to get the story right. A wilderness outdoorsman with a taste for extreme snowboarding and climbing and the first journalist to participate in a rigorous Army Ranger training mission, Blehm fits the rugged hero profile himself, and so is comfortably accepted by those who actually lived the stories he tells.

In The Last Season Blehm wrote of the mysterious disappearance of experienced backcountry National Parks Ranger Randy Morgenson, a man so dedicated to the natural resources around him that it consumes him--at the expense of his family and ultimately his life. The Only Thing Worth Dying For describes the improbable success of 11 Green Berets who defeated a Taliban stronghold in the Uruzgan Province and put local Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai on the road to his eventual presidency of the country. In Fearless, Blehm covered the heroic story of Adam Brown and his elite Navy Seal Team Six (which later assassinated Osama Bin Laden) on a fatal mission in the Hind Kush mountains.

Now, in Legend, Blehm turns back the clock to the Vietnam War. One would think that our already sagging bookshelves of Vietnam War books don't need yet another one. This war has been covered by a broad selection of writers, from Tim O'Brien (Going After Cacciato) to Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn). But with Blehm's stirring story of Master Sergeant Raul "Roy" Benavidez's rescue of a hopelessly surrounded small Green Beret squad on a 1968 covert mission near the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia, we need to make room for another piece of the complicated, politically divisive puzzle that was the Vietnam War.

The Roy Benavidez story has already been told in his two co-written autobiographies (Medal of Honor and The Three Wars of Roy Benavidez), over too many beers in late-night VFW posts, in news articles reporting his frustrating wait to receive the Medal of Honor, and in school classrooms where Benavidez often inspired students. But Blehm's ability to run down key participants at the scene and to tap their memories brings to the story the graphic boots-in-the-jungle and butts-in-the Huey-seats details of what Hemingway famously called "grace under pressure." This is the kind of story that made Hollywood stars out of John Wayne and Bruce Willis.

Benavidez was born into a half-Mexican, half-Yaqui Indian family and grew up picking sugar beets and shining shoes in El Campo, Tex., a small farm town southwest of Houston. He could trace his family to Mexicans who fought alongside Texans for independence from Mexico. As a kid he was a scrapper who wouldn't take belittling from bullies dissing his Mexican looks and stood up for the younger kids. School didn't suit him and he dropped out to try his hand (unsuccessfully) at Golden Gloves boxing. His fascination with fellow Texan war and movie hero Audie Murphy led him to join the Texas National Guard. The military life suited Benavidez--he found teammates and support. But he wanted more, and so went to Houston in 1955 and "strutted his five-foot-six, 130 pounds of machismo" to the army recruiter and badgered his way into acceptance to the famous Airborne Division. By 1965 he was in Vietnam, building infrastructure bases and training South Vietnamese soldiers on in-country patrols. During that tour he stepped on a mine that fractured his spine, and the army docs said his war days were over--he likely would never walk again.

Blehm's story really begins with Benavidez's impressive tenacity and perseverance, which helped him to regain the use of his back and legs, and to achieve a coveted position in the Special Forces Green Berets. He wanted desperately to return to Vietnam to support the troops he had left behind. As a Green Beret, Benavidez volunteered to fly on a rescue mission into a highly secret small reconnaissance operation across the Cambodian border--one of many that President Lyndon Johnson publicly insisted were not happening. With access to recently declassified documents and first-hand accounts from soldiers who participated in the raids, Blehm revises the "white-washed" story of Benavidez's assignment to show the many obstacles soldiers had to overcome to complete missions and get out alive while keeping their location in Cambodia secret.

In May 1968, Special Forces Detachment B-56 (three U.S. Green Berets and nine South Vietnamese soldiers) was ambushed and surrounded by hundreds of NVA soldiers. The first choppers sent to extract them were shot down or diverted by heavy fire. The most lucid American still alive and in command by default was radio operator Brian O'Connor. His eyewitness account of their rescue by Roy Benavidez brings to life this never-say-die soldier who voluntarily joined the returning 240th Assault Helicopter Company on this heroic mission and endured a half a dozen serious wounds while dragging the three survivors and nine KIA to the choppers. In his adrenaline rush and with poor blood-soaked vision, he also inadvertently tossed three dead NVA soldiers aboard. Then he collapsed. Back at the base, medics mistakenly piled him with the enemy corpses and had his body-bag nearly zipped shut before he was recognized.

The basis of Legend's most dramatic pages of battlefield action, O'Connor's account also became the support that the award committee needed to finally grant Benavidez the Medal of Honor. Known among his fellow Green Berets by the radio moniker TANGO MIKE MIKE ("The Mean Mexican"), Benavidez didn't get the full recognition he had earned until O'Connor's testimony at last became public in 1981.

Like his earlier books, Blehm's Legend is a story of exceptional heroism in the face of horrific danger. In going back to the 50-year-old Vietnam War, he reaffirms his belief that the sometimes small stories of men at risk that have taken place throughout history deserve to find a larger place in the hearts and minds of others who may be called upon in the future. In O'Connor's words, Benavidez was a man who "from the moment he jumped out of the chopper until his last recovery run... was in complete control of us, the survivors, the support, as well as himself." Not a bad definition of a hero no matter the circumstances. Put this one next to We Were Soldiers Once... and Young. --Bruce Jacobs

Crown , $27, hardcover, 9780804139519, April 28, 2015

Crown: Legend by Eric Blehm

Eric Blehm: Honoring Service and Sacrifice

photo: Jeff Warner

Eric Blehm is a journalist and the author of the bestsellers Fearless and The Only Thing Worth Dying For. He got his start in journalism as the editor of TransWorld SNOWboarding magazine, and his first book, The Last Season, was the winner of the National Outdoor Book Award and was named by Outside magazine as one of the 10 "greatest adventure biographies ever written." He lives in Southern California with his wife and children. His new book, Legend, recounts a harrowing mission led by Green Beret Staff Sgt. Roy Benavidez to rescue a Special Forces team trapped behind enemy lines during the Vietnam War.

When did you first hear about Roy Benavidez's story?

I consider myself pretty well read in the Special Forces history genre, but one day a couple of years ago, my agent, Christy Fletcher, forwarded me an e-mail from her mother. I didn't know it at the time, but her mom is a big fan of my books Fearless and The Only Thing Worth Dying For, and she had seen something online that gave a brief summary of Roy's actions during the Vietnam War. She said that the world needs to hear more stories about positive role models and heroes who have served their country. "This should be Eric Blehm's next book," is how she ended her message. I was so blown away by Roy's story that at first I thought it couldn't possibly all be true. Then I started to ask friends and contacts who are former or active-duty Green Berets, SEALs and Rangers if they had heard of Roy in their circles. All of them had and most referred to him by one word: legend. I contacted Roy's family, and that's how it all began.

Considering that Roy's heroics took place in 1968 and his battle to be recognized with a Congressional Medal of Honor was ended in 1980, what inspired you to write a book about him now?

Stories get lost to history. I was born in 1968, and Vietnam was only a few paragraphs of my U.S. history books in middle and high school. I wanted to introduce Roy's story--as well as some history of the Vietnam War--to the current generation of military readers, and I also wanted to delve into the entire story of the rescue mission he volunteered for. The brotherhood between the men on the ground and the assault helicopter companies that supported them in Vietnam has rarely been told. There are stories that focus on the ground forces and others that focus on the air component, but few combine both and fewer still share the political quagmire of the era. This single mission is a microcosm of the Vietnam War as a whole--the good, the bad, and the ugly--told from the perspective of the men who were there. So to come full circle, why write about a story that happened in 1968? Because we owe it to the men who fought in Vietnam, and all our past wars, to not let them be lost to history, to honor their service and sacrifice by retelling their stories without personal bias.

Roy Benavidez

Benavidez's acts of heroism have already been the subject of two books. Did you seek to show the events of May 2, 1968, from a different perspective?

The full story of the covert mission on May 2 has never been told. Nobody who was on the ground with Roy was ever interviewed for the past books that focused on his actions. I was fortunate enough to interview one of the survivors from the ground who had never told his story further than a statement. Retired Green Beret Brian O'Connor spent a couple hundred hours answering my questions and recounting his memories that will be revealed for the first time in Legend. The perspective from the air, the story of the 240th Assault Helicopter Company, was never fully told, either. Consider Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden. If it had been told by one perspective, one character, there would be only one glimpse into a battle that was, by nature, foggy already. Bowden's research presented a more all-encompassing view of the mission by presenting the point of view of the pilots, the men on the ground, the command, some of the politics, the rescue efforts. To me, that is telling the entire story (or as much as possible given resources), and that is what I strived to achieve with Legend. There are other examples, such as the memoirs by Louie Zamperini that came out long before Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken. I believe there is always room to retell a story, especially when new perspectives and information are available. We owe it to the men and to history to hone the important stories without embellishment: the power is in the truth. I would rather have a hole in one of my stories than fill that hole with B.S. It dishonors the men and their actions.

Many of your books are about soldiers and outdoorspeople in extreme, harrowing situations. What is it about these do-or-die, life-threatening situations that attracts you? Do you subscribe to the belief that one does not truly appreciate life until one is on the edge of losing it?

I never served my country, and after 9/11, as a writer, I asked myself, "What can I do? What's my part?" I have always had a deep respect for those who serve, whether it be the National Park Service or the military, and I read many stories of adventure and war as a kid. They were my windows into history. Post-9/11, I realized history is happening right now. The World War I and World War II veterans are passing away, and their stories are going with them. I wanted to try and capture such stories while memories are still fresh, to preserve history and honor their service. After writing articles and two books on our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I heard about Roy's story and thought, hmmmm, it's time I dive back in history while these Vietnam veterans are still alive to talk about it. I could not have told this story without their support and willingness to share their memories. Legend is my book, but it's their story and I hope I've honored them with as close to the truth as I could get considering the fog of time and war.

As far as appreciating life--no, I don't think you have to almost lose it to love it. I have been in a couple of dangerous situations myself (caught in an avalanche when snowboarding, pummeled in big surf... as well as developing a pulmonary embolism after shoulder surgery), but my appreciation for life came from watching my mother battle and then die from cancer when I was a teenager. During that four-year period, I spent a lot of time in hospitals with my mom and escaped into many, many books--Jack London, as well as mountaineering stories and war stories where people were pitted against impossible odds. Looking back now, maybe I was drawn to them because they gave me hope for my mom. At the moment, I just recall getting hooked and turning pages that kept me in the story, and out of those hospital rooms.

What do you consider to be the popular legacy of the Vietnam War? Is this book in any way a response to that perceived legacy?

There are many misconceptions about the Vietnam War and Vietnam veterans. One is that they were all draftees who did not believe in what they were fighting for; another is that the local warriors who fought alongside them, various ethnic groups from South Vietnam, were all cowards. In Legend, you'll read an unbiased, non-political, non-stereotypical look at the war from the perspective of the men who were there in the air and on the ground--all building toward one horrific battle borne from a mission gone wrong. In some ways, this is a microcosm of the entire war. In the end, the men and women who served in Vietnam came home without a thank-you. As one veteran I quote in the book told me, the Vietnam vets took the bullet for future generations of warriors. Eventually the population realized it was wrong how Vietnam veterans were treated, and today, even if they don't agree with the politics of our current wars and foreign policy, the majority of U.S. citizens will shake a person-in-uniform's hand and say thank you.

In your mind, are there any specific takeaways or lessons to be learned from Roy Benavidez's story?

Roy's story of comeback began long before he was in the army. Roy was orphaned as a child, picked sugar beets and cotton as a migrant worker, dropped out of school when he was 14, and experienced segregation and racism in rural Texas. He was an angry, bitter youth who could have easily gone the route of crime, but because of the people who mentored him and his decision to join the military, he overcame it all. Roy's life experiences prepared him for that moment he jumped alone into a horrific battle--and allowed him to accomplish what he did. I believe that you are a product of your life experiences, but it's up to you to spin those experiences in the right direction. Roy spun the bad into good and, by doing so, he saved the lives of eight men. Instead of a convict, he became a legend. --Alex Mutter

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