The Light Where Shadows End : A Book Review by Daniel C. Lavery for VVAW, A War Hero’s Inspirational Journey Through Death, Recovery, and a World Without Home by r.g. cantalupo (He uses no capitals in his name on the cover: New World Publishers, paper, 2015, 171 pages) A member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the author took part in the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigations where he confessed to committing crimes and atrocities. A Radio-Telephone Operator (RTO) with the 25th Infantry Division in 1968-69, Cantalupo (a nickname, actually H. H. Gregory), served in Vietnam and was awarded a Bronze Star with a Combat V and three Purple Hearts. He describes himself as a war criminal who fired white phosphorus mortars and called in napalm bombs on civilians using weapons banned by the Geneva Convention. He returns to the scene of his action in 2015 “to survive my looming suicide… to Trang Bang where Nick Ut photographed the ‘Napalm Girl’. That was also where he ordered villagers to lie down while they destroyed their village and where Lonny, Baby, San, Devil and I lay dying not for God, or flag, or country, but simply because we were “the chosen”, draftees offered up from poor black, brown, or white families by an upper-middle-class draft board that didn’t want to take sons from their own.
He describes his boot camp training droning into him like a mantra: “They are gooks, dinks, commies, savages, nothing resembling us, nothing close to human. And, it worked-when I was shooting at a cardboard man, when I was stabbing a dummy to death with a bayonet, when I was on the edge of terror--it was the only voice I heard. But four months in Vietnam had changed me. The kids along Highway 1 chanting “G. I. Numba One” as they begged chocolate bar or cokes looked no different than the kids from my tenement—Asian versus black, or Puerto Rican or Pollock or Jew—hungrier maybe, more desperation in their eyes, but under the grime and stink, they were no different than the kids I grew up with carrying hopes and fears and dream. And so I heard a different voice—my own… How long does it take to kill a man-- from inside? …How long before I was no longer a man but a rifle. A bullet, and I inside a soulless body?
After his good friend Lonny is killed when he makes eye contact with an enemy soldier who is badly wounded and groaning in the Elephant grass, Cantalpo raises his rifle: "I put his head in the crosshairs, held my breath, and put my finger on the trigger guard. I didn’t squeeze the trigger. I couldn’t. Not anymore. Lonny was dead. Nothing I could do would bring him back. Not killing this soldier. Not killing the whole fucking North Vietnamese Army. Lonny was dead. Shot in the throat and chest by his own men. Friendly fire. Friendly. As if killing was somehow friendlier if done by your own men. And who was to blame? The soldiers on the perimeter who opened fire from fear of being overrun? The C.O. who sent us out? General Westmoreland? Nixon? Kissinger? The Pentagon? The Army? The rich? The whole fucking US of A? My mother? My war-hero father? Yes, everyone was to blame. Everyone carried Lonny’s blood on their hands. I lowered my rifle. I was done. I was done with killing, done with death, done with war. For a long moment, the wounded soldier held my eyes, then he turned and slowly crawled away."
He recounts his horrendous injuries from a mortar exploding a few feet away that hurled his body into the dark sky and then crashed down leaving him covered in warm blood and a nurse nicknamed “Peaches” helped him through hours, days and weeks of care with whom he says he seriously fell in love. “And then I rose. Above my body. Above my life. Is this my soul parting from my flesh, my spirit rising toward eternity, flying through the tunnel of white light toward people I loved? I rose in darkness, in shadow, the body below me—my body—graying to a shade, the medic slowly dimming to a hazy silhouette. I rose, but my wounds did not fly away on angel’s wings, nor did I see my mortal life bleeding into light as if I were eternal. I merely slipped in and out of a world filled with fire and burning pain—“
A film crew from Vietnam TV International recorded his anguish following his journey toward reconciliation meeting with former members of The People’s Army against whom he fought. They share the truth of where the People’s Army hid in tunnels awaiting to attack and use a map to describe each of their locations in battles. After awkward embraces and they shake hands and say goodbye through the pain such a meeting engendered. The war’s legacy in Vietnam, Cantalupo says, includes “leaving hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs to kill more children,” as well as “fourth generation birth defects and genetic mutations caused by our massive spraying of Agent Orange.” That situation “will not allow for my reconciliation. This was the most profoundly moving memoir I have read on Vietnam showing how a man changed from a war criminal to a sensitive human being aware he was lucky to have survived and gained an inspiration and an awakening that changed his life.
BIO: Daniel C. Lavery graduated Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, and then a ship to Vietnam. He resigned, turned peace activist and became a civil rights attorney for Cesar Chavez's UFW and the ACLU. His memoir, All the Difference, describes his change from a pawn to an advocate crusading for justice. HTTP://www.danielclavery.com(Author website)
Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your book. I jotted down a few things that resonated for me.
My dad was a Beta at University of Cincinnati.
Reef Points! How can we ever forget them!
Rifle range. Who can forget those Marines!
Heinz Lenz was still there for me, too. (I think he died only in the last couple of years?)
Joe Duff. He still coached baseball, but he and I never crossed paths. I made the plebe and varsity sailing teams while I was there (1967-1971), but was not the athlete you were. But those T-tables plebe year were a Godsend! And for the sailing team, it was for BOTH fall and spring sets.
Joe Bellino. I loved watching those games. And Roger Staubach, how lucky you were to be there during his era, too. Roger came and talked at our pep rally in 1967 before the Army/Navy game. (He was trying to make it with the Cowboys at that time.) We won that year and received "carry on" like you did.
Like you, I thoroughly enjoyed being on the "plebe detail" second class year. As luck would have it, the very next summer the Academy decided to put first class in charge of the detail, so I got to do it again!
Pensacola. Great times! I certainly wasn't the "ace of the base," but finished high enough (4 of 30 that week) to choose any pipeline I wanted (helos, jets, or props)---and they were all open that week.
My A-7 primary instructor in T-34's nearly shot me for picking helos, but guys from '68 and '69 were telling us how much fun they were having flying them (while we were still back at the Academy). Plus, I found that whenever I climbed above 5000 feet, I lost the real sensation of flying. I also found that to be true as a second class midshipman flying in the back of an F-4 at Oceana (the "Diamondbacks"). In helos I knew I would spend most of my flying career at 500 feet and below. (In Desert Storm we frequently flew at 10 feet and as fast as that Blackhawk would go!) I never regretted my decision.
Army helo pilot Hugh Thompson. What courage! (I used his example in my first book, Inspiring Leadership: Character and Ethics Matter, now used in the Leadership/Ethics curricula at Villanova and Regent Universities.)
Olongapo! Amazing place. If you closed your eyes, you actually thought the Rolling Stones were playing---or any other big name group for that matter. And those kids diving for pesos! The helo hangout was the Roofadora Club, as I recall.
Our helo squadron aboard the USS Constellation in 1974 made three daily trips ("liberty runs") to Bagio, Manila, and Clark AFB while we were in port at Cubi Point/Subic. We charged a dollar per person (which went to the rec fund). Needless to say, we were the most popular squadron on the ship, especially among the Filipino stewards! LOL.
And last but certainly far from least, your amazing work as a lawyer for the UFW. What a legacy for you! You can be justifiably proud of those years!
Anyway, Dan, thought you should know how much I enjoyed your book. One of these days we'll have to meet for lunch.
Beginning at the Traveling Wall in Austin, Texas, a smaller replica of the National Vietnam Memorial, Richard Pena expresses a somber emotion for those who died in Vietnam seeing a woman's tears. He knew her pain would never cease. Pena was on the last plane out of Vietnam after spending a tour as a medic in Saigon. His photo was taken by a Viet Cong soldier when that final plane left. He recognized himself carrying his law school brief case upon returning with a delegation at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City in 2003. Pena's journal entries while serving from 1972 to 1973 as an Operating Room Specialist are aided by John Hagan, author of nine books and many articles as professor of Sociology and Law, Northwestern University, who comments on the context of Pena's story in history with references.
Author Richard Pena pointing to himself entering the last plane out of Saigon
Pena's parents were proud of their Hispanic heritage and taught him by example. His father won a Silver Star for his service at Iwo Jima. Pena won best all-around high school athlete in San Antonio, Texas. He attended University of Texas at Austin when students burned their draft cards and protested the Vietnam conflict. The My Lai massacre struck raw nerves his senior year. Soon at Kent State National Guardsmen killed four students and wounded more wrenching America. His low lottery number made it certain he would be drafted. He tried to fail his physical but they were taking anyone who breathed then and entered the Army, June 14, 1971 as one of the last drafted.
Pena arrived at the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon during the North Vietnamese siege of An Loc when they shot down four aircraft and killed nearly all the residents a few months before Nixon's presidential election during an opportunity for peace talks to resolve the conflict. His objections to pressing for peace were politically motivated as Humphrey would have gained substantial support as a peace candidate despite his role with LBJ. Nixon's voice on tape in the oval office showed he proposed nuclear weapons to succeed but Kissinger replied he thought it would be too much. Nixon said, "I don't give a damn" about civilians killed by U.S. bombing USA Today reported February 28, 2002. While peace was possible Nixon refused to press for it and made the South Vietnamese think if he were president they would get a better deal prolonging the war needlessly and causing more than 20,000 more American deaths.
Pena called Vietnamization a catastrophe demonstrated graphically as he arrived. Young ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) troops threw down their weapons and fled with villagers as the North Vietnamese launched an unprecedented invasion. They expected 200 or so casualties but 2000 marched toward a 100 bed hospital 60 miles away. However many were mortared by Communists on Highway 13 and others accidentally killed by our B-52s. The Air Force accidentally missed the Communists and hit a South Vietnamese village! Pena joined a group of fifteen who worked the Operating Room confronted by death who built a strong companionship.
Soon a C-130 aircraft crashed from mechanical failure causing them to expect many casualties. Burn patients were the worst, difficult to look at, tough to treat, and many died. The first soldier's face appeared plastered red, hair and eyebrows burned away, red burns ran the length of his young body. He had a wife and young child.They smeared Sulfamylon cream over him feeling helpless. His coworker said he would soon die. A sergeant arrived with a broken ankle and numerous lacerations. These professionals knew the risks but it is for the young whom Pena felt the most sorry. The lifers have some control but not the draftees. The sergeant wanted to know how many survived but Pena couldn't tell him only three made it. Pena wondered how many were on the plane and learned there were forty five. The government released only the number fourteen. Such lies insulted Pena and the others. It added brainwashing to misinformation.
An allied Cambodian arrived by air in desperate condition and needed a transfusion from someone with B positive blood. Pena readily provided it as the only one with that type. The doctors said he couldn't survive the operation, yet he wouldn't live without one! They amputated his left leg and blood splattered all over the floor. A nineteen year-old soldier was shot in the head and died from his wound. An American asked him for a cigarette but he didn't have one, so he shot him in the back of the head at point blank range with a .38 pistol. A clean-cut man named Holley had a wife he never cheated on but once. He was found the next morning in a lover's embrace as the girl had put ground-up glass in his food, the sixth American that girl killed. Soon we understand how Pena felt an impermanence sweep over him and all his previous concerns seemed small and unimportant.
Much later Pena became President of the American Bar Foundation and State Bar of Texas. His practice started as a solo attorney for the common person, without an office using an old beat up car. He felt his experience in Vietnam gave him the courage, willpower and confidence to stand up against injustice and fight for his clients. "It was the road less traveled, but it was my road."
Published 2014 by Story Merchant Books, 9601 Wilshire Blvd. # 1202, Beverly Hills, Ca 90210
Bio: VVAW member Daniel C. Lavery graduated Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, and a ship, turned peace activist and became a civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW. His memoir, All the Difference, describes his experiences: