In Our Duffel Bags: Surviving the Vietnam Era
Author: Richard C. Geschke, Robert A. Toto
Publisher: iUniverse.com (2011)
Binding: Hardcover, 256 pages
DECEMBER 28, 2011 - First Lieutenant Richard C. Geschke and Lieutenant Robert A. Toto co-authored a book sparking emotions and revealing buried memories of the Vietnam War within the book titled In Our Duffel Bags, just published by iUniverse.
Both men are longtime service buddies as well as friends and it is through
this book they share the sometimes harrowing events encountered during their service in the “War with no purpose; no mission statement.” This
narrative book uniquely conveys each man’s first hand experiences as
soldiers serving in the US Army during the Vietnam War era and their
transition to civilian life afterwards.
“I did not realize that I had PTSD, until I started to cry while I was out
walking near my home” said Robert Toto during a recent interview. “This
book became part of my therapy.” As for Richard Geschke, his memories came about differently as he said, “It wasn’t until I had a vivid dream of
reality about a trip down the Hai Van Pass which occurred forty years ago
that the thoughts of not only Vietnam but of my entire army experience came
to my foremost thoughts. I immediately put them on paper, starting with the
chapter titled “Going My Way” and followed by the chapter titled “Was
That Forty-One or Forty-two Rockets?” Both men entered the military through the ROTC program which put them in as an officer once completing college. “During our day there were protests, draft card burnings and a very lively debate about the merits of the war.
Today, because we have an all volunteer army, the regular population is more or less mute on the war. Current debates about the wars are timid in
comparison to the Vietnam era,” said Richard Geschke. Aside from the political unrest our country was going through, these men each had their battles with society dealing with the stigma of serving the country in a war which was shunned by their peers. For Robert Toto, “It was difficult being in grad school once I was discharged. The undergraduate students really had no clue of what military life was.” Richard Geschke commented, “Vietnam was a different era altogether, with the protests and the divisive politics of the times.” He summarized, “I didn’t make military policy, and all I did was to serve my country in an honorable way!”
The stories within In Our Duffel Bags are written in a down to earth manner
using language that makes it easy to relate to the storytellers. This is the
type of book that can be a captivating read for those wanting to indulge in
the mindsets of young men forced into becoming soldiers during a war in which no one wanted to fight.
After reading In Our Duffel Bags, I discovered a few more things in my own duffel bag. Many of us who have served in the U.S. military have packed our share of duffel bags. However, this book shines a light on a few ditties still in the bag that we may have overlooked from the Vietnam era. The story told isn’t just about the war in Southeast Asia. There was a Cold War going on in East and West Germany too! They were in both wars and note the differences and similarities. Geschke and Toto share an enjoyable, provocative and challenging perspective on the journey of ROTC graduates in the turbulent time from 1969 to 1972. However, it is told with the wisdom gained from almost forty years of living in the aftermath.
The co-authors are not “lifers” in the military. They avoid politics, but do note bad and great leaders in a most respectful way. The preface grabbed my attention and set me up for a refreshing perspective of war that is quite balanced. The book not only didn’t disappoint, but it gave me an opportunity to enter into two war zones without the excess baggage of unresolved issues. This book was well thought out. I found it to be intelligent and crisp along with humor and humbleness.
“Some people tend to embellish themselves when writing their memoirs. While we don’t present ourselves as buffoons, we certainly don’t show ourselves as all-knowing and ever-heroic. What we have presented here is an honest portrayal of two citizen soldiers trying to make it through the turbulent times of a country at war.”
Robert Toto found beauty when discussing the Berlin Wall when he was there. His writing is beautiful: Sometimes there were families gathering upon the deck so they could wave to relatives clear of the wall and send kisses to the trapped prisoners of the USSR. It was about sadness and the spirit of the human being…something the wall could not suppress. It was about courage and the will to survive as a free person. It was beautiful but sometimes deadly. As FDR said, “I hate war,” but he was not around to see the Cold War and the Iron Curtain. (P.53)
As I read through the transition from being stationed in West Germany to being catapulted to Vietnam by way of Panama jungle training, their bittersweet and poetic notion of war and peace entranced me. The pros written by these two young junior officers were masterfully and powerfully written without all the drama.
My father always said
Never be comfortable in your position.
For life is full of surprises…
…Self-pity and complaining
Are the tools of a loser.
When in transition,
Think good thoughts.
For if one wallows in the bad thoughts
Of injustice and unfairness,
One may transition onto failure.
When things change,
Think positive and life will reward you!
--Richard C. Geschke, summer of 1971
Wow! The man who was ordered to go to Vietnam against his desires wrote this poem! This passage is key to the flow of this book and the bond of friendship between the co-authors that exists to this day. In the same chapter he writes: It has taken me almost forty years to recollect what I’ve experienced, and it is very difficult to write about oneself in an objective way. I was again in the soup and now I had another “boss” who was angry with me… (P.100)
These men are real and attempt to put it all in perspective as their hopes are dashed and anxieties tighten on rational thinking. At that moment, I was mad, feeling that the military was nothing but a political battlefield played by small-minded people who took advantage of their subordinates. If the subordinates did not “play ball,” the ball was taken away, no matter how good or competent they were. (P.101)
Combat Vets will appreciate the candor and frankness of the authors. Some things about war never change. Some people walk around as “combat vets” without ever really having an idea that a war is going on. Geschke’s words could be my own words with a few changes. It seemed so strange to me that these army personnel were drawing the same combat pay that I was drawing. It didn’t seem right forty-one years ago, and it still doesn’t seem right now, but it was a fact: They were in a different world than we were dealing with in the fields of Vietnam (Iraq, or Afghanistan). (P.158)
Geschke and Toto challenge our status quo in how we understand and approach wars. There is an uncomfortable air about their insights and open-ended conclusions. However, speaking as a combat chaplain who has actually been in the soup of Iraq, I believe they are spot on. The two of them should be expert advisors because they would hold all soldiers and citizens accountable, including me.
Yes! It was a privilege to serve. And it was an honor to review this book. The authors did more than survive the Vietnam era; they thrived and blossomed. And I might add, they inspired this chaplain. Well done!
Reviewed by: Ron Camarda (2012)