Haunted By a Comment Directed His Way, Southeastern Wyoming Man Doug Chamberlain Wrote a Book About His Service in Vietnam
TORRINGTON, Wyo. — Doug Chamberlain isn’t interested in reading books about Vietnam soldiers raping villagers.
First, Chamberlain never saw that in his company, he said. There were American-Asian children, but how they came to be wasn’t violent.
Instead, Chamberlain has written a book about other aspects of the Vietnam war, from snakes that were up to 36 feet long, to rats that traps did nothing to the rodents, to a man whose eyeballs were eaten out but still lived, to families not sending condoms to loved ones at war because the families thought the condoms would be used for purposes other than to keep leeches off the soldiers’ crotches.
Chamberlain brings forth many other horrors of the war, like burying a man, Michael J. Kelly. The LeGrange resident took four-and-a-half years to write his book, “Bury Him: A Memoir of the Vietnam War.”
Chamberlain pointed out in the interview that almost 40,000 casualties of the Vietnam War were 22 years old or younger.
“That’s a lot of young people,” Chamberlain said.
The vast majority of the 40,000 were 18.
“Numerous didn’t have a high school education,” Chamberlain said.
Then, the survivors thought that they would serve their country and be honored. Instead, they were berated, Chamberlain pointed out.
“That really drove the suicide for for Vietnam veterans by quite a bit,” Chamberlain said, also citing drug addition and alcohol.
Chamberlain wanted to do the book after talking with Brent Kaufman.
“Dr. Kaufman is the co-owner of the Goshen Veterinary Clinic in Torrington, Wyo. He was a student of mine when I taught at La Grange High SChool in La Grange, Wyo., after my release from active duty and following my first attempt to study jurisprudence at the University of Wyoming,” Chamberlain wrote in the book. “I was also his basketball coach during those years at La Grange. ON the day of the conversation, Dr. Kaufman was administering medical treatment to one of my cattle, and he and I were jokingly reminiscing about those days at LGHS when he suddenly became series. He said he had always wondered why I always seemed ‘mad and angry’ during those years. That was the first time that I could ever remember anyone asking me about my behavior during that period of my life who thought it was abnormal, without being judgmental. He was not comparing me and my conduct to what and who I was prior to my military service, because he did not know me then. He was simply making an observation.
“His comment haunted me for several months, and it eventually led to the writing of this book,” Chamberlain wrote.
Chamberlain also wrote the book to honor the men who were under his command.
“They lived that experience with me,” Chamberlain said.
The other reason, Chamberlain said, is to honor Kelly. Half of all profits from the book would help Marine families and go into a memorial fund for Kelly.
Chamberlain on his book
Chamberlain struggled with leading a company of men in war.
“It’s a challenge to supervise young men like that in a combat situation,” Chamberlain said. “There’s nothing easy about war and what people forget about, that it’s all about killing people and breaking things.”
When it was noted that Chamberlain had quite a memory of the war to be able to write a book about it, Chamberlain said that one of his sisters said the same to him before noting that “it’s not as hard to remember when you live it every day.”
Chamberlain hopes that the book will give readers “a better understanding of the Vietnam War because most people (around 30 years old) do not even know a lot about that,” Chamberlain said, though he wrote it even though he noted that his granddaughter two years ago learned in school about the Tet Offensive.
Chamberlain, a former Wyoming lawmaker, said that Vietnam veterans in general have suffered a lot of discrimination.
“So I think the truth is really important on any issue. And I hope also that it will help parents and families when they are trying to help their children making decisions about the military,” Chamberlain said, citing “the realities of what the situations are.”
Chamberlain said “there’s no doubt in my mind” when asked if the story of the man who lived despite his eyeballs being eaten out were true.
“That sort of thing happens,” Chamberlain said. “Just as the other atrocities … in the book. I think it’s important for people to realize the sacrifice of those who serve in the military and the sacrifices they make, but also the sacrifices of their families (who) have to live with them when they come back,” having “to live with the effects of the war on their loved ones.”
Chamberlain was a basketball player. Being an athlete helped him at war because it put him in excellent physical condition, Chamberlain said.
“And I think also, the whole idea of competition in athletics helps you,” Chamberlain said, citing “competition for staying alive” and in Chamberlain’s case, trying to make decisions that kept his man alive, as he was over a “company.”
Chamberlain wrote often in the book about getting divine protection at war.
“I did, and I think anybody who has been in a combat situation would probably tell you the same, of course, except those who made the ultimate sacrifice,” Chamberlain said. “If I can say it this way, it’s an uncanny thing when something horrible happens when you are spared and someone right next to you isn’t.”
Chamberlain said he doesn’t know any other way to explain it “other than (his) belief in a God and (his) spiritual values.”
“Some some reason, (experiences) seemed like a divine intervention,” Chamberlain said.
Chamberlain said in the book that he took Wyoming values to war.
“We are very privileged to live in Wyoming,” Chamberlain said. “Wyoming is a very unique place and I think we probably value life and personal freedoms and personal property more than in any other state in the union. And when you are raised with those kinds of values, it translates into beliefs and values later in life. And a good foundation of that … has an immense impression on how you live later. And especially in a combat situation.”
Chamberlain called the rat that got out of a trap “Mr.” Chamberlain used a piece of caramel. It was a surprise he still had it. In Vietnam, most candy wasn’t edible.
When families wouldn’t believe what soldiers would say about the condom’s purpose, Chamberlain said that condoms would usually be used for sexual intercourse.
“So it was hard for them to believe,” Chamberlain said, quoting the families: “oh, right. You want them for leeches.”
“I’m just relating what some of the troops said; what they were told,” Chamberlain said. “Leech Valley was quite the experience.”
Soldiers had to be careful getting the leeches off — that if they pulled off just the head, you would always get an infection.
“The problem is you couldn’t spend all day getting leeches off,” Chamberlain said. “You just had to when you could.”
Chamberlain reminded that the trauma of combat isn’t always getting shot at.
“In the jungles, it’s snakes and leeches and all those sorts of things,” Chamberlain said. “And I think … sometimes, combat and war gets sensationalized. There’s nothing sensational about it. It’s a life-changing experience.”
Chamberlain thought that for years, the fog of war must have influenced his thinking on how long the snake was. But then he went to Taiwan during his 18 years in the Wyoming state legislature and saw religious practices oriented around snakes.
“It kind of indicated in my conscience that maybe I didn’t (overestimate the snake’s length),” Chamberlain said.
Chamberlain’s combat experience probably made him more sensitive to human suffering, he said.
“You probably noticed some places where I noticed the horrible things … that happened to civilians … that happened to children … that’s gut-wrenching stuff.”
And that wasn’t the only way in which Chamberlain was changed by the war.
“I think it probably made me more skeptical of government at higher levels, at the national level. I think it probably impressed upon me the effects of corporate greed and particular, I’m talking about the military industrial complex,” Chamberlain said. “I think also, I think it helped me understand, because our here, growing up, (I was) very protected; I don’t even remember being close to a black person until I was in high school, and there, we were fighting and dying for each other.
“So I think it gave me a more introspective look at racial issues,” Chamberlain said. “And I guess it probably, maybe, made me realize what sacrifice for our country really is. I was involved in public service and I’m proud of that, but when you put your life on the line, that’s different … just like first responders and people in law enforcement, they risk their lives every day. That’s a totally different situation.
“But I think probably the most difficult part for me was everything I did every day when I was a company commander was to try to figure out how many people we could kill that die and kill them the fastest,” Chamberlain said. “And that’s kind of a different perspective on life.”
Chamberlain was drafted — and that was before the lottery. He was chosen by three people in the county, appointed by the president.
“I’m not complaining; I’m not saying they were unfair,” Chamberlain said. “I’m just saying that’s how the system worked.”
Kaufman’s comment was one among others that people told him encouraging Chamberlain to write a book.
“I thought I would just start writing and see what happened,” Chamberlain said. “The practice of journaling is used in a lot of different ways to help people psychologically address issues that they have and so I thought ‘you know, trying to write a book would do that.’”
That said, it’s rather difficult to write a book and lay out your life in front of people, especially as Chamberlain didn’t cut any corners.
“I didn’t try to protect anybody or anything, including myself,” Chamberlain said. “I’m sure that the hierarchy of the Marine corps may not be happy with that book, but that’s exactly the way I remember it.”
A radio operator who contacted Chamberlain decades later to make an apology influenced Chamberlain as Chamberlain has started to go to reunions in the past six to eight years with the men with which he served.
Reliving Chamberlain’s traumatic experiences of war was rather difficult, he said.
“You had to go back into things that you tried for years to forget,” Chamberlain said. “But I felt like to do justice to my men and for the ones we left behind … I just had a burning desire to try to do it to honor them.”
That’s because what was true for Chamberlain and his company was true for a lot of Vietnam veterans.
“All of us paid a price when we returned,” Chamberlain said.
Things that Vietnam war veterans said happened in their company are not things Chamberlain would have allowed, Chamberlain said. It may cost Chamberlain book sales and he is prepared for that.
“I just tried to lay it out exactly the way I saw it and let the chips fall where they may,” Chamberlain said.
Chamberlain thinks that some stories, like those about prostitution, may have been sensationalized. He added that prostitution wasn’t even available where Chamberlain’s company was.
He also takes exception to the stories about Vietnam veterans raping villagers.
“That’s sensationalizing and degrading the American military personnel,” Chamberlain said. “Bad things happen in all wars, (but) while that might appeal in some sort of self-gratifying way for certain readers, that’s not what my book’s about.”
“There wasn’t a lot of prostitution around,” Chamberlain added.
Same goes for alcohol with Chamberlain’s company, he said.
“Alcohol would get you killed where we were,” Chamberlain said.
Writing the book made Chamberlain feel like his memories were validated but not vindicated.
“I don’t feel any vindication in writing that book,” Chamberlain said before pointing to the book’s cover photo of one of Chamberlain’s troops burying a fellow soldier in a bomb crater, putting a cross in it.
“It doesn’t get any worse than that,” Chamberlain said. “And of course, that’s what the book’s all about.”
“Writing the book makes it somewhat easier to look in the mirror because at least I’ve put it out there,” Chamberlain added.
Chamberlain hopes that the book helps with loved ones who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He also added that he had a disclaimer to start the book over graphic words because he did not want to offend the reader right off.
Folks can purchase a copy of the book at marinedougchamberlain.com.