Lee Halverson’s Cong Catchers recalls his time serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.
Immediately after accepting his diploma at Iowa State University graduation ceremonies, the author walked back to his campus housing and found a draft notice hanging on his door. A few months later, he reported for basic training. In a detailed, down-home narrative style, he writes frankly about boot camp’s physical and emotional brutality, describing how “officers and drill sergeants circled like sharks” to “completely humiliate each recruit and reduce them to a quivering mass of Jell-O…”
He then attended dog training school in Okinawa—where a fear/reward system produced lethal attack dogs—and was later sent to Vietnam, stationed first in Cam Ranh Bay on the China Sea as a sentry dog handler patrolling an ammunition dump, then in Pleiku in the Central Highlands, guarding the perimeter of another ammo dump. With a trained dog, he led combat units into the bamboo jungles. He faced mortars, rockets and small arms fire throughout his year-long tour in Vietnam, part of his two-year enlistment.
Halverson skillfully immerses readers in each setting. But because the chapters originated as a column for the author’s hometown newspaper, they often repeat anecdotes—some, as many as seven or eight times—to make the same points.
The author also takes a proselytizing approach, with frequent biblical references that could alienate general readers. His sense of moral superiority when counseling lovelorn soldiers becomes off-putting as he insists that he has a faithful girlfriend who writes daily letters because he prays to Jesus–and they can, too.
Equally unsettling is Halverson’s fascination with Smitty, a roguish comrade with a large strawberry birthmark who, playing to his facial difference, mugs and twitches to unsettle others and get his way. Frequent mentions of Smitty’s clowning land poorly in today’s more disability-conscious landscape.
Although this is a well-intentioned tale of historical interest, its lessons are out of touch with prevailing perspectives. Thus, the memoir is unlikely to fully engage contemporary readers.
Also available as an ebook.