A Vietnam veteran struggles with his health as a victim of the U.S. government’s defoliation program in this debut novel.
In 1964, Zack Martin from rural Vermont enlists in the Navy and is assigned to the destroyer U.S.S. Hawke DD 894, which is predictably deployed to Vietnam. In addition to the perils of war, Zack contends with stark culture shock and the pain of being separated from his high school sweetheart. Despite sundry temptations, he remains true to her, and her steadfast devotion to him helps him survive: “I love you, Tally,” he writes to her while overseas, “your love is the only thing keeping me going, keeping me sane here.” He finally returns home and marries Tally, who’s become a nurse. He soon discovers a recurrence of fatty lumps on his arms, which he’d had removed while in the Navy. He goes to a Veterans Administration hospital to have them biopsied and receives the grim news that he has soft-tissue sarcoma, a slow-growing form of cancer. From the beginning, Miller portrays Zack’s experience with the VA, and the U.S. government in general, as frustrating and sometimes-hostile. For example, the VA claims it has no records that Zack was originally treated while on duty, which liberates it from any obligation to treat him for free. Also, it becomes increasingly obvious that his condition is the result of exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant the U.S. military developed to destroy enemy crops. In real life, extraordinary numbers of Vietnam veterans developed serious health issues upon their return—so many that the government’s position that exposure was harmless eventually became untenable. As heartbreaking as Zack’s struggle with cancer is, Miller’s portrayal of the government’s indifference to his condition is the bleakest aspect of his tale. The author deftly transforms his thorough historical scholarship on the Vietnam conflict into a gripping drama. Despite the gloomy details of the story, readers will be buoyed by the love story between Zack and Tally, which, in many ways, is an improbable union from the start due to their different backgrounds. Overall, this book offers exactly what good historical fiction should provide: enthralling drama, believable characters, and scrupulous research.
A powerful fictional account of the Agent Orange debacle.