A surprisingly moving account of a Vietnam War veteran who returned to face the family of the man he killed.
Meeting Hoang Ngoc Dam by accident on a jungle trail in 1969, Lt. Homer Steedly shot the Vietnamese soldier from about 30 feet away. Searching his body, Steedly discovered a journal, which he sent home to lay in his mother’s attic for 35 years. Fellow Vietnam vet Karlin (Literature/Univ. of Southern Maryland; Marble Mountain, 2009, etc.) presents a dual biography of the two men, their fatal encounter and the subsequent journey of reconciliation. Readers will likely expect Dam’s impoverished background, but Steedly’s hardscrabble youth in rural South Carolina is a surprise. Using his superb shooting and tracking skills to provide food for his family, he also demonstrated above-average leadership abilities, which allowed him to enter officer candidate school soon after he signed up in 1966. Dam left his village after enlisting in 1963 and never returned, working as a medic, filling his journal with medical drawings and planning to attend medical school. Karlin draws a vivid, gruesome portrait of Steedly’s 1969-70 campaign in the central highlands. The officer killed many men, but Dam was the only one he encountered face-to-face. The image preyed on him and formed part of his post-traumatic stress disorder, which kept him isolated and introverted until middle age when he married and began addressing his memories. In 2008, he returned to retrace his steps, meet the family and participate in the ceremony in which Dam’s remains were brought home.
Despite the reconciliation, the book is a poignant reminder of the war’s sad consequences for both sides.