By Rhonda Culbertson
I had the privilege of speaking with Wendell Affield, who will be coming to campus Tuesday April 18 to discuss his book, Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat Cox’n’s Memory Journey of His War in Vietnam and Return Home. The event will take place in the 3rd floor Bridge area of Wiekamp Hall starting at 5:00 p.m. The event is free and the public is encouraged to attend.
Mr. Affield is soft-spoken and articulate. His voice has the distinctive cadence and faint accent that reminds me of his generation of the Minnesotans I grew up with. He and his wife live near Bemidji, Minnesota, in a log cabin overlooking a small lake that flows into the nearby Mississippi River. A pair of swans are summer residents, and great entertainment.
He had a difficult childhood on a small farm in Northern Minnesota. Both his mother and stepfather struggled with mental illness. At 17 he enlisted in the Navy, and while still a teenager he was deployed to Vietnam during the Tet offensive, as a member of the Mobile Riverine Force. He piloted an armor troop carrier through the delta of the Mekong river and then on the Cua Viet River, just south of the DMZ. He was seriously wounded in an ambush and was medevaced off the river. Later he was brought back to the United States for rehabilitation and therapy for his injuries. The emotional and psychological wounds took longer to heal. Not until retirement did he begin the process of writing his memoirs. He started attending classes at Bemidji State University to learn the craft of writing. Over a period of ten years he honed a collection of memories and stories into his book.
We spoke at some length about his writing process. Surprisingly, considering the vividness and detail of his writing, he did not keep a diary during his time in Vietnam. He relied on a writing technique taught by Donald M. Murray in his book, Write to Learn, for creating a memory tree. The trunk of the tree is an event. As you delve into the specifics branching out from the main trunk, old memories start to reawaken. These ‘trigger memories’ are where other memories attach. Mr. Affield also made extensive use of military resources available on the web including ‘After Action Reports’ to supply missing pieces and additional detail. Those who shared his experiences confirm his accuracy.
The original essays were discrete stories based on vivid but disjointed memories, told from a retrospective viewpoint. After working with the material and consulting with classmates and mentors, he realized that it needed to be a larger chronological work told from the viewpoint of a young soldier.
I was not surprised to learn that stylistically, one of his main influences is Hemingway. His writing has the immediacy and carefully crafted sentences of that author. He is also an admirer of other WWI poets and writers, who evoked the loss and waste of war so powerfully.
Mr. Affield and I also talked about some of the moral and ethical challenges faced by soldiers in combat situations. Although he entered the navy with a fairly limited picture of the larger world, he felt that his childhood on a small farm and growing up near Red Lake Nation, an Ojibwe reservation north of Bemidji, gave him insight into the agrarian existence of the Vietnamese peasants. He was able to empathize with their plight, and imagine how people in his own community might react to the violent intrusions of war.
He feels fortunate that he did not have to fight in a context where he had to be the first to fire, or where the difference between soldier and civilian was blurred. He has a great deal of empathy for current soldiers who are fighting terrorists in an arena where the distinction is not always clear.
One of the most gratifying aspects of sharing his story has been the contacts he has made with other veterans. Social media has given him the chance to reconnect with many from his past. His website and blog have provided opportunities to interact with veterans and family members who have found insight into their own experiences through his story. Veterans struggling with posttraumatic stress are particularly drawn to his talks and workshops. He makes sure to have information about local veteran resources at all of his appearances.
Mr. Affield feels that writing can be a powerful healing tool for anyone dealing with trauma; not just veterans. Several times he mentioned that the act of writing the trauma down ‘puts boundaries’ around an event, and allows the writer to start making sense of the traumatic injuries and to approach them more dispassionately. He recommends the book, Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story, by Ron Capps as an aid for those who would like to record their own experiences.
Although Mr. Affield has taken careful pains to not glorify war in any of his writings, a history class with Tom Murphy made him realize that the anti-war movement perspective was missing from early drafts of his book. Embodied by one of his military comrades, nick-named “Professor”, the anti-war position was explored using remembered conversations. Upon returning home, Mr. Affield had an encounter with anti-war protesters. Thirty years later he returned to the scene in an attempt to learn why the protestors had assaulted a hospital bus loaded with wounded troops enroute to Great Lakes Naval Hospital. What he discovered was quite astonishing.
He hopes that accounts like his can help us, as a country, learn from the past. While reading H.R. McMasters’ Dereliction of Duty, Affield was outraged at the hubris and lies made by national leaders in the early 1960s—deception that dragged this country into the Vietnam War. He hopes that Mr. McMasters remembers what he wrote while serving as National Security Advisor for the current administration. Affield also talked about the experiences of his mother and grandmother who were in Europe during Hitler’s ascendancy. His grandmother, a student of history, foresaw the problems that might arise from the 1938 Munich Agreement. Mr. Affield sees parallels with the current situations in the Middle East and North Korea.
Mr. Affield closed our conversation with an anecdote. He wanted to place copies of his book in his former business place. He felt he needed to warn the owner, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, that there was profanity in the book. The owner took a long look at the author and said, “Wendell, war is profane.”
Please plan to join us for a fascinating conversation. Copies of the book are available for check-out in the library, and by contacting Vicki Bloom, firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information or to rsvp, please contact Rhonda Culbertson, email@example.com.