The Vietnam War was a defining event for a generation of Americans. But for years, misguided and sometimes demeaning cliches about its veterans have proliferated widely. Philip F. Napoli’s Bringing It All Back Home strips away the myths and reveals the complex individuals whose lives were irreversibly altered – but not necessarily damaged or destroyed – by their experiences in South East Asia. Napoli was a primary researcher for Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, and in the spirit of that enterprise, his oral histories recast our understanding of a war and its legacy.
Napoli introduces a remarkable cast of young New Yorkers who went abroad with high hopes only to find a bewildering conflict. We meet a nurse who staged a hunger strike to promote peace while working at a field hospital; a paratrooper whose experiences on the battlefield left him with emotional scars that led to violence and homelessness; a black soldier who achieved an unexpected camaraderie with his fellow servicemen in racially tense times; and a university administrator who helped to create New York City’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. Some of Napoli’s soldiers became active opponents of the war, others did not, but all returned with a powerful urge to understand the death and destruction they’d seen. Overcoming adversity, a great many would go on to lead ambitious lives of public service. Tracing their journeys from the streets of Brooklyn and Queens to the banks of the Mekong to homecomings in New York City’s most glamorous corporations and meanest homeless shelters, Napoli reveals the variety and surprising vibrancy of the ex-soldier’s experience. “For almost everyone, their time in Vietnam was the most alive and exciting part of their life,” one veteran recalls. He adds: “I still have this little trick …. When I lie down and go to sleep, if there’s something bothering me, I say, ‘you’re warm, you’re dry, and there is no one shooting at you.’” (167)