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by Paul Gessell, The Ottawa Citizen, Saturday, April 8, 2000
Les Brown made a decision in 1968 he will always regret. He was 19, living with his maternal grandparents in Wakefield and earning $1 an hour cutting hay for a farmer. 

Wakefield had always been something of a “paradise” for Brown, who had spent more of his life in urban America than rural Quebec. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to return to his parents’ home in California and face the fate that awaited him there.

Buy and save! There It Is: A Canadian in the Vietnam War
A tear after leaving Wakefield, Brown was in Vietnam. Despite being a Montreal-born Canadian citizen, Brown had been drafted into the U.S. Army. An 11 year childhood residency in the U.S, according to American law, made him eligible to become the property of the U.S. military.

Becoming a soldier in the American army and fighting for who knows what in Vietnam was not what Brown had wanted. But fearing the displeasure of his father, a Second World War veteran, and fearing the prospects of being a fugitive draft dodger, Brown answered the call, entered the army and was shipped off to a war Americans already knew they could not win.

“I was coerced,” says the soft-spoken Brown. “I didn’t want to go.”
Les Brown at Weedy Hill Farm in Farrellton, Que The war did not end for Brown when he was discharged May 12, 1971, not even when he returned to “paradise” in 1977 and bought a 91-acre farm a few kilometers north of Wakefield at Farrellton.

“I think about Vietnam every day,” Brown says over lunch at the Alpenngruss Cafe in Wakefield. “I still try to figure it out, to make some sense of it.”

He knows there is perhaps no sense to make of what happened 30 years ago. But he still seems determined to try to unravel the terrors and mysteries that have kept him walking on eggshells for the last three decades.

Brown decided in 1997 to write a book which would help him confront the past and would help awaken Canadians to the suffering of their own largely hidden Vietnam vets. Before completion, Brown showed some of his handiwork, written long-hand, to a Wakefield friend, Global TV cameraman Phil Nolan. Nolan passed the work on to his father, Brian Nolan, a Korean War veteran and author of several military books. 

The elder Nolan then contacted Douglas Gibson, head of the McClelland and Stewart publishing firm. Quite independently, the Ottawa psychiatrist who was treating Brown for post-traumatic stress disorder, Dr. Gerasimos Kambites, also contacted Gibson about publishing his patient’s book.

Suddenly, Brown got the call every writer dreams will come one day. Doug Gibson was on the line inviting Brown to send him a manuscript. The result is There It Is: A Canadian in the Vietnam War, a book due to hit the stores this month.

"There It Is offers a terrifying trip with freaked out soldiers in the jungles of southeast Asia. We hear the helicopters, we smell the panic and we weep at the futility of it all."

There It Is offers a terrifying trip with freaked out soldiers in the jungles of southeast Asia. We hear the helicopters, we smell the panic and we weep at the futility of it all. Brown, like the frightened, bewildered and often stoned soldiers with whom he served, seem to have one thought only during his tour of duty: How to stay alive. At times, Brown was all but paralysed by the horror.

“I was running out of fight,” Brown writes, “and my body was experiencing some kind of shutdown. I had no idea what was wrong with me, but I had zero energy. If the rest of my unit were up in the morning talking, I would hear their voices but I would be unable to tune them in or to move my body. I was in some weird zone that I couldn’t name and anxious to get past. I had stopped writing letters home and medicated (smoked dope) often with (fellow soldiers) J.J., Eggrat and the Joker.”

Much of this might seem familiar. Film-goers have seen similar material in movies like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter or Platoon and the multitude of books and articles that fueled those movies. However, Brown’s book adds a new twist to those that came before. His book brings the Vietnam War one step closer to Canadians who, in their own way, are like the Americans and in a state of denial about the lingering aftershocks of the conflict.

The book shows that the war did not just affect Americans on this side of the Pacific. Some Canadians also saw their sons killed in Vietnam or saw them return with wounds both physical and psychological.

Studies show, Brown says, that Canadian Vietnam War vets are twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder as are their American counterparts. This is because Canadian vets lack the social support networks that exist in the U.S. Canada, generally, had little sympathy for the Americans’ involvement in the Vietnam War and, likewise, offers little sympathy for the veterans of that war.

Consequently, says Brown, “Canadian vets are in the closet.” Canadians don’t see the vets as ordinary salt-of-the-earth neighbours, going to work, playing hockey and raising kids just like everyone else. Instead, they see the vets as “baby-killers.”

Brown wants to change that image, to prod Canadians into making a distinction between “the warriors and the war.”

The estimated number of Canadians who served in Vietnam ranges from 5,000 to 50,000, depending on who is offering the figures. Some, like Brown, served reluctantly. Others are Canadians who simply headed south of the border to enlist, seeking adventure or determined to battle the “commies.” At least 111 Canadians are known to have died. Their names are inscribed on a memorial at Windsor.

In There It Is, Brown describes the pain he and many other vets experienced after the war:

“My Plan had always been to simply do my time and slip through the cracks. Physically, my plan had worked, but mentally, I was really suffering. All feelings had one common thread: guilt. I felt guilty for going to Vietnam, for allowing the army to have my body, for reluctantly pursuing a war I thought was nuts, for eventually abandoning my grunt brothers and, mostly, for surviving when others did not. I had not been blown away or even slightly wounded when many others had. For decades, I would blame myself for the very existence of the war in Vietnam.”

Brown’s first draft of the book followed his life beyond Vietnam into the Los Angeles Police Department, where he worked for three years. “It wasn’t the right job for me,” he says. “It was hell. I hated it.”

McClelland and Stewart excised the material, deciding to keep the books focus on Vietnam. Instead, only a few paragraphs are at the back of the book to tell readers about Brown’s post-war life, his two marriages, four children and his life in Farrellton.

It is clear that the story of Les Brown and the Vietnam War did not end with his return to civilian life. Indeed the war followed him into the Los Angeles Police Department and beyond. Thus, There It Is tells only part of the story. Surely there is a sequel waiting to be written. 
Brown agrees.

Buy There It Is: A Canadian in the Vietnam War by Les D. Brown and save upto 30%!

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