Reviewed by Joni Bour

From the moment I read the premise for the book, I thought, “This is a book I have to read." Of course, I half believed it was not a true story. I mean, come on, soldier dies in Vietnam under unusual circumstances, teenage brother goes to VIETNAM to get answers? It was a great idea, for a Steven Spielberg movie. But come on, some kid getting on a Pan Am flight and flying to Vietnam the way some other kids hop a flight to Mardi gras? Now, that is a story.

I am a doubting Thomas by nature, so I approached this book with one hand in pocket, waiting to pull the wool back away from my eyes so to speak. But, what I encountered turned out to be even better than anything Steve could have come up with - no offense, because this was real. It was real heartache, real suffering, real laughter, real malaria, real rocket attacks, complete with precious photos. Frankly, this is another book I hope never hits the bestseller list. Not because it does not deserve it, because it does. What it does not deserve is the Hollywood Butcher shop. It doesn't need some screenplay writer who has never taken a shower with an uninvited gecko, or fainted in the Vietnam heat, never lost a brother in a far off land, never snuck across the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to decide what stays and what goes into the story. Our author lived the story and to take moments out or to add moments that never existed, would not add to the drama, but rather, it would take away from the heart of the story. Let’s hide the book, share it with our friends and never let Hollywood find out. I hope the author will understand I don't want to withhold fabulous wealth; I just want to protect his brother's story.

Tom Reilly has risen to much adversity in his life. I think perhaps there may be nothing that could keep him down. At just seven years old, he lost both his parents within a week of each other. Then after another year of uncertainty of living with his elder brothers and sisters, he moved in with his sister and her family on a dairy farm. Through most of his young life and until his death, Ron, his second eldest brother, was his strongest influence. Ron was in the military and eventually served two tours of duty in Vietnam. He may have been Tom's lifeline, even though he was a continent away. He wrote often, called and took leave to see little Tom and then young Tom as often as he could.

Tom's life on the dairy farm was anything but easy. He was treated like a full-grown hired hand, rather than the eight-year-old brother he was. He must have been an unhappy, tired little boy. He was not allowed to play with other little boys his age or, for that matter, to be a little boy. His brother Ron, serving in the Army, did not know about much of what was going on in little Tom's life, because Tom purposefully kept him in the dark. Until this neglect of childhood finally became undeniable. Then the little boy ran away. He pedaled down lonesome rural roads in complete darkness to his eldest brother's home, begging not to be returned to the farm. Not long after, Ron came home on leave and took matters in his own hands. He felt even though young Tom was in fact just a kid, he had lived through much adversity and had become more responsible than many adults. So they constructed a master plan and a small studio apartment was rented for the teenager under the guise that Ron was actually a traveling businessman and was often gone for periods of time but checked in on his son often. Ron did travel a lot......

Tom and Ron remained close despite the miles that separated them. They had many adventures while Ron was on leave. When not together, they wrote and spoke on the phone often. Each brother was proud of the other, for both rising above their own adversities and for going on to their dreams. You can see and feel the love Tom had for his brother on every page his name is mentioned. This makes the story all the more heartbreaking on the day Tom is visited by a man in uniform that he initially mistakes for his soldier brother on an unannounced visit. Ron was dead. Worse was the mystery as to why. He had not been killed by hostile action. What did that mean? Nobody seemed to know. Tom was devastated; the world he and his brother had so carefully built had crumbled at his feet. It wasn't possible that Ron could be dead. After everything they had been through?

Perhaps the most touching part of the book for me was when the author describes arriving in California to pick up his brother's body to escort him home and then the military funeral that followed. I sobbed. The author has a manner of writing that allows you to see pictures with his words. I felt I was there, thirty plus years ago. I could smell things, see things and feel things. My daughter called out to me from another room as I was reading and sobbing. She wondered if I was OK. "No," I said, "I am not." It wasn't OK, you know. It made me think of the thousands of other funerals that have taken place since that one moment in one family's life for the soldier who came home in the belly of a plane in a box. I cried for a while after that.

The wild but true adventure starts when Tom has taken the steps to fly to Vietnam. He becomes a man on a mission. He decides no matter the cost to himself, he must find out what happened to his brother and perhaps somehow find some logic, some reason and maybe even closure. He was named the beneficiary of his brother's life insurance and he used some of this money to pay for his trip to Southeast Asia. I will not tell you what happens, but I really, really want to because it really would be a good movie. It really is a great story.

Throughout the book I found myself both admiring the author and thinking to myself, where were the logical thinking people? How could they just let this boy walk or fly into a war zone? I guess people were just busy trying to fight a war and do their time so they could fly, walk or run out of where he was trying desperately to get into. He writes his memoirs the way I imagine he would tell you the story, plain and to the point, no fancy words, no self-worship, no foul language and no added machismo. It's a great read and a wonderful story both because in some way we all want there to be a good ending, maybe not a Cinderella style ending, but a good and right end all the same. But also because throughout the book it is easy to marvel at the love these two people had for each other. A love so strong, one would do anything for the other. In my sentimental heart, young Tom going off to Vietnam on his epic search for answers was both the craziest and the sweetest thing one could ever do for another. It was a brother's love than transcended space, time and fear. This book is a great tribute to a soldier lost to war, a great tribute to a brother as is Tom's own life. He went on to do many things that Ron would surely have been so proud to know he did. He served his own bout in the military attaining the rank of E5 and graduated from college. He has done many great things with his career and traveled throughout the world doing it. He is in the process of writing another non-fiction book about the Vietnam War and has even another non-related action book in the works. I know his brother would be proud.

This book is absolutely worth the time it takes to read, but I would recommend you bring a box of tissues to your easy chair and clear your schedule, because you will not want to put it down until there is nothing left to do but close the book.

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Posted 9/2/04