As an audiobook narrator/producer, I do not have a strict set of criteria that I use in looking for promising projects. Of course I want to find a book that is likely to sell, and I try to steer clear of the wide selection of usually self-published “whacko” books that proliferate on Amazon and elsewhere. I also try to match my talents to the requirements of books seeking narrators. I look for those that seem right for an authoritative baritone voice and avoid those with exotic characters who speak in accents and with inflections that I know I cannot pull off.
All this is to say that seldom is the choice of books I audition for motivated by their being books that I would read purely for pleasure. Nor does the fact that I have chosen to narrate a book imply that I do or do not endorse the content and ideas therein.
Now and then, however, a book unexpectedly becomes more than just an exercise in interpretation. That is the case with a book I am currently working on. The book is titled Combat Chaplain, written by James D. Johnson.
It is a memoir that describes the day-to-day experiences of a 27-year-old Army chaplain, who volunteers for duty in Vietnam where he ends up serving with combat troops in the Mekong Delta in 1967—the height of American involvement in that war.
The author kept meticulous records of his experiences for the year he spent with what were generally known as riverine forces, troops that patrolled the rivers, canals, and rice paddies of the Mekong Delta looking for Viet Cong troops and engaging them in combat.
Reported as a series of journal entries, Johnson’s book is unblinking in its descriptions of what this kind of life entailed for the soldiers and sailors who were assigned to this duty. Chaplain Johnson, an unarmed non-combatant, accompanies his “guys” on combat operations that exposed him to the same high risk of injury and death the others faced. He ministered to his men in the midst of combat and in base areas between operations. He was awarded two Bronze Star medals with V device for valor during combat operations, though that activity did not include shooting at or personally trying to kill the enemy.
It’s a terrific book that shows rather than tells what life was like for those facing unrelenting misery and the likelihood of being killed or wounded on a day-to-day basis without ever really understanding why they were being called upon to do it or what it was intended to accomplish. They just did their duty. Many are heroes, some are slackers, but they are all there participating, experiencing, and enduring as best they can.
When I submitted the audition for this book, I didn’t know much about it other than what I could surmise from the title and the few short paragraphs that I recorded for the audition. I had an interest in it because I too had served in Vietnam at nearly same time as Captain Johnson.
I have to say that narrating this book has been difficult at times for me. Not because it revives difficult memories; I never even came close to the kinds of searing experiences that Johnson and his fellow troops endured on a daily basis.
What makes it difficult at times for me to read and record this account is complicated to articulate. At times I come close to tears when reading about a particularly horrific loss of life or a touching moment. And there are many such throughout the book. Often I have to stop and compose myself.
But why such an intense reaction, given that I completely escaped the misery and danger that pervades these pages?
I think it is some kind of manifestation of survivor’s guilt. Many veterans struggle with this. I took active steps to avoid ending up in combat situations, including volunteering to go to Vietnam on condition that I be assigned the job I wanted in radio broadcasting in Saigon. (One passage in the book describes how far removed from the chaplain’s war is the gleaming Armed Forces Radio broadcast studio in Saigon where he came to record a series of devotional radio programs for the troops. These studios were just a few steps down the street from the compound where I advised Vietnamese Army broadcasters in similar surroundings.)
When I am reading this riveting account it comes dramatically home to me how different the lives of these troops were from mine. We were in the same country at about the same time, participating in the same war. But they were living in mud, facing the likelihood of horrific wounds or agonizing death, and doing so day after day for their entire 365 days in country. I feel a strong sense of guilt that while they were out there dodging incoming mortars, cruising down the middle of the rivers ducking rifle fire from both banks, getting wounded and killed and sleeping in mud, I was enjoying steak at the officer’s club in Saigon and going back to my BOQ to sleep in air conditioned comfort.
A part of me begins to feel that what they went through was something they did for me. Instead of me having to be there, they were there in my place. They were out there in the bullet riddled rice paddies so I didn’t have to be.
But it was too much to ask of them. They suffered so much. And the suffering for too many of them didn’t end when they returned from Vietnam. I should have been there with them. I should never have tried to avoid doing my bit.
This is no mea culpa; in my heart I know that nothing I did or did not do would have changed the lives of the heroes I met in this book. And I do not really believe that I was derelict in not opting for combat and misery.
So what’s the bottom line here? There isn’t much of one really. I feel deeply honored to add something to the telling of this magnificent story of James D. Johnson’s. I am grateful for the opportunity to offer another medium through which audiences may engage this story and be inspired by it.
I am halfway through narrating this book. When I’ve finished it, I plan to contact the author. I want to tell him that his book made a difference in my life. I won’t be able to say exactly how, or what exactly changed, but I want to let him know that one fellow veteran is very glad he had the chance to know what this heroic chaplain and his “guys” went through those many years ago in that awful war. That’s not much really, but it seems important to me somehow.