Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lies from Southeast Asia

Vietnam vet writes book on war correspondence with anxious family

By Joseph Kellard

When Howard Kalachman was a soldier on sandbag duty at a U.S. army base in Vietnam, he was struck by a 200-pound piece of pressed steel plate flung from a helicopter propeller that, had it hit him differently, might have decapitated him.

“I was actually dead, but was brought back,” said Kalachman, whose neck still bears a scar from the accident. “I’m glad I was, because I have a beautiful daughter.”

A month later, after his hospital stay, Kalachman did something unusual: he told his parents the truth about his injury and the circumstances surrounding it. “They wouldn’t believe me, no matter how many times I wrote to them about it, and figured I was injured in combat,” said Kalachman, who served in Vietnam for 13 months in 1967 and 1968, while the Tet Offensive raged on.

Now Kalachman, 65, the new commander at the Long Beach American Legion, is publishing a book about his correspondence with his family during the war. While he sent letters about the war’s harsh realities to his brother, Marvin, his letters to his parents stressed only the positives. Hence the book’s title: “Hi Mom, I’m O.K.! And Other Lies from Vietnam.”

“My mother was a worrier and my father had a heart condition, so I couldn’t tell them what was really going on,” Kalachman said. “So I fudged my letters to them a bit, just told them the good stuff, and was basically writing to my brother some of the facts about what was really going on.”

Kalachman said he had several brushes with serious injury or death, both in and out of combat, including his fall into a hole, an underground tunnel in which he stopped his slide before he crashed to the bottom.

While in a war zone, he was ordered to destroy his letters from home after he read them so there would be no chance that they would fall into the wrong hands and be used against him. Near the end of his tour in Southeast Asia, he became a clerk and composed letters to the next of kin of dead soldiers.

“Hi Mom” consists mostly of his letters to his parents and his brother, along with present-day commentary and some 100 photographs. Published by Trafford Publishers, the book is due to hit and the online bookstore at Barnes & Noble next month. Depending on how well it sells online, it could wind up on bookstore shelves.

“I consider it a thoughtful, poignant and often humorous book about the complexities of writing home from a war zone to an anxious family,” reads Kalachman’s synopsis.

He started writing the book about three years ago, after he retired as an educator and administrator the New York City’s public schools — about the time he moved to Island Park after living in Long Beach for 26 years. “It was really very cathartic writing it, because I really had forgotten a lot of what had happened, and this forced me to think about it,” said Kalachman, who also volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters and Island Harvest and speaks publicly on behalf of the Make A Wish Foundation.

As the American Legion’s new commander, Kalachman wants to focus on recruiting younger veterans into an otherwise graying organization of 100 members. He also hopes his book reaches a younger audience doing battle overseas today. “I think the climate for this book is very good right now, due to our ongoing involvement in two wars,” he said. “So I’m hoping what I wrote will resonate with either those who are in the service or have loved ones in it and can understand what’s going on.”

Photo courtesy Howard Kalachman

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