Book Review: Danger Close! A Vietnam Memoir
Ever since the Continental Army came into being on June 14, 1775, America (the United States of America after July 4, 1776) has been protected and defended by countless legions of officers and enlisted men who’ve dedicated their lives to performing years of selfless service to the republic.
Most of them have served, essentially, anonymously—for every famous Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, or George S. Patton there are thousands whose names are known and remembered only by their families, descendants and service buddies. Throughout this country’s history, these dedicated men and women formed the backbone of America’s military forces—ground, air and the sea services.
The fact that their names never became famous is, to them, of no great consequence. Fame and renown are not why they faithfully served for years-long careers. To them, it was a “calling” (historians use the phrase “military priesthood”) that drew them to dedicate the most productive years of their lives to selfless service to their country.
Even though we’ll likely never read or hear many of their names, those of us today enjoying the freedoms they protected—and sometimes fought, bled or died to preserve—owe them a debt that can never be repaid.
An Unsung Vietnam War Hero
One of these members of the legions of the “selfless service unknowns” is Philip Gioia, author of Danger Close!: A Vietnam Memoir. Gioia, a Virginia Military Institute (VMI) 1967 graduate, served on active duty in the Army from 1967–1977. He did two combat tours in Vietnam: his first with 82nd Airborne Division, February-April 1968 (then medically-evacuated for wounds); and his second in 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) April 1969-April 1970 (again medically-evacuated, this time for malaria). During his two tours, Gioia received two Silver Stars for valor, a Bronze Star with “V” for valor, and two Purple Hearts.
Although marketed as “A Vietnam Memoir,” that doesn’t capture the book’s true nature. In fact, Gioia doesn’t get to Vietnam until page 214 when he arrived at Chu Lai under mortar attack via U.S. Air Force C-141 transport during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
His riveting Vietnam combat accounts are compelling, exceptionally revealing of the war’s combat experience; yet, focusing only on Vietnam sells the memoir short—it’s much more than just another “Vietnam memoir” among an ever- expanding number in that crowded genre.
A Life Diary
In fact, Gioia’s book is greatly enhanced by an unusual format. Although presented in chronological order divided into 22 chapters, he eschews most books’ “standard” narrative format. Instead, Gioia’s book presents his life (from his 1946 birth into an Italian-American family in Greenwich Village, New York City to shortly after he leaves Army active duty in 1977) in short (from paragraph-length to several-pages-long), single-topic descriptions revealing memorable events and notable experiences shaping his upbringing, character and values.
The effect of this unusual format creates a “life diary” of Gioia’s first 30-some years. Each of the memorable vignettes describing events and experiences essentially is a revealing “diary entry,” so by the time he enters VMI in 1963 readers understand why he chose the path of military selfless service. The “life-diary entry” format, although unusual, works!
Gioia’s father was a career Army Transportation Corps officer who, due to Italian language fluency served in World War II’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Therefore, Gioia grew up a “military brat”—child of a career service member. Although frequently moving growing up (living in New York, Japan, Italy, West Point, Virginia, Alabama), the experience exposed him to the wider world and taught him self-sufficiency while, importantly, internalizing the guiding concepts “Duty, Honor, Country.” Readers will completely understand his decision for military service as he’s commissioned an Infantry 2nd Lieutenant upon his 1967 VMI graduation.
Jump School and Ranger School
Gioia’s entry onto active duty at Fort Bragg, North Carolina with the 82nd Airborne Division is superbly-recounted, and his detailed, several-chapters- long accounts of experiences at Fort Benning, Georgia, at the 3-week Airborne School, followed by the grueling, physically- and mentally-demanding 9-week Ranger course at Benning, Dahlonega (“mountain” phase), and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida (“swamp” phase) is the absolute best, first-person account of these two demanding army training courses I’ve ever read (this reviewer attended both). Advice to anyone wondering what “Jump School” and “Ranger School” are really like is: Read pages 120-188 of Gioia’s book!
Gioia’s account of his selfless service in two Vietnam tours is detailed and typical of the experiences of a combat infantry officer troop leader. Yet each of the approximately 3 million Americans who served in Vietnam (ground, air and naval) uniquely experienced the war and Gioia can only recount how he fought and endured his own Vietnam War. Phil’s superb Danger Close! does that exceptionally well.