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The War Within
by Sharlene Leker
Covenant Books


Book review by Michelle Jacobs


"I shouldn’t be here. My plans have nothing to do with being in the Army, much less being involved in a war."

Rick begins his life in a small farming town in California and comes of age during the Vietnam War. He hopes to become a preacher, attends college for a year, and meets the woman he will eventually marry. But when he can’t afford tuition for his second year of college, he is drafted, trained as a medic, and sent over to Vietnam. There, his life takes a devastating turn as he witnesses the horrors of war, takes drugs for the first time, and questions the existence of God. His life is forever altered by his tour of duty. He returns home to try to resume his life, but he brings with him the guilt and anguish inflicted by the war. He settles into a pattern of drinking and drug use with stints in jail marked by periods of remorse and steady employment. His family suffers alongside him, buoyant with hope when he starts fresh but crushed with despair when he succumbs to his addictions. This absorbing narrative explores the impact of war on one man’s life and captures the vicious cycle of personal destruction and self-sabotage.

Deeply moving and powerfully rendered, this story brims with authenticity and with an urgency to lay bare one man’s life and journey in the face of immense trauma. Like so many Vietnam veterans, Rick is unprepared to return to his life after the war and is broken by nightmares, guilt, and anger from his experiences. He uses alcohol and drugs to cope and spirals into ruin even as he tries to live a normal life with his wife. The loving despair of his parents, sister, and wife is conveyed with precision and searing honesty.

Leker’s writing is compelling and evocative and never strays from looking closely at the life-altering power of war. Rick’s innocence is strewn among the early pages, and a burden settles like concrete, encasing the remnants of his small-town life and hardening him against the normalcy he craves. Leker steers clear of politics and blame to focus on the private anguish of one family, but the power of Rick’s story resonates with universal suffering and the unnamed PTSD that afflicts so many. Stories like this that chronicle the aftermath of war offer insight and inspire compassion. So much of the pain wrought by war is compounded and exasperated exponentially when soldiers are not able to talk about their experiences, unburden themselves, and seek support. Rick embodies this struggle and walks alongside many in fiction and history whose pathways in life splinter off from society, leaving them to walk alone in circles of ruin, a maddening cycle of apologies and failings.

As the Vietnam War retreats further into the annals of history, stories like this one implore us to remember the lives of so many young men and families changed forever by war. This is a novel written from experience and bravely keeps a flame alive in remembrance despite the pain and regret. Leker pays tribute to her brother, who was drafted and stationed in Vietnam in 1968. His spirit lingers on in the pages as his sister gives voice to his fears and frustrations, his powerlessness, and his loss of faith. The result is a compassionate portrayal of one man’s life and times.

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