When I Was a Young Man: A Memoir by Bob Kerrey

Overview

Bob Kerrey grew up outside Lincoln, Nebraska, in the 1950s, and in his trademark style-serious, sometimes wry-he tells of his journey from that heartland to the dangers of Vietnam, to the hospitals where he recovered from his grievous injuries, and finally to the Nixon White House where he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Inspired by the stories of biblical heroes and thrilled by the cowboy serials he saw at the movies on Saturday afternoons, Kerrey grew up in a ...

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Overview

Bob Kerrey grew up outside Lincoln, Nebraska, in the 1950s, and in his trademark style-serious, sometimes wry-he tells of his journey from that heartland to the dangers of Vietnam, to the hospitals where he recovered from his grievous injuries, and finally to the Nixon White House where he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Inspired by the stories of biblical heroes and thrilled by the cowboy serials he saw at the movies on Saturday afternoons, Kerrey grew up in a world as safe and quiet as anywhere you could find on Earth. When he went off to college he knew or cared little about what lay beyond Nebraska, though soon his life would be changed forever. Bob Kerrey comes from a family of soldiers, and so, when the Vietnam draft loomed, he volunteered for the elite Navy SEALS, hoping for adventure and the honor of serving his country. After his arrival in Vietnam, he had to face the brutal reality of the war. In his first firefight, women and children died. His second encounter cost him part of his leg. In his year at the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia, he drew strength from his fellow patients, some more disabled than he, and he learned to walk again. But he had turned against the war and could no longer find solace in his religion.

A quest begins and ends this book. When his father was dying, he asked Kerrey to find out how his Uncle John had really died in World War II. It is this quest that inspires Bob Kerrey as he narrates his own personal odyssey in this remarkable and powerful book.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Former Nebraska governor and senator (and onetime presidential candidate) Bob Kerrey recounts the story of his early life, including his childhood in Lincoln, Nebraska, his training as one of the original Navy SEALs, his brief (and tragic) combat experiences in Vietnam, and his recovery after a serious combat injury. In many ways, this is a "tale of two wars," as Kerrey also relates his father's and uncle's combat experiences in World War II. His father's deathbed request that his son find out what happened to his brother (reported missing in the Philippines) sets the memoir in motion.

Kerrey's writing on Vietnam is compelling; he feels that the U.S. never really had a chance to win because of general confusion about why the troops were there in the first place, and he himself felt unprepared and clueless about his own purpose there. Kerrey also feels that the U.S. simply underestimated the will of the North Vietnamese and "focused too much on stopping Communism and too little on building a free and independent nation."

Kerrey's general disillusionment is graphically portrayed by two incidents: the now-infamous mission at Thanh Phong (where unarmed civilians were, Kerrey claims, caught in the crossfire during a retreat), and his own maiming at Nha Trang (his right leg was, ultimately, amputated below the knee). As Kerry later puts it: "My fifty plus days in Vietnam seemed to be at best a waste of time."

Kerrey's recounting of his painful rehabilitation in a Philadelphia naval hospital, as he adjusts to wearing his new artificial limb, brings home the horrors of war in a blunt and chilling way. The fact that he would go on to serve his country in other ways is a moving testament to the civic awareness and responsibility that appears to be a Kerrey family trait. (Nicholas Sinisi)

Nicholas Sinisi is the Barnes & Noble.com Nonfiction editor.

From the Publisher
"A haunting and ruthlessly honest memoir, not the story of a hero, but of something far more important: of a youth coming of age in a time when all the old assumptions about life were being challenged. His is a tale of triumph over adversity which provides a lesson for America in a new time of challenge and anxiety."—Haynes Johnson, author of Best of Times

"Bob Kerrey has given so much to his nation. And now more. When I W as a Young Man is a narrative of war and loss, yet life enhancing withal."—Daniel Patrick Moynihan

"This story of an American becoming a man is also a story of the country coming of age and it has these classic American virtues: candor, humility, reluctant courage. It is deeply moving and a delight."—Richard Ben Cramer, author of Joe Dimaggio

Publishers Weekly
Kerrey, former Nebraska governor and senator, is currently president of the New School University. He opens this moving autobiography by recalling his idyllic Nebraska childhood. At 10, he discovered that his father had a brother who'd disappeared during WWII. Years later, Kerrey promised his father he would uncover the truth about his uncle's death. "As I searched, I discovered many things I should have known before and many I wish I had known." He traces the family's history and details his own postwar childhood of church sermons, nights alone in his tree house, movies, music, paper routes, baseball and bicycling. As a University of Nebraska graduate pharmacist, he was employed at Iowa pharmacies. In 1967, at Officer Candidates School, he made the "difficult decision" to become a frogman; while training at Coronado Bay in California, "I thought the navy had sent me to paradise." At age 25, Kerrey arrived in Vietnam. Only weeks later, he was seriously wounded, losing part of a leg, and he spent a year recovering at Philadelphia's naval hospital. Kerrey explores his doubts about accepting the Congressional Medal of Honor "I knew that many men got nothing for bravery far greater than mine" and concludes with the results of his investigation into the mystery of his uncle's disappearance. Kerrey's deceptively simple writing style has great strength, and he presents his personal memories against the larger backdrop of antiwar protesters and other events of the period. Although the Vietnam missions fill only 30 pages, an army of readers will embrace this inspiring story, and many will eagerly await future chronicles of Kerrey's later life. B&w photos not seen by PW. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A Vietnam War veteran, former senator from Nebraska, and current president of the New School University in New York City, Kerrey has written a deceptively simple yet powerful memoir. Prompted by a desire to discover the fate of an uncle who died mysteriously in World War II, Kerrey finds himself forced to confront his own life. He focuses on his tour of duty as a young navy SEAL in Vietnam and his recuperation from a serious leg wound. In response to recent public charges that he ordered his men to kill civilians, he blames himself explicitly for approving the mission and implicitly for not ordering a cease-fire when he saw that women and children were caught in the crossfire. (He does admit that his memory may well be flawed.) Kerrey concludes with a powerful dream in which he meets his dead uncle, who also made a bad decision, one that led to his death. In the dream, Kerrey confronts his own guilt. While some might find Kerrey's style a bit ordinary, its very straightforwardness and lack of flourish add to the power of the work. Highly recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/02.] A.O. Edmonds, Ball State Univ., Muncie, IN Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An affecting memoir of youth in the Cold War-era American heartland and life and death in Vietnam. Former US senator Kerrey, now president of the New School, inadvertently stirred up controversy last year when news came out that he had been involved in a Vietnam War incident that left women and children dead. Kerrey's subsequent account of events was sometimes a little vague and did not always line up with other versions. "The story told in this book-though the most important details remain the same-is different than the one I first told," he writes in an afterword, "and even today I would not swear that my memory is 100% accurate." Cynical readers may wonder why his memory of that life-changing event, in which women and children were cut down in a crossfire between Vietcong soldiers and Kerrey's detachment of Navy SEALs, could be dodgy when, early on, he writes of being able to recall "with absolute clarity" 40-year-old moments on a Nebraska high-school football field. Be that as it may, his account of that fateful night in the Mekong Delta forms the dramatic heart and most newsworthy portion of his rueful memoir, which otherwise sounds familiar notes about patriotism turned to disaffection in the corrupt confusion of Vietnam. When he declares that not only those civilians but also "the young, innocent man who went to Vietnam died that night," Kerrey isn't being maudlin; he in fact came close to dying soon thereafter from grievous wounds received in an action for which he would be awarded the Medal of Honor. It's another strange twist in a war that, he holds, ended in failure largely because American strategists were too concerned with containing communism and not concerned enough withbuilding a democratic society in Vietnam. Of particular interest to veterans, and certain to attract still more discussion.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780151004744
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 6/6/2002
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.32 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Bob Kerrey, former governor and then senator of Nebraska, is now president of New School University. He served with an elite Navy SEAL team, and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. He is the father of three children and lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

1
ONE SATURDAY AFTERNOON in the spring of 1954 when I was ten years old, I discovered my father had a brother. My parents, brothers, and sisters were out. I was home alone, a rare and exciting moment, made more exciting by my mission to find a storage room where my mother kept items too important to throw away. My goal was to find a wooden chest that a year earlier I had helped carry into the basement.
I had followed the box's movements from smaller house to larger house during the eight years our family grew from the four small children who arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1946 following my father's discharge from the U.S. Army, to the seven children who lived there now. My father's entire name-James Henry Kerrey-was stenciled in black on the top of the faded olive green box. It had leather handles on either end, a brass-hinged clasp that held the lid closed, and, fortunately for me, it was not padlocked.
Our new house was built on three levels. Upstairs were my parents' master bedroom and two other bedrooms for my sisters. In the basement were four smaller bedrooms, a large bathroom, and a recreation room for my brothers and me. In between was the entry level with spaces used by us all: dining room, music room, living room, laundry room, and an office.
Under the stairs going to my sisters' and parents' rooms was a crawl space where the green wooden chest was stored. That day I carried a chair down to the basement and placed it below the wooden doors that hid my treasure. As I opened the doors, my heart beat fast from the fear I might be caught and the excitement of discovering the secrets inside the box. I pulled a string that switched on a single incandescent bulb and climbed into the closet, moving things around so I could reach what I presumed was a war chest full of bloody memorabilia.
As I opened the lid the smell of camphor filled my lungs. On top were brown wool army jackets, trousers, and shirts. I pushed the uniforms aside, hoping to find souvenirs from some great battle. There was nothing of the sort. No pistols or muddied boots or a jacket with a bullet hole surrounded by the bloodstain of a fallen comrade. No battered helmet marked by too many days on the head of a weary soldier.
Underneath the uniforms I found a bayonet, but the blade looked as new and unused as any hardware knife in my father's store. I found hats, which were too large for my head, and four envelopes of pictures marked Iowa, Florida, Chicago, and Japan. I went straight for the one that said Japan. Inside were three-by-three-inch black-and-white images like the ones we took on our summer vacations. Men in uniforms stood in front of a metal building with a rounded roof. I recognized my father's smiling face, looking young and happy. I saw odd-shaped houses and strange, misshapen plants, and in one, a twisted, melted glass bottle. But nothing in the box lived up to the delights I had imagined.
Just as I was beginning to lose interest, I opened a large folder that held an eight-by-ten-inch black-and-white photograph of the head and shoulders of a man in a white uniform. He looked just like my older brother John, tan and handsome, with dark thinning hair combed straight back. The resemblance was so strong that I decided to take the picture with me when I left the basement.
After dinner that night I waited for my father to go into his office, where he and my mother shared a desk and a set of filing cabinets. The room was always cluttered with broken chairs, torn clothing, and discarded toys. My father often made phone calls from this room after supper. My mother used it late at night when we had gone to bed to pay bills or make entries in a black book that held the income and expenses of their lumber, coal, and hardware business.
I stood in the doorway until he finished making a call. Then he turned and asked in a kind voice what I wanted. With the photograph in my outstretched hand, I said, "I found a picture of a man this afternoon. It looks like John." My father looked at the man's face and his expression grew sad and worried. "It isn't your brother John. This is my brother John. He was killed in the war." Before I could ask any questions, he said, "Where did you get it?"
When I answered truthfully his face reflected something I had never seen-a mixture of anger and pain. In that instant I thought he might either cry or shout at me. He chose anger. He rose and walked quickly past me and out the door, yelling, "You kids leave my things alone. Leave them alone." And he was gone. I stood as if I had been turned to salt like Lot's wife. I could not move; I could only stand there and cry. My mother came into the office and asked me what had happened. When I told her, she said gently, "Your father had an older brother named John. He was killed ten years ago. Your father doesn't like to talk about it. Please leave his things alone." Which is exactly what I did.

Copyright © 2002 by J. Robert Kerrey
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the workshould be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
www.HarcourtBooks.com

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First Chapter

When I Was A Young Man
A Memoir by Bob Kerrey

J. Robert Kerrey
Chapter 1
ONE SATURDAY AFTERNOON in the spring of 1954 when I was ten years old, I discovered my father had a brother. My parents, brothers, and sisters were out. I was home alone, a rare and exciting moment, made more exciting by my mission to find a storage room where my mother kept items too important to throw away. My goal was to find a wooden chest that a year earlier I had helped carry into the basement.I had followed the box's movements from smaller house to larger house during the eight years our family grew from the four small children who arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1946 following my father's discharge from the U.S. Army, to the seven children who lived there now. My father's entire name-James Henry Kerrey-was stenciled in black on the top of the faded olive green box. It had leather handles on either end, a brass-hinged clasp that held the lid closed, and, fortunately for me, it was not padlocked.Our new house was built on three levels. Upstairs were my parents' master bedroom and two other bedrooms for my sisters. In the basement were four smaller bedrooms, a large bathroom, and a recreation room for my brothers and me. In between was the entry level with spaces used by us all: dining room, music room, living room, laundry room, and an office.Under the stairs going to my sisters' and parents' rooms was a crawl space where the green wooden chest was stored. That day I carried a chair down to the basement and placed it below the wooden doors that hid my treasure. As I opened the doors, my heart beat fast from the fear I might be caught and the excitement of discovering the secrets inside the box. I pulled a string that switched on a single incandescent bulb and climbed into the closet, moving things around so I could reach what I presumed was a war chest full of bloody memorabilia.As I opened the lid the smell of camphor filled my lungs. On top were brown wool army jackets, trousers, and shirts. I pushed the uniforms aside, hoping to find souvenirs from some great battle. There was nothing of the sort. No pistols or muddied boots or a jacket with a bullet hole surrounded by the bloodstain of a fallen comrade. No battered helmet marked by too many days on the head of a weary soldier.Underneath the uniforms I found a bayonet, but the blade looked as new and unused as any hardware knife in my father's store. I found hats, which were too large for my head, and four envelopes of pictures marked Iowa, Florida, Chicago, and Japan. I went straight for the one that said Japan. Inside were three-by-three-inch black-and-white images like the ones we took on our summer vacations. Men in uniforms stood in front of a metal building with a rounded roof. I recognized my father's smiling face, looking young and happy. I saw odd-shaped houses and strange, misshapen plants, and in one, a twisted, melted glass bottle. But nothing in the box lived up to the delights I had imagined.Just as I was beginning to lose interest, I opened a large folder that held an eight-by-ten-inch black-and-white photograph of the head and shoulders of a man in a white uniform. He looked just like my older brother John, tan and handsome, with dark thinning hair combed straight back. The resemblance was so strong that I decided to take the picture with me when I left the basement.After dinner that night I waited for my father to go into his office, where he and my mother shared a desk and a set of filing cabinets. The room was always cluttered with broken chairs, torn clothing, and discarded toys. My father often made phone calls from this room after supper. My mother used it late at night when we had gone to bed to pay bills or make entries in a black book that held the income and expenses of their lumber, coal, and hardware business.I stood in the doorway until he finished making a call. Then he turned and asked in a kind voice what I wanted. With the photograph in my outstretched hand, I said, "I found a picture of a man this afternoon. It looks like John." My father looked at the man's face and his expression grew sad and worried. "It isn't your brother John. This is my brother John. He was killed in the war." Before I could ask any questions, he said, "Where did you get it?"When I answered truthfully his face reflected something I had never seen-a mixture of anger and pain. In that instant I thought he might either cry or shout at me. He chose anger. He rose and walked quickly past me and out the door, yelling, "You kids leave my things alone. Leave them alone." And he was gone. I stood as if I had been turned to salt like Lot's wife. I could not move; I could only stand there and cry. My mother came into the office and asked me what had happened. When I told her, she said gently, "Your father had an older brother named John. He was killed ten years ago. Your father doesn't like to talk about it. Please leave his things alone." Which is exactly what I did.
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Interviews & Essays

An Interview with Bob Kerrey

Barnes & Noble.com: What motivated you to write this book?

Bob Kerrey: I wanted this book to be about my father and his brother. That's how it began. The process started with a request for me to find out what happened to my father's only brother, John, during World War II. I never found out enough about what happened to John to write the whole story. But along the way I began to learn things about myself and another time in our country's history.

B&N.com: If you could speak to your father now, what would you most want to tell him about his brother?

BK: I would tell him that his brother died serving his country and doing what he thought was best at the time. And that that is the greatest service anyone can give.

B&N.com: How did your experiences growing up in the Midwest help shape the man you are today? What lessons did living through such a tumultuous period in American history teach you?

BK: My story begins in 1954, the year I discovered my father had a brother. I was ten years old, and it was the same year the Korean War ended, television transformed the meaning of home, and the new Salk vaccine put an end to one of the great scares of my childhood. Living in Lincoln, Nebraska, with my parents and six siblings, I came from a world that revolved around family, religion, and, for me, the New York Yankees. And, like many men of my generation, I grew up believing in the patriotic and heroic tales of my youth. When the sand of this foundation blew away, I lost my patriotism. But in the second half of my life, I rebuilt this foundation on something sturdier: the observation that Americans at their best can be unimaginably generous and willing to put their lives on the line for the freedom and well-being of others. I am a man who has acquired sympathy -- that magic ingredient that turns the bland stew of facts and dates into the rich and flavorful soup of history.

B&N.com: One could consider your book "A Tale of Two Wars." How would you compare WWII to the Vietnam War?

BK: All wars are different, and all wars are exactly the same. I can't say I knew enough about what was happening halfway around the world when I was entering college to have formed an opinion on Vietnam. Looking back on any of this country's past conflicts, the benefit of hindsight is immeasurable. If such a thing is possible, WWII might have been the last conflict where the enemy was unquestionable and the objective essential.

B&N.com: You became one of the first Navy SEALs -- how hard was your training?

BK: The physical training was grueling, but almost expected. It was the mental training that proved hardest of all. The key difference between life in the military and life as a civilian is that in the military one must follow orders, respect the chain of command, and understand the nature of command. The essence of being a civilian in the United States is learning how to do the opposite, such as making free and independent choices.

B&N.com: Did you have misgivings about the war before you were sent to Vietnam?

BK: At the time, there was not much thought involved in what was actually happening over there. There was a war on, and it was the duty of everyone to do what they could. I knew I didn't want the military to decide my fate, so I applied for Officer Candidate School in the Navy. Once I was accepted, I was too busy training to think about what was really happening over there.

B&N.com: What do you say to those who compare Vietnam to the more "clear-cut" Persian Gulf conflict?

BK: I don't think that anyone can fairly compare one conflict to another. Certainly the ideology of what is at stake changes, but the experiences of the soldiers are mostly the same.

B&N.com: What was the general mood of the American soldiers you encountered over there?

BK: Controlled chaos, maybe. So many of us were young and fresh out of training camps. And Vietnam was like nothing we had ever seen. A beautiful country torn apart.

B&N.com: Shortly after you went to Vietnam, you were wounded in action and sent home. How difficult was your recuperation?

BK: The physical recuperation was long and painful, but no more than any other wounded soldiers at the hospitals I stayed in. What was harder, and still hard today, are those times when I traveled with my fellow soldiers home to see their families and saw the looks in their families' faces when they returned vastly different than the young boys who set out to war.

B&N.com: How do you feel the government is responding to 9/11? What's your sense of the mood of the American people?

BK: I am lucky enough to be a private citizen now, so I don't have to face what is surely the toughest battle our country has ever endured, right here on our own shores. I think, like many people, that we have been offered a reminder of how great this country is, and a chance to show the world how much freedom and patriotism mean. We are truly united now, one country.

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2006

    Enigmatic

    As many people have noticed about Bob Kerrey and this book, it is simple yet more mysterious and darker than Nebraska usually is stereotyped to produce. Like Willa Cather, the text of the book is quick and effective writing but you have to watch for more subtle meanings. Kerrey referenced a lot of writers to make hints of things I think he rather not talk about. Many people have criticized him for his war service but I think as he shows in the book, the patrol to Than Phong was very confused as the war itself. It is disturbing, though, that he would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor to somebody that hated the war. It's ultimately sad but very perceptive about war. His dialogues with his father near the end of his life make the book more fascinating than the overwrought prarie yarn that Kerrey attempted. His actual writing is much more interesting than his hometown credibility. It would have been interesting for him to discuss his opinions of our latest mistaken adventures.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2002

    Refreshingly Honest Memoir

    Beautifully written and as seen through the eyes of a somewhat naive young man growing up in Midwestern America, Bob Kerrey writes a refreshingly honest, warm and sensitive story of his family and their life in Nebraska and the pivotal decisions he made as a young man that ultimately shaped his entire future. Bob Kerrey's memoirs offer interesting insight into the events that shaped the life of one of our most interesting and complex public figures.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2002

    Nothing but a Political Apology

    I have respect for Senator Kerrey's military service. This book however seems to be written so that Kerrey could apologize to his Democratic supporters and to the Vietnamese for being a warmonger during the war. It is interesting that a person that didn't really want to be a SEAL and didn't really want to serve in Vietnam and decided before ever leaving the US that the war was wrong and could not be won, ended up in battle. He didn't want to be there and once there wanted to get out, yet volunteered for the job. He apparently did not volunteer due to patriotism and never really explained why he decided to go into combat. Overall a generic and boring autobiography.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2002

    A Good Read

    I thought this autobiography was very interesting to read. His views of the war were very detailed and interesting. The book was alright but it wasn't a book that I thoroughly enjoyed.

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