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Reviewed by Jon Michael Miller for Readers' Favorite
Initiate: Final Hours by Carlos Velasquez is a courageous and finely detailed autobiography of his three-year voluntary service in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. It includes his basic training, his one-year tour in the fighting, and the aftermath back Stateside. We first meet seventeen-year-old Carlos (in the book Carl, or Val), as he waits for processing (we later learn what kind) in Fort Bragg. Watching the clock, he recalls his time in the military. Through a series of flashbacks, we see him become an expert marksman with the M60 machine gun, then his turbulent trip across the Pacific in an aged transport ship, his perilous landing on the beach of Tuy Hoa, the rugged convoy up the mountain to Pleiku, his battle station at Bien Hoa, and his final transfer to Tan Son Nhut Airport at Saigon. There are huge spiders, venomous snakes, flies, ravenous mosquitoes, and long, nerve-wracking, solitary nights at LP (listening post) hundreds of yards into the jungle from the main encampment. Also, some encounters with area hookers and powerful cannabis. Not to mention some hair-raising meetings with the enemy.
Initiate: Final Hours by Carlos Velasquez is intense and intimately detailed. Velasquez must have a photographic memory or have been a dedicated journal-keeper. We see and hear everything from the spit shine on his boots, to his burned-off mosquito bites, to the flora and fauna, the rain, the mud, and the heat. I felt like I was right there with him, and if you have any curiosity as to the reality of a grunt’s trials in Indochina, this military memoir is for you. For me, what was excruciating to read is Velasquez’s account of the racism and injustice he experienced, especially on the home front in Fort Bragg, NC. Velasquez had his ups and downs during his service, and he describes them courageously, in-depth, and sometimes with lyrical, haunting beauty. As a Vietnam War memoir, Initiate by Carlos Velasquez ranks right up there with Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It is a must-read about the daily realities of the complicated, tragic conflict in Vietnam.