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A voice out of the darkness

With another catastrophic and useless war looming, Charlene Edwards’ new book “Voices From Vietnam” (published by Journeys and distributed by IPG) couldn’t be more timely. Her first book signing was held last Friday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in Whitestone and capped an evening that started with a tribute to MIAs and POWs from all wars and the victims of Sept. 11.

“It was awesome,” Edwards said last weekend from her home in Auburndale where she lives with her husband Michael Pergola and their dog Simba. Michael ran the MIA/POW tribute right before his wife’s book signing.

“I’m still spinning,” she said after the signing. “The reality hasn’t set in. I worked on the book for 10 years and a couple of hundred people were there.”

The book is not about war or politics, she explained, but the emotions of not only American soldiers but the North and South Vietnamese, Amerasians, refugees, and even the draft dodgers who went to Canada. Among those she interviewed for the book were the late Cardinal John J. O’Connor, General William Westmoreland, a south Vietnamese frogman who saved hundreds of American soldiers, a pilot who finally met the man he helped cover in the Vietnamese jungle decades after the war in a Washington D.C. pub, an Amerasian girl looking for her American father, and one of the highest ranking Viet Cong operatives who helped plan the Tet offensive.

Robin Moore, who wrote “The French Connection” and “The Green Berets,” wrote the introduction. “Voices From Vietnam,” with 70 interviews and 172 photos, most taken by Edwards, has eight chapters that each begin with a two-page photo spread. Some of the pictures were given to her from the people she interviewed. The book also has a map, chronology, index, and a list of resources.

Edwards arranged for half of the interviewees to be American and half either Vietnamese or Amerasian. “I’m tired of segregation,” she said. “It’s time for people to put aside their rage and hatred and anger. If you read all the stories, all the emotions, the pain is the same. It doesn’t matter if you went to Canada or you fought in Vietnam or you were a kid living in Vietnam.” Many of the interviewees had never spoken to anyone about their experience.

“The whole reason for the book is to make people aware there’s so much pain left over from that war and every war,” Edwards said. “Cardinal O’Connor was a clergy during the war. He was a rear admiral when he left the Navy after 27 years. They sent him to Korea even though he didn’t want to go — he wanted to work with the poor and disabled, but the church sent him. He was the chaplain and he had three tours in Vietnam and comforted the wounded and the dying.”

Toai, the Viet Cong who planned the Tet Offensive, was 85 when he spoke to Edwards for the first time. He moved to South Vietnam from the North and opened a soup kitchen to hide revolutionaries. When the Americans came they frequented his kitchen. “He’d smile at them in the day and then at night would meet with other top ranking V.C. to plan the Tet offensive,” Edwards recalled. The South Vietnamese captured him and kept him in a tiger cage for five years. Now he’s about 90 and plays tennis every day.

Edwards went to Vietnam by herself first in the 90’s, then brought Michael, himself a veteran, a few years later. “When Michael and Toai met they embraced each other for three hours straight,” she said. When she and Michael came back in 2000 Toai broke into tears and embraced them again.

“The one interview I still cry about is the wife of a veteran,” Edwards said. “She came last night to my opening and bought eight books for her deceased husband’s family. When she was a girl she went to a pub and met three guys. All three asked her out, but she went out with Kenny. The first thing he said to her was, ‘You have to know two things about me. I’m a Vietnam Vet, and I only have five years to live.’ It didn’t matter, she loved him so strong. And he did get sick.” Still, they had a child, and the wife found herself caring for both her child and her sick husband. “She had tongue depressors hung all over the walls for his seizures so he wouldn’t bite his tongue. And he died from illnesses he got in Vietnam. But she is an amazing, amazing woman. I can’t even explain how her story impacted me.” The woman’s son recently graduated college and is going to become a teacher.

Michael’s story is the first in the book. He went in 1966 and 1967 and served as a door gunner in a Medivac helicopter. He was only 18 when he went to Vietnam.

“The average soldier was 19,” Edwards said. “The average solder in WWII was 26. We look at these pictures of some of them — they were such babies, and they came home old men.”

The idea for the book began when Edwards was in high school, when the war started. As a kid growing up in Queens she feared losing people to the war, and saw the body bag counts on TV every night. “It stayed with me. The emotions traveled with me. We lost so many people, and they lost so many people. There’s no graves for them. They’re dust.”

She went to Vietnam, photographed everything she saw, and kept a journal of people’s words. “They were stuck like glue in my heart, and my writing group pushed me to do the book.”

Edwards is not planning a sequel to “Voices From Vietnam.” Her next book is a children’s book. “I wanted to do something that’s not sad. It was a major healing for everybody and it was a wonderful journey, but now we have to go and sell the book and go on with our lives. I couldn’t have done it without the brave 70 people who let me into their emotions. And I thank them so much. It’s their book.”

“Voices From Vietnam” will be in stores in November and will be available on amazon.com in October. You can get more info at www.voicesfromvietnam.com. (The Web site should be up in two weeks). She’ll be at a book signing at the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 32 at the All Saints Episcopal Church in Bayside, 214-33 40th Ave. Friday at 8 p.m. Call 830-0037 for more information.

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