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Poisoned Jungle Paperback – August 20, 2020

4.6 out of 5 stars 23 ratings

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Editorial Reviews


"It takes courage to experience and write about the war described herein. The reader can only imagine the pain and suffering to live and write about such a compelling war story. A reader will find a heroic struggle of man's capacity for brutality and discover with the author the gift of life--a capacity for strength and kindness amidst our national moral tragedy."

- Edward W Beal, MDClinical Professor of Psychiatry, Georgetown University School of MedicineCaptain, US Army 1967-69Author, War Stories From the Forgotten Soldiers

"Having interviewed hundreds of Vietnam veterans and gotten to know many of them and their families, I've learned a good deal about their experiences, both in the war and in the decades after their return. Each story is different, yet common threads connect them. Poisoned Jungle weaves many of those threads together, while also containing unique images and experiences of the sort that cannot be invented by someone who had not gone through them. The first section, set during the war itself, reads like a memoir, and the rest of the novel opens out from there as the characters struggle with the physical, psychological and moral injuries suffered during the war and try to find a place in a world that is supposed to be home, but is often unwelcoming or uncomprehending. Through it all, a spirit of hope and humanity shines through. The wounds of war never entirely disappear, but it is possible to move past them. James Ballard has created a remarkable work that will ring true to many Vietnam veterans and their families and do much to educate the rest of us about them. As someone who has never been to war, I know that I will never fully understand what these veterans went through, but as an interviewer, I have found that listening to them helps close the gap between us. Poisoned Jungle tells a story well worth listening to."

- Dr. James Smither, Director - Grand Valley State University Veterans History Project

"Reading Poisoned Jungle was difficult at times because it truly depicts the way it was in the Nam."

- Tom BradburnVietnam veteran1st Marine Division, 1968-69Author, Luck of the Draw

"Some wars don't end when the fighting stops. In Poisoned Jungle, James Ballard forcefully captures a medic's fears, confusion and strength on the ground in Vietnam in prose that mirrors the best of Tim O'Brien. But his story goes deeper, in the eloquent depiction of the struggle to readjust to stateside life, a flight to find oneself, and an eventual landing spot away from the clatter of the guns. James Ballard's work represents in tones that are eminently human the timeless quest for peace, one that transcends all wars, both external and internal."

- Greg FieldsAuthor, Arc of the Comet - 2017 Kindle Book of the Year Nominee in Literary Fiction

"I had the privilege of reading the author's original manuscript of Poisoned Jungle. I found myself drawn into the events that form the backdrop for the book James Ballard has written.The circumstances of what happened in those jungles and the experience these young men faced in the aftermath as they returned home was compelling. Poisoned Jungle will give the reader an appreciation for what veterans of Vietnam experienced from the horrors of the battlefield to the uncertainty of returning to civilian life.The descriptive and visual nature of the writing is excellent. I was immersed in the story to the point that I could almost taste the tepid water from Andy's canteen. The subtle insight into the effects of defoliating chemicals used in Vietnam, continuing to affect both military and civilian populations to this day, is written in a compassionate and understanding narrative."

- Don LeversAuthor, Loot for the Taking, Our Fathers' Footsteps

From the Author

Fifty years of reflection, study and thought have gone into the writing of this novel. I'm still learning how the Vietnam War impacted not only my life, but the lives of countless others--even many who were born after the war ended for the United States in 1975.Psychology, history, geo-politics and the very nature of war have collided in attempting to make sense of how it all happened--and why? I have noticed a change in the questions of younger generations puzzled by U.S. involvement and how such a powerful country could have lost. The conversation between an American general and his Vietnamese counterpart after the war is instructive."You know, we won most of the battles," the American is reported to have said."That may be true," the Vietnamese answered, "but it is also irrelevant."In writing Poisoned Jungle, I have attempted to express through the characters the incredible complexity of going to war. Conflicts don't end with the last shots fired; they send tentacles in numerous directions to twist and fester and entangle themselves into lives beyond the combatants.What I know now, in my seventies, would have been useful at twenty-one. Life doesn't work that way. Too much pain gets buried beneath the conscious mind and is left there. Even during the writing process, moments of further understanding occurred, surfacing as epiphanies while I continued to explore the Vietnam War and all the repercussions of having been there. War has consequences. My intent was for Poisoned Jungle to explore some of them for an unknown reader. Awareness of how Vietnam shaped my own life continued.What I did learn relatively early was that the experience had altered the course of my life. Only later did I become consciously aware of how deeply. Denial is also a human coping mechanism and activated when trauma turns the world upside down for the participant. Parts of Poisoned Jungle are semi-autobiographical. Andy's stint in the Presidio of San Francisco's stockade is a good example of how understanding one's life is only gradually pieced together, even after years of trying. Just as Andy thought he must be going crazy for going AWOL after returning from Vietnam, he finally figures it out. For all the trouble it caused, it was not the result of being crazy, but of his subconscious acting as the savior of his sanity.Like the important people in Andy's life being perplexed and incapable of making sense of his actions, those closest to me also had differing interpretations and explanations for what they didn't understand. Healing becomes a process and not an arrival point. I don't think there ever is a "normal" to return to. Trauma is simply too transformational. In her rape memoir, Lucky, Alice Sebold expressed it well and succinctly: "I had begun to notice that I was now on the other side of something they could not understand. I didn't understand it myself."When I returned from Vietnam, there was no such thing as post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I know it was called something else in previous wars, but you would not have known that from how the Army and a lot of U.S. citizens reacted to their returning soldiers. The response guaranteed additional adjustment problems. I followed the resulting psychological research with morbid fascination. Within a couple of decades psychology went from denial of the phenomenon to overboard acceptance. Even witnessing an accident was cause for PTSD. I am not a psychologist so will not try and argue a point of view as if I am. The following anecdote may be of interest in this context. I finally did get out of the stockade and then got my discharge a few months after. During that time, I met another army medic also just back from a tour in Vietnam. John and I set out from California on a cross-country hitchhiking tour. I don't remember who first proposed the idea. Our first destination, Denver, was to look up another medic who I had trained with, then sat next to on the plane to Vietnam. My friend, Michael, had enrolled at the University of Colorado. I found him subdued and depressed. John's family, who I had met before the trip, thought me depressed. Maybe John was too. I can't really remember.What sticks out is Michael's neighbor, a psychiatric nurse working with troubled veterans just back from the war. I always wondered if she recognized how troubled Michael really was. I even worried he might be suicidal. I knew him before the war and could compare the two Michaels, which she wouldn't have been able to do.Michael came out of the closet as gay a few years later. I got back in touch with him around 1990. Our initial conversations were positive, old friends reuniting, but he seemed to lose interest in maintaining contact. I didn't push it. People get busy with their lives. John and I parted amicably in Montreal a few weeks later. He had an uncle in Milwaukee he wanted to visit, and I had yet another army medic I knew in the war to visit on the coast of New Jersey. We had much in common, four medics all made somber by our experiences in the war. I never saw any of them again. Further into her memoir, Alice Sebold wrote, "no one--females included--knew what to do with a rape victim." I've often felt that way about American society and its veterans of the Vietnam War. In the category of insights continuing to come years after an experience, I asked myself: "Did I hitchhike across the country, from California to New Jersey, to have a conversation with someone who had been through the same experience because I was trying to make sense of it? Or was it simply the great adventure my conscious mind told everybody it was--myself included?" I have never thought to ask the question until now. I don't know how to answer it.When asked why I wrote the novel, I usually give a simple reply. "After fifty years, I get to say what I want about the war." It's a lot more complex than that because everything I've ever experienced about war and its aftermath is complicated. I will never figure it all out. Never arrive at the finish line. Writing Poisoned Jungle is more in the vein of "still trying to understand what happened." 
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Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Koehler Books (August 20, 2020)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 392 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1646631145
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1646631148
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 1.26 pounds
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 6 x 0.87 x 9 inches
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.6 out of 5 stars 23 ratings

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James Ballard intimately knows the subject matter explored in Poisoned Jungle. His tour as a medic in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta altered the course of his life. War has consequences, and he has not only lived with them, but spent a lifetime examining the impact of Vietnam on his and other veteran’s lives. In that regard, Poisoned Jungle, the author’s first novel, is a work fifty years in the making.

Ballard served as an army medic in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam from December of 1968 until the end of October in 1969. He has been exploring the repercussions of his experiences ever since. In his author’s note to Poisoned Jungle, he writes: “The impact of war is not only transformational on the human psyche—but ongoing. It sets in motion a powerful set of psychological consequences. Finding equilibrium with those forces is imperative.”

Graduating from high school in 1967, the author soon got caught in the ever-expanding American involvement in the war. By December of 1968 he was in the war zone.

“The biggest initial shock was to witness the number of civilian war casualties created by our immense firepower, the artillery, B-52’s and gunships. It didn’t square with the rationale for the war given by our leaders—that we were there to help the Vietnamese. It also meant the young Americans being killed and wounded were being sacrificed for dubious reasons. Everything just seemed so out of control and to lack a constructive purpose. Making sense of the experience and the impact it’s had on my life has been a lifetime endeavor.”

Assigned to the quadriplegic ward at Letterman’s Army Hospital after his return from Vietnam, brought home the reality that the war never really ends for a lot of its participants. “If I had to sum up my feelings after my tour, and witnessing the ongoing suffering at Letterman’s, it’s that a country should have an absolutely good reason for going to war. I could never arrive at that conclusion about Vietnam.”

Discharged in 1970, the author spent three years traveling and working in Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia. Briefly introduced to beekeeping in Hawaii, it would later influence his career choice.

After his return to the U.S., Ballard enrolled at Gavilan College in Gilroy, California. He transferred to the University of Alberta in Edmonton and immigrated to Canada in 1975.

After completing his Bachelor of Arts degree, the author settled in the Peace River Region of Alberta where he established and operated a commercial beekeeping farm for forty years near the hamlet of DeBolt.

“After all the wandering of my post-army days, I stayed in one location for the next forty years. Beekeeping became an all-consuming passion. I started with five hives and wound up with two thousand. The Peace River Region produced wonderful crops of honey with the long days of summer and abundant fields of clover and alfalfa.” One of the major centers of beekeeping in Canada, commercial apiarists operate 80,000 hives in the area.

During his years of beekeeping, Ballard kept in touch with friends from the war and followed news of issues related to Vietnam Vets. “Of course, PTSD came to be associated closely with veterans. In my view, the psychological research has gotten better, and now includes survivor’s guilt and moral injury, both pertinent to the experiences of many soldiers.

“Agent Orange exposure has had devastating effects for both American Veterans and the people of Vietnam, where the contamination continues, being churned up in the soils and stream beds, and toxic hot spots from leakage of the dioxins in the defoliants. Not only carcinogenic, the chemicals have caused embedded changes in the genes of subsequent generations. For so many, the war never ends.”

Just before retiring from beekeeping, Ballard began to write seriously. “I have always enjoyed literature and chose the novel because it gives the author full range to explore how events shape and impact the lives of several characters.”

Poisoned Jungle is his first book to be published, but the author has another novel completed and works on a third. “The unpublished story needs another draft, but I would eventually like to see it in print as well.” Also on the war, it explores the dynamics of an infantry platoon in more detail.

“I will run out of years before I run out of material. Besides the war as subject matter, I would like to write a beekeeping memoir, a personal reflection of the many people and events that left strong impressions. Whether it was working with the bees themselves, hauling them to Osoyoos for the winter, or keeping the bears away from the hives, forty years of stories might make for an interesting book.”

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