by Claude Anshin Thomas
(Shambhala Publications, 2006; $12.95)

“All veterans of violence – war violence, street violence, and domestic violence – are the light at the tip of the candle and can be a powerful force for healing in the world.” — Claude Thomas

For those who have never been in war, this offers an honest, intimate, and brutal account of Claude Thomas’s Vietnam experience as an 18-year-old helicopter gunship crew chief.  The story begins before he enlisted in the army.  The violence goes back to childhood where he experienced abuse from both parents.  The child of a World War II veteran, Claude took his father’s advice and enlisted at 17.

Much of this book is about the aftermath of war for Claude and can give readers insight into what is facing our current combat veterans now returning from Iraq.   As a result of his heavy combat experience, Claude has what is now recognized as post traumatic stress.  His isolation, depression, and rage are all relayed so tangibly that you feel you are in his skin. The arduous journey out of addiction, homelessness, and despair leads Claude to enter rehab.

Seven years later, he encounters Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peacemaker.  A deep healing begins in the presence of Vietnamese people who embrace Claude during his own suffering.  This is his turning point to spiritual peacemaker.

Thomas weaves profound insights with the traumatic experiences from his past and his healing in a way that keeps the reader engaged and wanting to know what happens next.  He also invites the reader to look in the mirror, not only an individual mirror but the collective mirror to see what in us is responsible for the war; he contends we all are responsible. If you have the courage to read this book with an open heart, you will likely not be the same person afterwards, and you will have some new tools to transform suffering. 

The paperback edition has a helpful section addressing Thomas’s insights on how to support now-returning war veterans, and it also has discussion questions for reader groups.

Trish Nelson is a free lance writer living in Portland, Oregon.