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Author profile: written history meant for family members turns into memoir about serving in Vietnam

After graduating from Washington High School in Cedar Rapids and attending Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, Douglas Beed found himself unable to afford more schooling. In the late 1960s, ending one’s time as a student was not something one did lightly. If you were a young man and didn’t have a student deferment, you were eligible to be drafted and sent to Vietnam.

“It’s probably a little bit dramatic to say it was a life and death decision, but it did feel rather ominous,” Beed said of leaving school. “But I didn’t really have a choice.”

While he may have had a bad feeling about leaving school, he didn’t necessarily have strong feelings about the war in Vietnam.

“The strongest feeling I had was that I didn’t want to be involved in it,” he admitted. “My feeling was not strong enough to enlist in it, and it was not strong enough to get on a Greyhound and go up to Toronto or someplace.”

At 20 years of age, he was drafted out of Linn County. Soon enough, he found himself overseas in the infantry. He recounts his experiences in “Chasing Understanding in the Jungles of Vietnam: My Year as a ‘Black Scarf,’” an informative and moving look at his service.

Since returning home, Beed had been fairly tight-lipped about his wartime experience. But his nieces and nephews — he has no children of his own — had long been interested in having him make a permanent record of his memories.

“They respectfully kept asking me to put something down or do an oral history or something,” he said.

Eventually, he agreed and began working on his laptop, which he positioned at the end of the counter in his kitchen. He’d get in some writing in sessions ranging from 20 minutes to four or five hours. When he started, he wasn’t trying to write a book.

“It was supposed to be just a set of stories,” he said. He had been imagining 25 or 30 pages that could be photocopied and shared with family members.

But his wife thought maybe he was working on something bigger. “It was she who kept saying, ‘Doug, you know, this is more than you think it is.’”

She was right; Beed ended up penning a 63,000 word account of his service. Keeping his audience — his nieces and nephews — in mind, Beed made sure to provide enough detail to make his stories clear, but avoided weighing the book down with too much technical information.

The book ends with personal reflections. Beed noted that this portion of the book was difficult to compose.

“How do you really express the guilt of survival? How do you describe your ghosts and demons? Those are things you can’t just file away and have them disappear.”

In the end, Beed hopes his book reveals the challenges of war and the way it impacts lives. He’s proud of his service, but knows the war — both its aims and execution — was problematic, at best.

“We did our jobs, and we did our jobs well,” he said, but acknowledges that he and others came home and protested the war in which they had served. He maintains that makes perfect sense given all they had seen and experienced.

“We might have been messed up, be we weren’t crazy,” he said. “We reacted in a very logical way.”