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Life and Death in the Central Highlands

An American Sergeant in the Vietnam War, 1968-1970 (North Texas Military Biography and Memoir Series)
Narrated by: Todd Belcher
Length: 8 hrs and 22 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (99 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

In 1968 James T. Gillam was a poorly focused college student at Ohio University who was dismissed and then drafted into the Army. Unlike most African-Americans who entered the Army then, he became a Sergeant and an instructor at the Fort McClellan Alabama School of Infantry. In September 1968 he joined the First Battalion, 22nd Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam. Within a month he transformed from an uncertain sergeant-who tried to avoid combat-to an aggressive soldier, killing his first enemy and planning and executing successful ambushes in the jungle. Gillam was a regular point man and occasional tunnel rat who fought below ground, an arena that few people knew about until after the war ended. By January 1970 he had earned a Combat Infantry Badge and been promoted to Staff Sergeant.

Then Washington's politics and military strategy took his battalion to the border of Cambodia. Search-and-destroy missions became longer and deadlier. From January to May his unit hunted and killed the enemy in a series of intense firefights, some of them in close combat. In those months Gillam was shot twice and struck by shrapnel twice. He became a savage, strangling a soldier in hand-to-hand combat inside a lightless tunnel. As his mid-summer date to return home approached, Gillam became fiercely determined to come home alive. The ultimate test of that determination came during the Cambodian invasion. On his last night in Cambodia, the enemy got inside the wire of the firebase, and the killing became close range and brutal.

Gillam left the Army in June 1970, and within two weeks of his last encounter with death, he was once again a college student and destined to become a university professor. The nightmares and guilt about killing are gone, and so is the callous on his soul. Life and Death in the Central Highlands is a gripping, personal account of one soldier's war in the Vietnam War.

Number 5 in the North Texas Military Biography and Memoir Series

©2010 James T. Gillam (P)2014 Redwood Audiobooks

Critic Reviews

“Jim Gillam experienced real combat in his Vietnam tour. His stunning accounts of killing and avoiding being killed ring true. Although wounded several times, Jim did not leave the field for treatment in a field hospital, so he never generated the paperwork for a Purple Heart or two or three. Although he would be appalled at the thought, his attention to duty was ‘lifer' behavior, a concern for the well-being of his squad that represents the best of NCO leadership in any army.” (Allan R. Millett, author of Semper Fidelis and coauthor of A War to Be Won)
“[Gillam] looks back on his experiences of Vietnam not solely as a participant in the war, but also with the critical eye of a trained historian. . . . [He] uses an impressive array of after action reports, duty officer logs, battlefield reports, and other primary source material, to back up and reinforce his recollections.” ( Journal of Military History review by James H. Willbanks, author of The Tet Offensive)
“Gillam, a ‘shake and bake' sergeant, presents a good account of small unit infantry action during the war. He is very good at explaining the weaponry, tactics, and living conditions in the field.” (James E. Westheider, author of The African-American Experience in Vietnam)

What members say

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Excellent Narrative

What did you love best about Life and Death in the Central Highlands?

The narrative, (in between the facts & figures; and pedantry), was excellent. Very vivid and "up close." The narrative is more personal than in most books about Viet Nam. He described feelings and situations so well, I thought I was there. His description of the smells was especially engrossing- (Gross?) I had heard about the rotten fish head rice sauce, now I have a better idea what it really was about.

He seems to be honest and laid it out, no matter how it came down. His problems with officers, especially. It, also, showed how hard it must be to be an officer in a war; having to make all the right decisions and not being able to. It gave a good view of the army "caste system," as he described it.

A good, well researched book, based on actual fact that seemed not to have a political agenda. It cut through an experience that is, often, seen through the lens of politics. It just told the story of what the life of a grunt was like. He was an intelligent, educated person thrown into a maelstrom that made anything, but staying alive, superfluous.

What other book might you compare Life and Death in the Central Highlands to and why?

Robert Mason's "Chickenhawk." Both seem to be honest, personal accounts of a brutal, very life changing experience.

What about Todd Belcher’s performance did you like?

It was a bit stilted and monotone. Otherwise good narration.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

"Viet nam, Class of '69. You don't have to die to go to hell."

Any additional comments?

This book is missing the clichéd being chased by a water buffalo or being spit upon story. These two events seem to be in every first person account of Viet Nam I have read/listened to. He is a little pedantic and the statistics where not that interesting. Although, he did tie them nicely to the narrative; which made them more interesting.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Excellent Book

I really enjoyed this book. I felt so sad the author was so poorly treated by civilians upon his return home from doing his duty in Vietnam. it's hard to understand why people could not understand the author was drafted and had no choice but to serve in a war no one wanted to be involved in at the time. I salute the author for his service and his honesty. The realism and detail are amazing. Thank you sir.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Fascinating, gripping, mind bending, guy wrenching with a sly sense of humor

A unique viewpoint. A must read or listen. Never heard such gut wrenching stories told so honestly.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Astonishing

loved the story of a true man's man. His story of war leaves you stunned.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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great book

outstanding book. great listen. I could not stop listening during my drive to Virgona and back to Illinois this past week

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thank you for this book.

one of the better Vietnam books out there. perfect mix of facts and telling the story. felt like you were there

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Could not finish

Spends more time trying to explain the war from a scholarly viewpoint with facts and figures interspersed with a storyline that constantly reinforces the racial divisions in Vietnam instead of just focusing on the actual story. Forget the facts and figures, just tell us the story of your tour. The political, social and societal issues of that time do not interest me. Author needs to leave the academia in the classroom.

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All I can say is “WOW”!

As a Vietnam vet, I can attest to the accuracy of both the facts and feeling in this book. This vet had it all happen to him, as he fought for his life daily. The tunnel and Sapper fights initiated my own hyperventilating. And the death on the plane ramp caused this trained killer to cry like a baby. The author is my hero.

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Best I've Read

This is the most honest and sincere account of what it was like to fight as a drafted soldier for the Viet Nam war. Incredibly engaging.

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Absorbing

Very engrossing, it's just incredible what this one soldier experienced. Very well written and fast moving. It's easy to understand the difficulty this person had returning home and trying to instantly begin a "normal" life.

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  • Tony B
  • 05-01-19

Vietnam Uncut

I've listened to lots of Vietnam War factual books, but this book was probably the most personally candid, detailed and frightening one I've heard (so far) and that's not to undermine all the others, where I developed a great respect for all the authors/ warriors. I'm left with total admiration, respect and pity for James, that life's events put him in such a very dark, prolonged terrifying situation, but thank goodness he came through it and has deservedly been able to live a happier and fulfilling life. The first world war adage of Lions led by Donkeys in some cases springs to mind in the book, in an attritional war the USA "declined" to win-a very thought provoking and interesting choice of words.

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  • D. Williams
  • 01-11-19

Well written, poorly read

When the passage in the book is describing having to beat a person to death in a pitch black tunnel with you bare hands (a person that very well may have actually been a woman), or having to kill a person face to face with a knife in a deadly hand to hand combat situation, what is being described are moments of pure adrenaline filled stark terror and extreme aggression, followed by equally powerful moments of revulsion and remorse - it is NOT appropriate to read this in a straight deadpan delivery like some emotionless machine.

What makes this book so unique and interesting is that it is the story of a well-educated black NCO. That makes it from a rare perspective when it comes to Vietnam memoirs. It is written from a very honest personal viewpoint on the one hand, but also in a very scholarly way on the other. I urge you to read the book as the guy reading this version ruins it.

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  • Tom
  • 03-10-18

A great read! (listen)

A great book! and with the authors post war education in history, he is able to give you both the little picture as the man on the ground, and the big picture with data, research, and archive access

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  • MR J R Stagg
  • 09-04-17

Thrilling and informative

narration was a little stale but the story was told. a great story for a hard worker.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Stephan
  • 03-29-18

A must for all

A real must for all people who are interested to know what these veterans went through.