It was 1966. Dean Kohler of Portsmouth, Virginia was a year out of high school and had just landed a recording contract with his rock band, the Satellites. Soon, the whole world would be listening to his songs on the radio.
And then his draft notice arrived.
But even in Nam, fending off Vietcong ambushes and sweeping for snipers as a military policeman, Dean couldn't give up his rock star dreams. He improvised some instruments and equipment, taught a few fellow MPs to play, and formed his own touring rock band right there in the combat zone—all without missing a single patrol.
What started as a lark, though, ultimately became a lifeline for Dean and the band, as well as the thousands of combat-weary troops they played for. One moment they were going toe-to-toe with the VC. The next they were crossing the deadly An Khe Pass to play "We Gotta Get Outta This Place" for a crowd of cheering GIs in desperate need of an escape—if only for three sets. Amazingly, Dean and his group even cut a record there in the jungle, crafting a makeshift sound studio on a war-zone mountainside.
Armed with their music as well as their rifles, Dean and his bandmates created their own bit of order out of the chaos of Vietnam, bringing some sense of normalcy to the surreal hell of war.
Hailed as "a sober but ultimately inspiring read" by Booklist and "a narrative depict[ing] life continuing beyond conflict" by Kirkus Reviews, Dean's book Rock 'N Roll Soldier (HarperCollins) gives the war memoir a unique twist, offering a never-before-seen musical perspective of America's first rock 'n' roll war. It reveals how rock music was an intrinsic part of the Vietnam experience for the soldiers who served there. Whether tuning into Armed Forces Radio to hear the latest hits from back in "the World," bonding as brothers-in-arms at precious few live performances in the war zone, or turning to music-making as a shield against the horrors of war, GIs in Vietnam relied on a rock 'n' roll soundtrack to keep them safe and sane.
As rock musician Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young writes in his powerful foreword to Rock 'N' Roll Soldier, "[Countless veterans have] told us that it was music—our music, our friends' music—that helped them get through another day to survive for another night… and to get through another night to survive for another day." Indeed, there is an emerging field of scholarly study devoted to music made by soldiers in the Vietnam War zone.
As we remember and appreciate our military servicemen and servicewomen this Veterans Day, consider learning more about their wartime experience. To see Dean's 8mm film footage, audio, and photos from Vietnam, plus book excerpts, a discussion guide, and playlist of songs featured in Dean's story, visit www.RockNRollSoldierAMemoir.com.
Causes Susan VanHecke Supports
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators
National Trust For Historic Preservation