The Remarkable Story of Fred Rivera and Herman Johnson
By Thornton Sully, Editor-in-Chief, A Word with You Press
Fred Rivera had an urgent need to write his story. That urgency was the motivation to strap himself in an office chair and fire a fusillade of words upon the blank field before him until the task was done. Raw Man, his award-winning novel of Vietnam, was, among other things, a tribute to his fallen comrade, Herman Johnson, who died in Fred’s arms in combat in 1969. When Fred at last stood from his desk, the story was told; the story was over … Or, was it?
Fred presented the very first signed copy of Raw Man to Sgt. John Marek at the book launch held the summer before last at the hacienda of our mutual friend, best-selling author Victor Villaseñor. For 30 years, Fred has dedicated his life to helping combat vets suffering from PTSD to get on with their lives, and John was among those whom Fred was able to counsel and help to heal.
In appreciation of the honor of receiving the first signed copy, Sgt. Marek had an inspiration: he would get a pencil etching of Herman Johnson’s name from the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington. But there was a problem: he couldn’t find Herman Johnson’s name or even a reference that he had died. He investigated. Details of the battle had been obscured, intentionally so, for the combatants were in Cambodia, not Vietnam, in violation of the law and the official line the White House disseminated in 1969. The Freedom of Information Act allowed fresh access to the facts. And yet, there was still no confirmation of Herman Johnson’s death.
Fred remembered that horrific event very well. Fred was blown off the military vehicle he navigated. Herman sat above him, manning the guns and firing into the jungle at an unseen enemy. An explosion, then chaos. Fred was hurled 15-feet into the air, knocked unconscious by the fall, and up with his dearest friend, Herman Johnson, strewn across him, bleeding out, having taken shrapnel to the carotid artery. Fred cradled him, heard his final words, watched helplessly as the medics undid Herman’s boots, and elevated and massaged Herman’s feet, all in a vain attempt to keep blood flowing to his brain. There was, or course, no time to mourn or even grieve. The battle raged on for 12 hours.
A few days later, at an impromptu memorial, Fred was presented a bracelet, woven by Herman’s friends, from the blood-spattered leather laces of Herman Johnson’s boots. Fred has worn the bracelet every day without fail since that sad morning. “You are not taking this off,” Fred admonished the surgeons who performed the eight surgeries required to mitigate the damage done by battle in Vietnam.
Fred Rivera bravely relived all of this as he wrote Raw Man: “Twenty-seven years after I got the flight home, I saw that ’Nam war was just raw man, spelled backwards. I’m pretty raw today.” For Rivera’s effort and sacrifice, he won the Isabelle Allende Best New Fiction Award for 2015. Having read the book and, failing to find confirmation of Herman Johnson’s death, John Marek had an epiphany: What if Herman Johnson did not die? He re-directed his inquiries. He found someone matching Herman’s description living in Dearborn, Michigan. He recruited volunteers from the Veterans of Foreign Wars to fan out and search the neighborhood where the trail led. “Fred, are you sure you want us to follow through with this?” Having survived combat himself, John understood the trauma it could create for both Herman and Fred, if the man they had located was the friend and comrade thought to be dead for forty-seven years.
Fred, courageous beyond measure in battle, waivered. “Stand down.”
An unsent letter pulsed within Fred’s breast pocket for two weeks. Then on a morning in May, unable to contain himself or the letter any longer, Fred posted the letter to the address Sgt. Marek had discovered, unsure of the identity of the recipient and unsure of the response if it truly was Herman Johnson. Two days later … yes, the phone rang.
What better place to hold a reunion than at the Wall in Washington? A Word with You Press initiated a Gofundme, and through the generosity of others, we were able to have Herman, Fred, John Marek, and others convene at the Vietnam Memorial last July. A professional film crew was on hand to document the event and to capture a last surprise for Herman Johnson, who never received a Purple Heart for his wounds. Unbeknownst to Herman, Fred worked tirelessly, soliciting the help of Herman’s congressman, Sandy Levin, to decimate the red tape that conspired to deny Herman his due.
On the day of the reunion, as the two reunited comrades stood at attention in the presence of three-star General Guy Swan, Herman was only aware that he was going to be given a nondescript service pin acknowledging his military service. After a brief speech, as a crowd began to gather, the general commanded, “Sergeant, read the orders.” None other than John Marek stepped adroitly forward in his dress blues and announced:
General Swan wrapped his arms around Herman. “Welcome home, son. It took us 47 years to right this wrong, but at last, justice has been done.”
What if Fred had never written Raw Man? I can spare you a few paragraphs, because, as a reader, you have enough information to fill in the blanks yourself.
A broader question: Why write at all, if the chances of being a best-seller are so very slim, based on factors that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing or intrigue or importance of the story? Conventionally, a book’s success is measured by number of copies sold. But how do you measure the value catharsis? How many people need to be moved by what you have to say before you, as a writer, will consider yourself and your book a success?
Because you are reading this in Legacy Arts, clearly you believe in imparting the wisdom you have acquired in your lifetime to those of your blood who will follow. Conveying your story is your ultimate gesture of love. Be not intimidated by a blank page. Write your story as if you are telling it to a single person sitting across the kitchen table. A book is successful if it adequately and accurately conveys what you think and feel, and this is not at all linked to the
number of copies sold. Your own book, your own story, may be a pebble in a pond. Who knows whose lives will be changed by the ripples? Maybe, your own.
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Thornton Sully is an award-winning publisher, writer, and editor-in-chief of A Word with You Press, Editors and Advocates of Fine Stories in the Digital Age. He can be reached at [email protected]