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Snake’s Daughter: The Roads in and out of War, by Gail Hosking Gilberg, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 1997, $32.95 cloth, $16.95 paper.

Master Sergeant Charles E. Hosking, Jr., Company A, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces, died a hero’s death near the Song Be River in Phuoc Long province on March 21, 1967. A VC prisoner had grabbed a grenade from Hosking’s belt, pulled the pin and started running toward four men–an American captain and staff sergeant and two Vietnamese interpreters. The danger was immediately clear to Hosking, who was on his third tour in-country, and so was his response. “Saving his own skin was not an option,” writes author Gail Hosking Gilberg of her soldier father.

What Hosking did was leap on the enemy soldier’s back, grasp him in a bear hug that forced the grenade against the prisoner’s chest, throw him to the ground and cover him with his own body until the grenade exploded. The blast instantly killed Hosking and the VC, but because their bodies absorbed the full force of the explosion, the other members of Hosking’s command group were saved from death or serious injury. For unselfishly and without hesitation taking the action necessary to save his comrades’ lives, Hosking was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

“I know now without a doubt that my father’s life dealt with the ancient model of sacrifice,” writes his daughter, who had just turned 17 a week before her father’s death. For many years, though, she was not sure about that. For many years, Gilberg did not talk about her dad’s medal because of her own unanswered questions about the war and her father, and because to discuss the medal was “to remember why he was awarded the medal and to add a blown-apart body to my mind’s store of images.”

Snake’s Daughter is partly the biography of a soldier’s soldier. At 16, Charles Hosking ran away from home to join the Canadian army. On May 1, 1943, 11 days before his 18th birthday, he was inducted into the U.S. Army, and a year later he left for Europe as a paratrooper. He was one of only 47 men out of the 600 in the 509th Paratrooper Infantry Battalion to still be standing after the Battle of the Bulge. During the 1950s, while stationed in Europe with the Special Forces, he trained hard, drank hard and became a weapons expert. He was first called “the Snake” because his front teeth had been knocked out in a fight and his bridge of front teeth sometimes slipped when he was drinking, causing him to spit like a snake. But the nickname stuck for other reasons–he was tough and sly and quick to get out of difficult places.

“During the Vietnam War,” writes Gilberg, “when he went back for the third time to rejoin the ‘Mike Force,’ others volunteered when they heard ‘the Snake’ had returned. He was such a legend among the Chinese Nung and Cambodian soldiers after his first tour of duty that when he came back to Vietnam, several came out of retirement to fight with him.” During his 25-year career as a soldier, Hosking received five combat campaign stars, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and three Presidential Unit Citations.

Snake’s Daughter is also partly the autobiography of a soldier’s daughter. In her intense effort to discover who the Snake really was–the soldier, the husband and the father of four–the author discovers much about herself. Her father was rarely there when she was growing up, and she had little understanding of why he kept going off to train and fight, but he did leave photos meticulously arranged in albums. Her search through her father’s photographs is the heart of this moving book.

“I think I’ve been in mourning since the day I heard from the young soldier’s lips that my father had been killed in action near the Song Be River,” Gilberg writes. “If grief at that stage is mostly wordless, that’s where I was all these years until the search through my father’s images sparked my own words and set them free.”

Gilberg was 13 when her father first left for Vietnam. After that he was never home for more than a few months at a time. The war was something she tried not to think about and rarely talked about. She was still a teenager in May 1969 when President Richard Nixon presented the Medal of Honor to her 8-year-old brother, Wesley, two years after Sergeant Hosking sacrificed his life for his comrades. “It took me 26 years to begin to search back to him–to find my father beyond the hero and beyond the man everyone spoke of as ‘an excellent soldier,’ ” she writes. “It would take me all that time to articulate a collected and collective shame and a silence I could no longer bear.”

Gilberg not only looked at her father’s photographs but also read many books about the war and talked to several former soldiers who had known the Snake. She was looking for simple answers about her father and herself, but the more she searched, the farther she moved away from simplicity. Still, she came away with plenty of insight. Her father, she comes to see, was not a killer who loved to go to war. “He went,” she writes, “because for him his world came down to the men on his right and the men on his left, and for them he was willing to give his own life.”

Writing this book clearly served as a healing process for the author, and because she writes so well about that complicated process, many readers will also share in its benefits.

Gregory Lalire