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Rock ’n’ Roll Soldier, A Memoir

by Dean Ellis Kohler with Susan VanHecke, HarperCollins, 2009

In a famous Bill Mauldin cartoon from World War II, a U.S. Army infantryman says to an engineer laboring to lay a useable road in the mud: “Yer lucky. Yer learnin’ a trade.” A lucky few soldiers actually did find a way to apply what they’d learned in military service to the civilian job market. Far fewer, however, would claim to have served an apprenticeship in rock ’n’ roll music by serving with a military police unit in Vietnam. But Dean Ellis Kohler did.

Put to paper with the aid of journalist Susan VanHecke, Rock ’n’ Roll Soldier is part of the steadily growing font of Vietnam veterans’ tours of duty. In Dean Kohler’s case, it was with the 127th MP Company in the port city of Qui Nhon in 1967—a relatively quiet assignment until just after he left, when the 1968 Tet Offensive turned it into a full-fledged battleground. As fate would have it, Kohler’s skills with a guitar and songwriting landed him the added assignment of playing with the Electrical Banana, an ensemble of musically talented soldiers whose morale-raising tours, ironically, took him in harm’s way more often than did his regular MP duties.

Back in The World, Kohler got a job at a radio station handling audio and recording equipment, which led to a chance encounter with Graham Nash, then on tour with the Hollies, and a chat that led Kohler to make a career of music. By no coincidence, Nash, too, comes around full circle to pen the book’s foreword.

Filled with personal variations on anecdotes that a good many vets will recognize, Rock ’n’ Roll Soldier differs from most Vietnam entertainers’ memoirs in that the troupe here did not come courtesy of Bob Hope and the USO. These troubadours in green emerged from the ranks, giving a different slant to the term “band of brothers.”


Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here