Vietnam Veterans of America
Books in Review, January/February 2020
‘Guts’: A Sterling Look at the Life and Death of Lane Evans
Following a screening of a Vietnam War film in Washington, D.C. in the late eighties as I was jabbering with some colleagues, a guy about my age wearing an off-the-rack suit and sporting a boyish haircut ambled over and introduced himself. His name was Lane, he said, and he started talking about Vietnam War books, one of my favorite subjects. Among other things, he eagerly wanted to know which books I would recommend and what I thought of ones he had read. We then talked companionably about the war, about books about the war, and about VVA.
He was a former Marine, a VVA member—and a member of Congress: Rep. Lane Evans, from Rock Island, Illinois. From that day on, I closely followed his career on Capitol Hill, all twenty-four years of it (from 1983 to 2007), mainly because he was one the strongest and most effective advocates for Vietnam War veterans who ever served in Congress. A progressive (and idealistic) Democrat, Evans was instrumental in shepherding through judicial review, one of VVA’s signature issues in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That long-fought-for change for the first time mandated that the VA offer veterans an appeals process if they were denied benefits. Before that, veterans had no legal recourse after getting hit with an unfavorable VA decision.
Lane Evans also played a central role in working for passage of several pieces of crucial Agent Orange legislation, including recognizing spina bifida in veterans’ offspring as service-connected. He also was instrumental in saving the Vet Center program in 1983, and helping enact the landmark Montgomery GI Bill of 1984. The personable, down-to-earth former Marine was forced to resign his seat following his twelfth term representing the Illinois 17th District when rapidly progressing Parkinson’s disease prevented him from being able to work.
I was well aware of Evans’ work in Congress, his political triumphs (he never lost an election in his Republican-heavy district), and the devastating impact Parkinson’s had on him. But I learned a great deal more about his life before, during, and after his time in Washington in Devin Hansen’s very well written, deeply researched, and creatively told Guts: The Lane Evans Story (Strong Arm Press, 172 pp. $14.99, paper), an excellent, admiring (but not pandering) biography.
In the book, Hansen effectively bounces back and forth in time to present a fully flushed out portrait of Lane Evans’ life from childhood through his time on Capitol Hill, replete with often painfully detailed depictions of what Lane dealt with physically and emotionally with the insidious progression of Parkinson’s and Lewy Body Dementia, which killed him at age 62 in 2014.
Hansen met Evans as a child and became close to him in the last ten years of his life while working on this biography. It’s very difficult for biographers to inject themselves into their subject’s lives, but Hansen adeptly melds his interactions with Lane Evans into the narrative. At first, Hansen wrote, “I told myself to not get involved. To be like a nature photographer and watch the baby deer drown. Be an outside observer and chronicle this man’s life and death. And there were plenty of times when I witnessed things and bit my tongue.
“But then I realized that this man is my friend. I helped him find a new nurse, helped him move from one apartment to another, and even just spent time with him for enjoyment rather than research. In the end, it has given me some insight that other biographers would not possess.”
As Hansen clearly shows, the bookish, soft-spoken, working-class Congressman became a tireless, hard-working politico who ran his Capitol Hill and district offices with Marine Corps-like efficiency. From the start, too, he proved to be a canny political campaigner and a pioneer in using new communications technology. He also worked very hard for the people in his congressional district, sleeping on a couch in his D.C. office during his early years on Capitol Hill, flying home nearly every weekend (and staying with his parents), and spending the time there meeting face to face with constituents.
In the book Hansen also confirmed Lane Evans’ life-long unquenchable reading habit. In 1972, while attending Augustana College in Rock Island after the Marine Corps, he “had a library and would read voraciously—economics, politics, and philosophy,” Hansen writes. “He devoured books as he listened to album after album by the Beatles.” His “idea of a fun weekend was buying a new record or visiting a library.” During his three years (1974-77) of law school at Georgetown University, he “spent days reading, studying, and eating whenever he remembered. Stacks of nonfiction were piled on the floor next to his mattress.”
There’s much more about Lane Evan’s life in this worthy bio, including perhaps a few too many details about each of his twelve congressional political campaigns. And fair warning: Hansen’s detailed depictions of the depredations of Lane Evans’ Parkinson’s and dementia (and the often inferior medical care he received) can be extremely tough to read.
Guts is an excellent, warts-and-all tribute to a great human being, and a man who worked tirelessly for his fellow Vietnam War veterans. As his friend and colleague Barack Obama put it: “I was proud to have him by my side when I was elected President. Above all, Lane was an American hero, a dear friend, and a beloved public servant of the people of Illinois.”
Sarah Wagner, the author of What Remains: Bringing America’s Missing Home from the Vietnam War (Harvard University, 288 pp., $29.95) is a George Washington University social anthropologist. But she is much more than that. Her fascinating and revealing new book is the work of an engaging writer, a dogged researcher, and a top expert in the science involved in the increasing complex and difficult task of recovering and identifying America’s Vietnam War MIAs.
This unique and valuable book mixes a solid explanation of the science involved in identifying American military MIAs who went missing many decades ago in Southeast Asia with a history of the Pentagon’s many-faceted and sometimes controversial post-Vietnam-War MIA work. Wagner also includes well-reported first-person accounts of her hands-on MIA recovery and identification work in the field in Vietnam and in Hawaii—along with the moving stories of the different fates of three Wisconsin men who went missing in the Vietnam War and how their MIA status affected their loved ones and communities at home.
Among the book’s many highlights: Wagner’s on-the-mark description and analysis of the confounding issue of the Vietnam War Unknown Soldier. As most Vietnam War veterans know, the spot for the unidentified remains of an American lost in the Vietnam War at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery remained vacant for many years. Then, during the Reagan Administration, a set of remains was selected for the Tomb.
The ceremony took place in 1984. Fourteen years later, forensic scientists identified those remains as missing USAF 1st Lt. Michael Blassie. The difficult decision then was made to disinter Blassie’s remains. They were re-buried in 1998 at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery near St. Louis. That event marked a “turning point for the U.S. military MIA accounting efforts,” Wagner notes. Paraphrasing then Defense Secretary William Cohen, she says: “DNA might well render unknowns a thing of the past.”
Wagner spent ten years working on this book. And that work has paid off. She more than lives up to her goal of tracing the arc of Vietnam War MIA accounting.
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