Jay Borman's interest in the Vietnam War has roots in a toy — G.I. Joe — and its accompanying Marvel comic book series.
"Some of my favorite characters had a back story that they all served on an LRRP team in Vietnam," Borman said. "I was fascinated by the idea that Snake-Eyes, Stalker and Storm Shadow were part of a team that went out into the jungle to search for the enemy."
The fictional characters spawned a lifetime of interest in the LRRP teams (aka Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols, "rangers" who went deep into enemy territory to gather information).
"I started to look for new books to read, and because I'm a visual person, I wanted to find books with photos in them," Borman said. "I was astonished to find that there was basically nothing new out there on these units."
After a trip to The National Archives and discovery of nearly 100 photos of LRRPs and Rangers, Borman decided to compile a book of the images accompanied by stories from living LRRP rangers. He published the first 450-page volume, "LRRP Photos," last month and ignited a personal passion that shows no signs of surrender.
It's not really a desire to learn about the war for me. It's about the individual soldier doing a specific job that interests me. It is a unique time in U.S. military history. It was the circumstances of the war and a rigid military thinking it was going to fight a large scale conventional war with the USSR that led to small groups of men to volunteer to do a job that wasn't even an official job. So they initially created these ad hoc units to provide ground reconnaissance to their unit commanders. With all the technology and hardware we had, it was still the man on the ground that provided the most valuable information.
Interviewing these vets and seeing the impact that the war still has on them today, that was the hard part. Many of the guys were victims of Agent Orange. Or they are still haunted by losing some friends over there. It was really hard to hear some of the guys talk about how they hid the fact that they were Vietnam vets for a long time. It sucks that they felt the need to do that.
There [was a story] that stuck with me. One was about a four-man team from the 4th Division that was out in the jungle on a mission and it was pitch black in the triple canopy jungle one night. The team spread out a bit for the night and at one point they heard movement. All of them went on high alert. Then they heard a great deal of struggling and a pounding against something. In the morning they found one of their teammates dead. His rifle was in pieces and he was ripped apart. In the night a tiger came in and ate part of him.
There were a lot of predators looking for these guys. Nowhere was safe. They were the best. They were top-notch soldiers and definitely top of the food chain, that meant that the dangers they faced were also top of the food chain. It was a very dangerous way to spend a year in Vietnam.
The most memorable interview I had was when I took a 4th Division vet, Randy Windstein, to visit with his platoon leader. They had not seen each other in 40 years. We ended up staying the night. It was awesome to be a part of their reunion. They both immediately became 20 years old again and picked up right where they left off.
I became acutely aware of the legacy the war has had on these guys. Some struggle quite a bit and others not so much. But all deal with it daily. That was the piece that really struck me. You hear about it, but to see it so wide spread in nearly every vet I interviewed really affected me. It underlined to me that the American soldier is a very valuable resource that we as a country have. They are willing to put it all on the line. We should respect that and not use it frivolously.
Photo by Meghan Ralston