APO 123: John Henry Brebbia
Alone with his thoughts as he enters a whole new world and life Anthony Bertolini reflects on his childhood, his family and the hardships he faced growing up with a father whose values were much different than most, whose expectations of him were low and whose guidance he really did not have. Living with his grandparents he learned a lot about the many different people of various faiths and religions as he conveys that to the reader on his way to his new home in France. Finding himself in Verdun, a city that the Army considered too small to even think of as a city, is where Anthony finds himself. Arriving at Verdun Garrison or as the title states: APO 123, its Army postal service address, it was not exactly what one would expect of a military post. It was remote and definitely as the author relates an odd or strange location for a command headquarters. Entering this world will definitely change your perspective about army life and remind you of the guys on M*A*S*H and the after surgery drinking parties that they had and the camaraderie among the men like Radar, Klinger, Hawkeye, Hot Lips and the rest. Entering what he was told was called Fred’s Place he spent his first night there drinking beer and getting to know the men. As we listen to the officers complain, discuss cases and then describe the abuse they take during a trial you begin to wonder what happens to the accused and whether any justice is really done. Anthony Bertolini describes his new life as a lieutenant and his superiors, neighbors and even the courtroom scenes are definitely not out of Law and Order.
When walking into an office or a room the lack of respect and professionalism makes you wonder how anything gets done. But, Bertolini is only concerned with one thing and it is not dealing with commanding officers other than at face value which sounds like he has little or no respect for rank and wants to make sure that he has a clean and non bumpy ride, you might say, and added in an active social life. Meeting Colonel Pike, stating his own impressions and being warned about getting convictions was how he left their first meeting. The many scenes play out quite differently than you would expect as seen on programs like JAG and even CSI. The legal battles seem to occur and when on officer announces the type of crimes being prosecuted you would think he was giving you lineup for programs to watch on television or even a menu that you can choose from.
As we meet Colonel Vine and witness his interaction with Anthony you begin to wonder just how some of these officers rose to there ranks, as he asks Anthony about his heritage and where his family comes from and we learn that he is Irish-Italian and that his family came from Boston. Serving at first as an enlisted soldier then receiving a direct commission in the JAG Corps, but not quite the same picture you would get from the show JAG. Bertolini enters this new duty station in Verdun, France in the late 1950s at NASCOM Headquarters, which stands for Northern Area Supply Command. With the Korean War over and the Cold War still quite prevalent we learn more about the inner workings of this unusual unit and those based there. One particular character stands out at the beginning. As he rants, raves and carries on during a trial, Tatarian seems out of control at times while trying a case and hoping for a conviction. But when the courtroom scene is described you wonder just who is in charge and how anyone gets anything done.
When Anthony is given a case for trial of an enlisted man and the depot commander at TFAD recommended a general court for this EM who stole a ham and a loaf of bread from the mess hall, the reaction he gets from some you would be amazed at, and the final outcome and the end result well you have to find out for yourself. Not everyone follows regulations and others wait until some are transferred to get things done. The humor and the sarcasm run its course in this novel, the experiences that unfold, the issues of the enlisted men and the officers in an environment that most young man would rather avoid and yet these men seem to make the best of it. As you get to know Pike, Tatarian, Tidwell, Vine and the rest you have to laugh, scream, shout and even applaud some of the ridiculous things they do. High up on their list are the pranks we all love to pull on each other, the humor and the realization from the start that something about Bertolini is genuine.
Listening to Tararian rant and rave after winning his case and broadcasting that the MP’s should never have been brought to trial. But the prosecutor is more than upset, and his rants, raves and accusations make you wonder whether justice is ever served in this command. But, when you read Anthony’s assessment of those billeted in BOQ5 the picture he paints sounds like the inside of a mental institution before the inmates are medicated and strapped in for the long haul. Colonel Pike, the staff judge advocate he compares to Hitler. Colonel Vine to John Wayne, Ronald Reggio a throwback to WWII, and a court reporter so out to lunch you might say that she would fit in with the Martians from outer space, but they would probably handle the job a lot better.
Sarah Beale is a rich girl whose parents have her attending Vassar and whose idea of meeting a young man is like putting him through the Spanish Inquisition. As Anthony deals with her mother and the author relates his past and his family heritage you get the feeling that her parents are not going to approve of him, that prejudice and class status is ever present in their lives and their social circle only mingles with those that they deem fit in.
When Anthony takes on his new role as the Chief of Military Justice you learn more about the politics involved, the difficulty of getting someone off before they are tried, finding witnesses and the almost cavalier attitude that those involved in the court martial trials have. Later we meet the wife and sister in law of our defense counsel at a party and we learn more about his lack of a sense of humor. But, Anthony and first lieutenant “Jimbo” Singleton seem to make the rounds quite easily.
As you get to know more about the characters, one will stand out while trying to whip this motley group of officers and enlisted men into shape. Ronald Reggio, Fred Fig, Anthony Bertolini and his nemesis the staunch and he who tries to make you think he’s by-the-book Major Bowersock who everyone wishes would go AWOL before they do. Bent on making Anthony look bad, trying to take away some of his major responsibilities and making everyone’s life miserable has you routing for some and hoping that they get even with the rest. Protected to a point by the commanding officer they refer to as The Old Man you begin to think you are watching a rerun of White Christmas.
Throughout the novel we hear the many voices of each officer and we learn about their relationships with the many women that are living with within their military base. With Anthony torn between his feelings for Sarah and his indiscretions with one of the teachers on the base you begin to wonder whether Sarah is the right one for him or if he has some questions in his mind as to whether she is the right one for him and whether he can deal with her family.
Deceits, lies, back stabbings, document changes and reports incorrectly filed, this group of lawyers and officers find themselves up against more than just the judge in charge of the cases. Accusations of homosexuality bring two men up on charges, and one stenographer who could not handle it at all. Just that scene will make you smile. But sometimes when we place another person on a pedestal, and the qualities that we think they have in reality are quite different, our perspective changes and our desires too. Some things were never meant to be. Sometimes your values need a real adjustment too. As we learn more about Anthony and his dealings with Captain Stein-Fox, the psychiatrist at Verdun Army Hospital, we learn more about Anthony, his relationships and his downfalls. But, the biggest upset comes when his mentor and patron decides to take away the one area that should remain with him and gives it over to Bowersock. One wrong decision and your life takes a different downward turn and the shakeups have just begun.
The politics involved, the cover ups during the case preparations, the prejudice that many faced and the cases that they tried, allow the reader inside the minds of many of the officers and many of the enlisted men and we learn about the inner workings of the JAG Corps and many other branches of the service dealing with legal affairs.
Tragedy befalls man and his decisions in life change. Then a decision has to be made and Anthony’s life might change. What happens to all of these men at the end? Who gets suspended? Who winds up with a Bad Conduct Discharge and who remains for the long run? What changes Anthony’s perspective and where does Bowersock land? If you ever want to learn the in’s and out’s of military life overseas during the Cold War and find out just how the military lawyers handle their cases, the corruption, the prejudices and how things get done: Take a trip to APO 123 and find out for yourself. Better yet: Read the book and join Anthony, Reggio and the rest on their tour and see how well you fare. If you have ever watched M*A*S*H, the Jungle Society and the parties will definitely remind you of the pranks and shenanigans pulled by Hawkeye and the rest, but even more it will help you to understand just what some did in order to survive.
Fran Lewis: reviewer