there are parallels between his days in Vietnam 38 years ago and todays
struggle in Iraq.
Those similarities and contrasts make his new book, Saigon Shuffle all
the more poignant, weaving the tale of one soldiers life in the mobile
infantry and behind the lens of a camera in the U.S. Army.
A trade show photographer from Traverse City, Sondy, 59, employs a
gambling metaphor to describe the workings of fate behind the Saigon
Shuffle of young soldiers betting their lives on the war. In his case,
the bet involved enlisting in the hope of obtaining G.I. Bill benefits to
continue his college education... if he survived the fury of Vietnam in
Governments controlled the shuffle to Saigon, he writes. Thousands of
young men were forced to hurry up and wait as fate mixed the deck that
determined their destiny. They lined up, counted off, and were dealt
assignments. If the cards were stacked against you, you could be forced
to cash our way too early. Or, you might just get lucky.
Sondy was one of the lucky ones. After an early stint as a machine gunner
in a mechanized infantry unit, a background in photojournalism landed him
a nine-month assignment as a military photographer.
His roots in photography go back to his days growing up in the Detroit
suburb of Roseville and helping to wash and dry prints in his fathers
commercial darkroom at the age of 10. Soon, he was was employed in his
familys photo business, developing film and prints. That led to stints
with his high school yearbook and newspaper.
After high school, Sondy was eager to continue his education in college,
but found several roadblocks. My parents were divorcing and there was no
money, he recalls. I couldnt even afford to go to Wayne State
Solution? He volunteered for the draft at a time when the fighting in
Vietnam was at its most ferocious. If you enlisted, you had to serve in
the Army for four years, but if you volunteered, you were only in for
two, he recalls. My goal was to get through the military in order to get
the GI Bill and continue my education.
He joined up in March, 1968, and after training as a light weapons
specialist at Fort Polk, Louisiana, was shipped out to Vietnam in October.
His specialty was operating an M-60 machine gun, which fires a heavy .30
caliber round. It was a job he sought because he didnt put much faith in
the lighter M-16 rifle assigned to the bulk of the infantry.
The M-16 was the most useless weapon there ever was and its still being
used, he says. Sondys complaint with the M-16 is that although it was
capable of rapid fire, it used a light round which was easily deflected,
especially in the dense jungles of Vietnam.
A LUCKY BREAK
Being in the infantry meant spending weeks at a time in the jungle,
sleeping on the ground with no mosquito net, and wallowing in your own
It was three months with that unit and in that time I only took three
showers and changed my clothes only three times, Sondy remembers.
Besides being shot at, there were so many things you had to deal with.
For me, one of those was getting back to base and finding out that my
locker had been broken into and my things were gone.
Combat is an unforgettable experience.
The funny thing is that every day -- every single day -- is etched in
your head, he says. Theres no sound like that of a bullet whizzing
past your head.
But his luck changed when Sondy was offered a chance to become a
photographer with the 1st Infantry Division, shooting photos for both the
Army and newspapers around the world.
He was given one week to prove himself with a borrowed camera, with the
stipulation being that he land a photo in Stars and Stripes, the
militarys premier newspaper.
As luck would have it, that week Sondy tagged along with a major who was
adopting a girl from a Vietnamese orphanage. His tender photos of the
visit not only ran in Stars and Stripes, but were also picked up by the
AP and UPI news services and appeared in newspapers in 13 states back
After that, Sondy was issued a Leica 33 mm and was given pretty much free
reign to photograph the war from the military perspective.
We could shoot any photos we wanted
as long as there were no dead, dirty or
TO THE REAR
The photography assignment allowed Sondy to view modern warfare from the
front lines as well as the rear.
I did a lot of human interest stories about GIs and also a lot of combat
photography, he recalls. There were also assignments photographing pretty
starlets and singers on USO tours and the mundane side of life in camp.
Sondys 178-page memoir includes 60 photos from those days in Nam and
beyond, including a veterans parade in Chicago in 1986.
One memorable photo story involved the driver of a massive bulldozer-plow
which was being used to clear the jungle. A bees nest fell on the
unfortunate driver who was stung 130 times, barely escaping with his life.
Fortunately, a sergeant grabbed the screaming man and dragged him into the
exhaust flume of the plow to drive the bees away.
Sondy notes that some of his best stuff never saw print: gritty combat
photos that crossed the line on the dead, dirty or wounded side of
Vietnam. He developed some of his edgier film and sent it home to his
mother for safekeeping.
It was the stuff that I thought would get me a job later on or win a
Pulitzer, he recalls. But, by the time he got around to thinking of
writing a book in 2000, he learned that his mother had tossed the photos
out. Fortunately, he had copies which he was able to clean up with
After leaving the Army, Sondy achieved his dream of attending college,
landing a job as a photo copy boy at the Detroit News. Eventually, he
found himself drawn to the advertising side of newspaper work with the
Detroit Free Press and Chicago Tribune. In 1990, he began a new career in
trade show photography, snapping celebrities and events all over the
In 2000, he and his family moved to Northern Michigan. His wife, Joann, is
a graphic designer who did the handsome layout and design of his memoir.
They self-published the book through a print-on-demand outfit and order
copies on an as-needed basis. Currently, Saigon Shuffle is on its
seventh edition. Its available at Horizon Books, the Art & Soul Gallery
and the InsideOut Gallery in TC, the Twisted Fish in Elk Rapids, and the
Gallery on Main in Bay Harbor.
Besides being the chronicle of a young mans odyssey through the perils of
war, Sondy sees his book as a timely reflection of Americas current
crisis in Iraq.
Vietnam is relevant today because it ties into Iraq with some of the same
similarities, he says. We got talked into both wars on some shady
premises. Both involved fighting in hot countries far away and both
involved fighting insurgents; the Viet Cong were the insurgents of
And both involved gambling ones
life in a military shuffle with no predict-able outcome.