Niskayuna Vietnam veteran pens ‘Justice in the Jungle’

Paul Zonderman in Vietnam, a photo that appears in his book, "Justice in the Jungle." (photos provided)

Paul Zonderman in Vietnam, a photo that appears in his book, "Justice in the Jungle." (photos provided)

Niskayuna veteran and former town justice Paul Zonderman spent the last six months or so contemplating the harsh realities of serving in the Vietnam War and penning a book that’s turned into a legacy project.

Titled “Justice in the Jungle,” it was published earlier this year and clocks in at 143 pages, covering mostly his years in the service and focusing on his year in Vietnam. Throughout, he grapples with being proud of his service but not of the war itself.

“I have great pride in my service. The officer training taught leadership and a ‘never give up’ spirit,” Zonderman writes. “At the same time, I am angry and disappointed with our government who sent us on a fool’s mission, from which 58,000 of us didn’t return.”

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Zonderman, a Boston native, followed in his grandfather and father’s footsteps by serving in the military. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1961, and because he wanted to be an attorney, became a part of the Platoon Leaders Class Law Program. He studied law at Cornell Law School and went on active service in 1965, shortly after marrying his childhood sweetheart Ann.

In a recent interview with The Gazette, Zonderman reflected on the brutal training that comes with the territory of becoming a Marine.

“Physically, it’s torture and about 50% of the guys dropped out,” Zonderman said. “We are running [and there] is 40 people in a group and the sergeant is running along with you . . . Two ambulances follow us and when somebody passed out, they pick them up. And they will stop running when two people passed out.”

One of his first military jobs stateside was the Casualty Assistance Calls Officer; delivering the news to military families when their son/daughter or husband/wife was killed.

“It was a heartbreaking job which needs no discussion,” Zonderman writes.

That experience is part of the reason why, when he was sent to Vietnam in 1967, shortly after Ann became pregnant, he felt compelled to go.

“How can you tell parents the worst news in their life, their child was dead, and then try to avoid the danger yourself?” Zonderman writes.

“No, I did not want Vietnam. I had not asked for it, but I was no different than anyone else. The war was not the sort of thing you either believed in or disbelieved in. It was a fact, here and now. I was a Marine officer charged with a duty to carry out. I enlisted voluntarily with the knowledge of what I might be called upon to do. I could never justify running away now.”

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When he arrived in Da Nang, where he first served, living conditions were rough; the soldiers lived in wooden huts, with tin roofs, screens for windows, and a single light bulb hung from the ceiling. He wasn’t supplied with a gun for more than a week after his arrival and he had to go searching through a trash can for decent fatigues or “jungle utilities” as he refers to them.

There was also a lack of guidance.

“There was no one there to tell us what to do. One might think we would have been given some information regarding the procedure we were supposed to follow. I didn’t want a brass band, but it would have been nice if someone were on hand to give us some instructions,” Zonderman writes of his earliest experiences there.

He was at first a Foreign Claims Officer; he investigated all non-combat-related injuries to the person and property of the Vietnamese. He also prepared and tried court martial cases, as the book details, changing the names of those involved in each trial.

The cases each came with layers of ethical and cultural challenges to wade through. As the prosecutor on one rape case involving a young Vietnamese woman and a U.S. serviceman (who he refers to as Private David Gibson), Zonderman found it difficult to work with a translator and have the victim testify. Not only were there language barriers, but also cultural sensitivities as well. In the end, Gibson was found guilty and was to be dishonorably discharged and sentenced to five years of hard labor.

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“I was stunned. Only five years for rape. Anywhere else he would have gotten twenty,” Zonderman writes. “It was hypocrisy. Weren’t her rights worth the same as an American girl[?] If that’s the way they feel, what are we doing here[?]”

Beyond the cases, Zonderman also writes of the stress of the environment. He was always prepared for mortar attacks, which happened not irregularly.

In one instance, while he was taking a lunch break from interviewing two witnesses in Dong Ha for a trial, the base was hit with artillery fire. It took out the tent and the witnesses he had just interviewed.

“When you witness such a tragedy, you don’t have time to emote. It means acting decisively to protect yourself. You don’t have time to be shocked or mourn. You are motivated by hyper-vigilance,” Zonderman writes.

After returning to the United States in late 1967, Zonderman went on to work as an attorney and as a labor counsel at General Electric and later Niskayuna town judge. However, his experiences in Vietnam stayed with him, as did the effects of Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant that the United States used in Vietnam. In 2003, Zonderman was diagnosed with Leukemia, which he writes is an Agent Orange presumptive illness. While he is currently in remission, the illness did nothing to soften his views of the war.

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Toward the end of the book, he included several pages of information on Agent Orange’s impacts in the hopes of helping other Vietnam veterans who may have been affected.

“Let me begin with the thought that the Vietnam war was a waste of time and lives. I guess we all know that now,” Zonderman writes in the epilogue. My heart goes out to the parents of the young men and women who didn’t make it home. They answered the call. They had faith in their government.”

He initially wrote “Justice in the Jungle” last year for his family to have as a record of his years in the military. However, interest grew well outside of his family in the ensuing months and many have since asked for copies of the book, according to Zonderman. At this point, the book is only sold at the Open Door Bookstore. Zonderman will have a book signing at the Jay Street bookstore from 1-2:30 p.m. on Saturday. For more information visit

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