When Richie Perry first arrives in Vietnam, seventeen years old and fresh out of high school, he is naïve, lost, and confused. He has no grasp on the brutal reality of war, no sense of himself, and no idea of how he wants to build his life. Though he is unusually bright, sensitive, and talented, all of his big dreams—attending college, becoming a writer, giving his brother, Kenny, the opportunities Richie lacked—seem doomed by his poverty. Richie’s father abandoned the family years before, leaving the two boys with a depressed and alcoholic mother who spends most of her measly salary on her drinking habit. Richie sees joining the army as his only chance at escape, a way to avoid unsettling questions about himself and his future.

At first, Richie’s experience in Vietnam makes him only more doubtful and confused. The carnage, senseless murders, and completely antiheroic nature of the battlefield leave him reeling, adding to his doubts about right and wrong and the morality of the war. Richie struggles with these difficult issues but never finds satisfactory answers. He begins to mature without realizing it and starts to become “the man [he will] be” by asking these complicated questions. Richie’s sensitivity and inherent curiosity compel him to reflect on these issues of right and wrong, and also make him the squad’s unofficial therapist. He is the friend to whom every soldier in the squad turns when in need of advice or a sympathetic ear. Richie’s urgent reactions to his battlefield experiences give him the perspective and insight to become a writer, as they instill in him a compelling need to represent the truth in words, regardless of whether the truth is disturbing or uncomfortable. Returning home after several months of combat, Richie is no closer to solving the problems that plagued him when he left. He is still too poor to attend college and has no means to improve his brother’s life, but he has grown from his experiences and started on the path to manhood and emotional maturity.