The narrator and protagonist. Richie is a seventeen-year-old high school graduate from Harlem. Though he is smart and ambitious, his alcoholic single mother cannot afford to send him to college, so he joins the army to escape an uncertain future. Richie is sent to Vietnam, and during his months there, he suffers numerous harrowing combat experiences and tries to grapple with the meaning of war, heroism, and good and evil.
Richie’s younger brother. Kenny depends on his older brother, who acts as a father figure to him and enlists in Vietnam in part to help support him. Yet Richie seems to need Kenny just as much as Kenny needs him. Kenny’s dependence on Richie and his admiration and love for him act as Richie’s only solid link to the civilian world during the war and provide him with his only sense of purpose.
Richie’s mother, a depressive alcoholic who has barely functioned since her husband left her years earlier. Though Richie and his mother have never gotten along well, they realize how much they need each other while Richie is in Vietnam. They try to repair their damaged relationship through their letters.
Richie’s closest friend in Vietnam. Peewee copes with the fear and uncertainty of the war with comical bravado, though he occasionally allows his true emotions to peek through the bluster.
A member of Richie’s squad. Jewish and possibly homosexual, Lobel is the target of prejudice nearly as frequently as the black soldiers, to whom he pledges his support in racial skirmishes. Lobel is a devoted fan of the movies, and he distances himself from the horror of battle by imagining that he is merely playing a role in a war film.
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A soldier of Italian descent on Richie’s squad. Monaco seems slightly braver than the rest, always taking the dangerous position of point man.
The commander of Richie’s company. Captain Stewart wants to be promoted to major, but his company needs to accrue a higher enemy body count for him to earn the promotion. He sends Richie’s company on numerous dangerous missions, risking the lives of the soldiers under his command for the sake of his own ambition.
The leader of Richie’s squad. When Richie first arrives in Vietnam, Sergeant Simpson is near the end of his tour of duty. He warns Richie and the other new soldiers not to get him killed because of their inexperience. Later, under great pressure from Stewart, Simpson extends his tour by thirty days, but he survives and returns home, just as he wished.
The leader of Richie’s platoon. A smart and sympathetic leader, Lieutenant Carroll is well-liked by the men under his command, and his death during combat leaves them all grief-stricken.
The inexperienced leader of Richie’s platoon after Lieutenant Carroll’s death.
A devoutly religious solider in Richie’s squad. Brew plans to join the ministry upon his return to civilian life.
An ambitious soldier on Richie’s squad. A bully, Corporal Brunner constantly kisses up to soldiers of higher rank, while abusing those below him.
An officer who replaces Simpson as the leader of Richie’s squad. Sergeant Dongan is a racist and always places black soldiers in the most dangerous positions during patrols.
An army nurse Richie meets during the trip to Vietnam. Though Richie sees Judy only once more before learning of her death, she serves as the closest thing to a love interest in the novel, and she is a source of confusion and tame fantasy for Richie.
Peewee’s girlfriend. Not long after Peewee arrives in Vietnam, Earlene writes him a letter, informing him that she married another man in his absence. She symbolizes how war disrupts domestic affairs.
A medic in Richie’s company.
A member of Richie’s squad who arrives in Vietnam at the same time as Richie.
An extraordinarily strong black soldier on Richie’s squad who proves himself to be a born leader.
A boy from Richie’s neighborhood in Harlem who is killed in Vietnam.
A soldier briefly on Richie’s squad.
A slightly racist soldier on Richie’s squad who appears to overcome his prejudices as the bond among the squad members deepens.