Puller Hobbs, war weary veteran, wants little more than to truly be the man that his wife and daughters assume him to be. But he senses that a piece is missing. Hoping to be an artist and possessing the technical skills, Puller is nonetheless void of vision. He works as a carpenter, an occupation with little ambivalence and, safely, little need for introspection. But one day at work, a violent and fatal accident impels in him a formidable artistic insight that he urgently needs to express. Standing between him and fulfillment, however, is his Vietnam past.
Living in rural East Texas, caretakers of an antebellum plantation, the Hobbs family are surrounded by and caught up in a century and a half of racial inequities that Puller, having fought beside men of all colors, cannot condone. A close friendship with their black neighbors becomes a foreground for his first real work of art. But through this work, a voice – a persona – from the past reaches out and, frightened, Puller confronts a psychological trauma that had never healed. The scar had merely been plastered over, in the fashion of many combat veterans, when Puller had patched together his post-war sanity. Now he must face a terrible possibility: an essential part of himself may be irrevocably lost.
His role as father and husband both eases and complicates Puller’s quest. One day he finds a tangible war memento, a child’s embroidered jacket bearing the words: Chu Lai, Vietnam. The jacket is a talisman of a traumatic event that forced a sundering, a division, of his very psyche. It was the start of what he remembers fearfully as his madness, which he feels creeping up around him again. When Kelly, his six-year-old daughter, refuses to wear the jacket, Puller’s disappointment leads him to wonder just what sort of imagery the child bears of her father’s role in the war. What exactly did he do?
The journey into the darkness of his own past is his only route into a hopeful future. Without the love of family and friends, he fears he will be hopelessly lost. The Chu Lai Jacket is a story of the sort of renewal that every combat veteran deserves to find.