Monthly Archives: May 2013

Poems For Memorial Day

Nothing screams silent reflection to me like Memorial Day and Poetry.
My outstanding roommate and PTSD Survivor Daily resident Poet Laureate Melissa Parrish curated these wonderful Poems.
Martial Cadenza – Wallace Stevens
I
Only this evening I saw again low in the sky
The evening star, at the beginning of winter, the star
That in spring will crown every western horizon,
Again . . . as if it came back, as if life came back,
Not in a later son, a different daughter, another place,
But as if evening found us young, still young,
Still walking in a present of our own.
II
It was like sudden time in a world without time,
This world, this place, the street in which I was,
Without time: as that which is not has no time,
Is not, or is of what there was, is full
Of the silence before the armies, armies without
Either trumpets or drums, the commanders mute, the arms
On the ground, fixed fast in a profound defeat.
III
What had this star to do with the world it lit,
With the blank skies over England, over France
And above the German camps?  It looked apart.
Yet it is this that shall maintain–Itself
Is time, apart from any past, apart
From any future, the ever-living and being,
The ever-breathing and moving, the constant fire,
IV
The present close, the present realized,
Not the symbol but that for which the symbol stands,
The vivid thing in the air that never changes,
Though the air change.  Only this evening I saw it again,
At the beginning of winter, and I walked and talked
Again, and lived and was again, and breathed again
And moved again and flashed again, time flashed again.

 

Facing It

by Yusef Komunyakaa

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way–the stone lets me go.
I turn that way–I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

From Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa. Copyright © 1988 by Yusef Komunyakaa.

SGT Jacob Simpson

Simpson_memorial2It has been 8 years since SGT Jacob Simpson, my friend, former crew member and Soldier died in Tal’Afar Iraq.  My memory is not so good anymore.  There is a murky haze around the details, so when I jump around in this post or if you remember it different, please forgive me.

When I first came home I would have described what I was doing in the third person.  It would have a deluge of Army specific terms like “avenue of approach” or  BOLO (Be On the LOokout).  I would describe these events tactically and clinically.  It is easy to summarize events, even events that are horrific, when you avoid the emotions.  As time has passed those terms are mothballed, but the feelings remain fresh.   I write about my feelings a bunch but I have never verbalized this day eight years ago until today.  It is too hard.

Up and Down

I was patrolling blocks away when “CONTACT” burst over the radio.  That word, in that intonation, spikes your adrenaline.  If you are outside the wire, it means FIGHT.  If you are not near the fight, it means GO TO THE FIGHT.

It seemed like only moments before that high turned into a pit of despair.  The highs and lows always seem to still affect me.  This and other events linger as reasons.  The voice on the radio, alarmed and excited seconds before reported to us with the solemn words that dropped us all:

“He’s dead.  Simpson’s dead.”

F##################CK!!!!

Why?  Where? What?

The updates rolled in and my troop deflated.  The enemy disappeared back into the population.  The attack was so quick our response bore no gains.

We were providing security for Iraqi’s trying to receive treatment at the local hospital.  There were gruesome reports of mistreatment along sectarian lines.  Our presence stabilized a city resource and brought relative normalcy to a town where the mayor’s son was killed and booby trapped not months before.

None of that sh!t mattered now.

Memorial

The next few days are a blur.  I remember wanting to cry at the hero flight but being so Angry that I wouldn’t.  That rage fueled us all for a while, but these days, mine has given way more to sorrow.  A Bradley Fighting Vehicle brought his body back to camp. As the track plodded along slowly towards the tarmac the reality set in.  Our Troopers bravely escorted him into the plane painting an all too familiar picture of a Soldier draped in a flag en route to his final resting place.

My Commander and First Sergeant had the impossible task of eulogizing Jacob at the farewell ceremony.  They nailed it.   The images of boots, rifle, bayonet, Stetson and dog tags still give me pause.  We crossed in front of it, gave our last salute, gently touched the dog tags and walked away hoping that those ritualized acts could seal the wound.  They didn’t.

The day after the attack I remember talking with our Regimental Commander and telling him the good stories about Simpson.   There were only good stories about Simpson.

This is what I remember.

I met Specialist Jacob Simpson the first day I arrived at my troop.  I had a different Combat patch (4ID), a Combat Infantry Badge and a screaming high and tight haircut.  I didn’t look, smell or act like a scout and Jacob could see that so he started pinging me with questions.  He had the look of a squared away Soldier and was extremely attentive to my replies, so I immediately took note and liked him.

I had the further good fortune of getting Jacob on loan during gunnery before our deployment.  Even though he was not officially assigned, he took his job with a seriousness that impressed me.  It would have been easy to slack off or do the minimum.  He did the opposite.

We had jumped around but settled outside of the dry fire range one day.  We had all of our crap just strewn in the back and it was annoying him.  He wasn’t able to do his job as well, so he took out a wrench and started mounting straps on the outside of the track.  Then he hung our stuff out there.  He didn’t do it to win points, he did it so he was able to do his job better.  He took initiative and just did it.  Moreover, he did it with a smile.  A little rock n roll on the radio, a little sun on his face and this Specialist was happy to contribute in any way.

When it was our turn to shoot our Gunnery, he put us in a position to excel by counting rounds and keeping track of the firing scenarios.  We could come in second in our Troop in large part from the teamwork he helped foster.

When he earned his Stripes I saw the pride and determination enter his face.  Ready or not he displayed what all of our great NCO’s showed us before and during that deployment: the NCO corps is the backbone of the Army.  He was a professional and wanted to earn the respect of his peers, superiors and subordinates alike.  He had great tough NCO’s above him and while the learning curve was steep, he rose to the occasion.

When the Troop shuffled the roster and he received his team members he continued the excitement and initiative that I witnessed months earlier.  They followed him around and knew he was the big brother type the was going to show them the ropes.  He moved with urgency and when he got excited he would stand on his tip toes.

He wanted to go to Selection for the Special Forces.  I had a number of friends that completed selection and I had been through a few other schools, so if he ever caught me with down time he peppered me with questions.  I was happy to answer.  I knew with time and more experience he would be a fine SF Soldier.

He was taken this day eight years ago.   He was taken too soon.  He died in service to this nation defending the defenseless.

As my commander eloquently pointed out at his eulogy, he is a hero and we will always miss him.

Until we meet again my friend.

The Safe Story and PTSD

watermelonIf I am in a new group or environment and the topic of the Iraq war comes around I always keep my safe stories handy.  If you are a Veteran, you know the type: anecdotal humor and aimed at the lighter side of war.  Some have more meaningful undertones than others, but those few safe stories that can break the ice and divert the conversation to mundane questions are invaluable for a readjusting Vet. (For the record: Yes, it is hot in Iraq.  Yes, it is a dry heat.  Yes, it still sucks.)

I highly recommend them, unless they become a crutch.

My Duty as a Soldier

I usually tell this story in the summer with friends at a BBQ.  It is my safe story.

When I was a little more than half way through my second trip, my commander took mid-tour leave and I assumed command.

One of the more bizarre crises that developed arose from some Extra Soldiers who were shacking up on our camp and did not fully understand their environment.

We had an excellent perch atop a grain silo on the camp we controlled.  The line of site stretched well across the city and it was adjacent to a Shia enclave that appreciated our presence.  With thermal optics we could easily see a dog taking a crap a mile away.

The Shias in the town had been on the receiving end of some vicious attacks with car bombs and snipers.  As such, they formed a heavily armed militia and barricaded their part of town.

The Extra Soldiers utilizing our facility were in a Sniper nest way up on the grain silo.  I don’t know what their mindset was, or if they had been properly briefed.  I kind of just assumed by rank and experience they knew where who were the good guys and bad guys.  Bad assumption.

On a particularly hot afternoon, the Sniper team saw one of the militia raise a weapon seemingly aimed at a helicopter.  Using a suppressed weapon, they shot him dead.

It must have been terrifying for the other militia men with the boy because he received a number of rounds in rapid succession from what must have seemed like out of nowhere.  One minute screwing off on “guard duty”, the next minute full of bullets and dead.

I was on patrol at the time and not at the silo.  One of my Lieutenants called higher headquarters and briefed them on what happened.  The concerned Shia group came over and inquired if we had killed one of their militia.

My Lieutenant, obviously having a slight lapse in upholding the Army values, told them the enemy must have done it.  I wish I could have seen the instant he realized what a mistake that lie was.

As the words dribbled out of his mouth and through an interpreter, the Shia group immediately leapt into action.  Cell phones started ringing across their compound. Someone was going pay Death Squad style.  They were going to drive across town and f#ck some Sunni’s up.

My First Sergeant called me on the radio and requested I come back as an issue was brewing that required my attention.  He didn’t want to discuss it over the radio.

“Great.” I thought.  Radio discipline generally meant something messy.

I returned to camp and talked to my Lieutenant.  I don’t remember the exact conversation we had that well, but I am pretty sure “What the f#ck ever possessed you to think this was a good idea?” came out in some way shape or form.

The Sheik of the Shia group was a gnarly old leathery dude who looked like Splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  He was a wily old man who knew how to play the US forces like a skilled musician.

The plan I scratched out in my mind was simple: I had to get to him fast, tell him the truth, and hope to avoid sectarian violence or blood revenge against US forces.  The heat of the day was passed, but it was still well over 100 degrees.

My crew and I mounted up mounted up.  In a single Bradley, I took our senior interpreter, my Bradley crew and a Radio Telephone Operator and drove into their compound.

The hive was busy getting weapons loaded into cars.   Men of all ages carrying RPGs, AK’s and bandoliers scurried about preparing for a fight.  Everyone looked serious and pissed off.

As the ramp lowered and our interpreter and I looked around, we knew this was not going to be easy.

Quick Aside

I am one of the apparently few Americans who despises Watermelon.  Taste, texture, and smell all make me nauseous. I wont even go near artificial shit. No lollipops for me.  No sir.  Please consider that while I finish this story out. 

Did I mention the heat earlier?  Oh yeah, the heat, a crammed stuffy room full of pissed off Iraqis, me and my interpreter.  One solitary fan twirled overhead that provided the equivalent effect of pissing on a 20 acre forest fire.

The Sheik’s lieutenants were all in the room with us.  They knew that if I was there under these circumstances it was strictly business.  I had to make them understand the gravity, so after a few minutes, I took off my armor and asked the Sheik to kick everyone out of the room.

He was a little surprised, but did as I asked.  I was trying to tread carefully to courtesies and customs.  I was delivering bad news, I did not want to make it worse.

Once everyone was out of the room, the Sheik decided it was time to eat.

You can see where this is going, right?

From another room a small boy with a large metal bowl walked into our meeting.  The contents of the bowl contained an obscene amount of the Iraqi equivalent of watermelon.

As boy placed the bowl in between the Sheik and I, the Sheik reached down with his gnarly hand into the warm bowl, picked up a slimy piece of the vile watermelon and held it out.

I looked at my interpreter and asked “What do I do?”  He knew the customs and he simply said, “You eat it.  You don’t want to offend him.”

I glared at the interpreter and said “You don’t understand, I can’t eat this.”

He just smiled.

So with that, I reached out, took the fruit and raised it to my mouth. I made an over exaggerated “Mmmmm” sound as I choked back vomit.

Then, I held that sweaty piece of melon and explained to the Sheik that we had actually killed his family member.  The Lieutenant was mistaken and we were to blame.  There was no need to go across town.  The Sunni’s were not responsible for this one.

He thanked me for being honest.  I thanked him for telling his men to stand down.  We worked out another meeting to discuss a reparation payment for his family member.

I left the smoldering watermelon on the seat.  We mounted back up and I went back to base swearing off watermelon for the rest of my days.

Unsafe Stories

I have told that story without crying for years.  It is safe. It doesn’t involve much death or gore or stress.  It is mildly comedic.  I used to tell it to avoid the deeper emotional scars of Iraq.

A few weeks ago I spoke with a man I consider a friend at length about my time in Iraq.  It has been years since I was there and yet when we talked the emotion of dealing with loss in Iraq it made me weep.  I could have told him the watermelon story cold, but that would be equivocal or dishonest.  He asked hard questions and I tried my best to answer.

In one instance he asked me about the first time I lost a Soldier.

Ironically, next week marks seven years since we lost SGT Jacob Simpson.  I still cannot talk about him or that day.  I still think of him.  I still mourn him.  I cried when I tried to tell my friend about the loss.

One of the many realizations I have had over the past few weeks is that this is my new normal.  I don’t think I will ever fully get over losing him.  He is woven into me and in some ways I carry on because of him.  I do not take for granted my gift of life.   Though some days are harder than others, I remind myself that a piece of him is with me and it is my duty to preserve and honor his memory.

I can rationalize all of this, yet I choke up when I try to articulate with the spoken word how he was a tremendous Soldier.   I cannot help but weep at the crater of loss he left.  I have dozens of more stories where the grief of loss ties me up.

These are my unsafe stories.  They stir emotion and are hard to get through.  I made it a goal a while back to cry less and talk more, especially when caught off guard.  It is a work in progress, and I have a feeling will be like that for a while.  But, the unsafe stories are where the real healing takes place.  If you don’t have an unsafe story, I recommend you find someone, and get started.