The Grief of SoldiersThere was a full house in the Bowmer Theater in Ashland Oregon that Memorial Day Monday in May 2008. Those of us present will not forget what we were part of: a three hour long session of intimate poetry readings punctuated by the telling of ancient stories of war and loss by Michael Meade accompanied by the drum. The stage was empty except for four rows of folding chairs, some with water bottles already in place. We heard singing backstage; the participants all walked on together singing a chant, and continued singing as they stood in front of their assigned chairs. Some of us joined in. The soft lighting over the audience in the theater allowed our faces to be visible to those on stage.
(for context see note at end)
(for context see note at end)
The men and women I cast my eyes over had come together for several days to heal one another. They had all been touched deeply by war. Many were veterans of Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq; some dreadfully wounded, all scarred for life. Others on stage were family members of veterans; spouses who suffered nights of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) with their damaged lovers; parents of a youth seriously injured by an IED (improvised explosive device); sitting with their son who will forever mourn the death of two buddies that same terrible day.
A young woman calmly read her poems describing, in the same precise manner a devoted gardener might talk about flowers in her garden, how the body of a suicide bomber had been transformed to kitchen waste, mixing feces, flesh and blood into a mush that spread over everything. She told a shocked audience she would soon be redeployed to active duty in Iraq. In another poem, this small blond woman, manning the big machine gun in the turret, shared with us a moment when a handgun stuck out a window threatened her life. Her heart is beating furiously as she pivots, squinting through her gun sight at the body behind the arm and hand — but she leaves to our imagination whether her trigger finger paused long enough to spare the life of the six-year-old boy she barely made out in the dark of the window?
A young male veteran stood up and before reading his poem announced, “This war in Iraq is a war against the United States.” A Captain’s poem spoke of the way he was brought up by his dad a soldier too; honor, duty, and love of country — family values handed down. These same values sustained him as first his knees were blown away and later his back smashed in a helicopter crash. “As an officer” a phrase he repeated, he said he felt responsible; so he returned to duty even in pain to shoulder his burden. He told me later, anyone who knows about war and isn’t against all wars, needs to have his head examined. Only then I realized his words about honor, duty and love of country remained the armature that sustained him through such madness that mangled bodies like his, and twisted minds, and robbed the sleep of survivors and their sweethearts. That same man, that officer, who massaged his painful knees as he sat listening, and whose father had been a soldier before him, read another poem about his horror at learning of his own son’s enlistment — following in his footsteps — No, No; and how he tried in vain to interrupt the process by calling the recruiter; and how his son later had gone AWOL (at last he’d seen the light we guess) and thus “died” to his heartbroken father who now feels betrayed by the same son he so wanted spared.
A beautiful young Iraq war veteran’s first poem told of having to say goodbye to her five year old daughter who couldn’t understand why mummy had to go to war. This attractive feminine woman spoke of cutting her hair short to look less female. Her poem spoke of the taunts of fellow soldiers after she cut her hair “Hey, what are you a boy or a girl?” “Must I speak loudly, use cuss words,” she asked “and drink and tell dirty jokes to prove I’m one of the boys?” But, she admitted, the Marine Drill Sergeant found a special way of reminding her she was a woman, leading to an unwanted pregnancy and abortion.
A mother’s poem told how her son, half his head and one eye blown away, had cried out for her, when she and her husband went to Karlsruhe in Germany to bring him home, “Mom help me!” After nursing him back to health, her last poem spoke to her feelings for legions of wounded boys crying out “Be our Mom for god’s sake bring us home!” But now her son is well again she no longer has a job. She left her day job a year ago and can’t get it back. There’s no place left for her but a huge gaping hurt.
Her husband’s poem, father of Rory, told of flying home from Germany in the huge ambulance aircraft with many wounded vets in tiers of bunks, their son Rory in critical care, sedated heavily with a machine breathing him. No sense he would ever recover — the agony of it all. The father was shocked to see how many dreadfully wounded boys there were — the media hadn’t told him, the enormity of it all was hard to bear.
One Iraq veteran, who read a couple of poems during the evening, struck me right away as a good soldier. Once, I saw him snap to attention and salute. In his poem, in command of an escort vehicle on convoy or patrol, he barks out orders to deal with emergencies. His sober respect for the agony of war is obvious, his demeanor gives no hint of any other reality than steadfastly soldiering on. When he stood to read for a second time, this sergeant spoke warmly of his affinity for turtles, since he was a little boy.
The poem he then read told of an IED hitting a truck in his convoy. He barks out orders calling for medivac, there’s crossfire and down by the river all hell breaks loose. In the midst of chaos, the sergeant’s vigilant eye catches sight of a great turtle in the river of Babylon. Through the eyes of the serene turtle, time stands still. Suddenly, there is redemption as the ancient turtle observes the utter craziness of the uprights’ scene down by the river; the insane way they are killing and maiming each other for no good reason. And on stage we are witness to one of the uprights as he breaks away from the narrow confines of his camo uniform and ushers us all into the interconnected world through the eye of the turtle.
Toward the end a man spoke, a medic he said, who had prepared far too many bodies for shipment home. He couldn’t stop telling of how death had followed him around ever since Vietnam, he couldn’t escape it he said. Tale after tale he told of how he was haunted by death wherever he looked. On and on the grief stricken man went, until Michael took his elbow and gently reminded him to read his poem. The audience in the theater had listened. Clearly he had forgotten himself, and was carried away. But then haven’t we all forgotten ourselves? Haven’t we all been carried away? Have we all lost touch with the serene eye and wisdom of the turtle?
Note: “Voices of Veterans.” was a culmination of Bill McMillan and Kim Shelton’s Welcome Home Project. Participants from all over the country were invited to Buckhorn Springs retreat center outside Ashland for several days of healing through story, art, poetry and song with the help of a team including mytho-poetic storyteller Michael Meade and Sacred Theater’s Peg Rubin. A film will be made as a teaching tool by filmmaker Kim Shelton (A Great Wonder).