The Photo on My Parent’s Entertainment Center
A rust-toned semblance of me
costumed in Hollywood battle rattle
stands before the stars and stripes
backdrop we all know
from elementary school.
I borrowed a SAW-249 machine gun
because they are sinister
and beefed up my chest.
My M-16 rifle, shoulder-slung
like a broad sword,
compliments a bayonet
from a loop on my flak vest.
A grenade pouch filled
with either gauze or toilet paper
is the bulge alongside my gas mask;
a belt of ammunition hangs
a python around my neck.
On the floor, detonator wires
from a plastic claymore mine
tangle in a thorny mess
alongside my helmet, an improvised
footstool for my clunky desert boot.
My vacant gaze aims
at some forgotten profundity
hovering in the ozone,
as I mimic a George Washington pose.
Or maybe I'm the statue David
dressed up for trick or treating.
How I should have smiled like a clown
before that Iraqi merchant's camera—
or sent that shot to the burn barrel.
But off it went to quiet Mom's nagging
for a look at me in desert uniform,
her wanting to see
the pride of war.
To my Grandma,
aunts and cousins
old teachers and the preacher
mom passed it out like a country mailman.
And I haven't the heart nor guts to tell.
Why I Answered the Call for Veterans to Go to Standing Rock
At Standing Rock, for the first time, I felt like I was finally serving the people.
I lay among friends, huddled and cold in our sleeping bags. We listened to the lashing wind and the drums and prayer chants coming from the sacred fire, and we reflected on why we, four Iraq War veterans, were here.
Police floodlights shone from the drill site of the Dakota Access Pipeline, scheduled to cross under the Missouri River, the water source for millions of people.
Members of the Standing Rock Sioux, concerned not only about polluted water but also the desecration of sacred sites, began resisting the pipeline in 2014. In mid-2016, finally, these water protectors gained major support.
Over 200 tribal nations pledged solidarity. Thousands of non-natives traveled to North Dakota to stand on the front lines. Then, as images of police violence against protectors got increasingly disturbing, some 4,000 veterans — including me — joined the resistance in early December.
Why had so many veterans taken up the cause of the Native Americans and environmentalists at Standing Rock?
My own reasons are rooted in western Pennsylvania’s coal country, where I grew up. There, I rode my bicycle on trails crossing abandoned strip mines. Bulldozers had left precarious shale formations and streams ran orange with iron runoff.
When a sanitation corporation threatened to open a landfill at a reclaimed mine near homes in our community, residents finally resisted. At age 15, I joined the fight to stop the dump, gaining a deeper appreciation for the wildlife — and water — of my region. Good jobs are scarce in my hometown, so military service is something nearly every boy — and now girl — considers. My grandfathers both served, along with several uncles.
Back home, the military is sacrosanct. But I wasn’t especially proud of my five years in the Army, two of which were spent in Iraq.
My job as a radar operator, like so many military specializations, got privatized, so I found myself tasked out for other duties. I guarded poor Iraqis while they filled thousands of sandbags for the contractor Kellogg, Brown, and Root, only to see those sandbags rot in the sun as they sat unused.
I also loaded caskets onto cargo planes — an image often hidden from the American public. And I escorted high-ranking officers on unnecessary trouble-provoking missions (how else could one earn the Combat Infantry Badge?).
Like many post-9/11 veterans, I left the military seeking redemption. Perhaps that’s why, after I saw those images of police violence against water protectors, I went to Standing Rock.
There, instead of helping military contractors make money, I felt like I was finally serving the people.
While we were there, on December 4, the Army Corps of Engineers finally denied the pipeline company its permit to drill under the river. Police pulled back, and the water protectors celebrated.
The indigenous community had worked months for this ruling. They sacrificed the most. But I like to think the result was also influenced by the prospect of police tear-gassing and firing rubber bullets at unarmed veterans.
A ceremony followed where Wesley Clark Jr., key organizer of the Veterans Stand for Standing Rock campaign, offered an apology to Native Americans on behalf of the military, citing decades of broken treaties and violence. Five hundred of us went to our knees.
I hope to participate in a forgiveness ceremony one day in Iraq, in the spirit of Standing Rock.
It all ends here:
The doors part
and I walk into the dull
of a parking garage
dripping with rain water,
acres of concrete,
late night humidity.
I cannot cry.
Like a tired hitchhiker,
I bear my duffel’s burden
and consider my presentation:
posture as a soldier,
love like a son.
You can read a person
in his eyes alone
my drill sergeant said.
The stress, the hungry void,
the breaking point—it’s present,
the weight now carried
in all the wrong places.
My father, one year later,
a carpenter’s muscles
fallen to an old man’s paunch,
my mom’s eyes
crow’s feet and quiet desperation.
They watch me approach,
two seniors on a blind date
posing for the prom.
The Noise Remains
Sunlight reflecting off a stainless steel coffee maker
forms a howitzer round
on the refreshments table at the university job fair,
where I try to convince myself
a nine to five is the purpose of my life.
The zip-tie holding up the muffler on my neighbor’s Suburban
reminds me of blaze orange detainees,
their wrists bound, heads sandbagged
and slouched in shameful prayer.
A Lysol-clean classroom tastes like the Dental Corps tent
where I “manned up” for a root canal
because they don’t give Novocain in the combat zone,
not to soldiers, not to kids.
Can you hear the chalice drums,
louder than cannon fire,
the beat of five hundred thousand dead hearts?
I enlisted for an honorable crime
to erase a felony from my record.
I pointed my rifle like a rich man’s cane
to direct Iraqi teens mixing concrete,
slaves constructing a perimeter
to block mortars shot from the dusty fields
of their fathers.
Teeth fell from the mouths of those curious boys
who got in the way, who reached out
to touch Kevlar skin, coarse hands–
and the same thing now happens to me
when I open my mouth to speak,
standing naked and bone thin
before an audience of ghosts
in the worst dream of all
this is who I am,
who we‘ve become.
is not my name.
David Petraeus spits in my face
when he writes “How We Won in Iraq.”
Did George W. Bush
My story is my own,
and it ends in loss.
Like a gunshot in a basement,
the remains of a thousand explosions shout
(buzz through my skull)
the moral of these words.
And what remains is a burning whisper:
to enjoy myself
is to forget our routines
are held together
by fragile agreements
tested and broken in war.
Wake Up Call
Six days before Sergeant Justin Crossnew’s
came to say
in the barracks
had been cut down
from the third story
where he had double–
around his neck
and let himself hang
for the whole world to see.