Kevin Basl

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
un-tactically hung
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.

Reunion Dance

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 confess.
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.

Jessica Lynch
is not my name.
David Petraeus spits in my face
when he writes “How We Won in Iraq.”
Did George W. Bush
really happen?

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)
drowning out
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
fifth deployment
our chaplain
came to say
no morning
and remain
in the barracks
until our
squad leader
had been cut down
from the third story
fire escape
where he had double–
wrapped paracord
around his neck
and let himself hang
for the whole world to see.

Puppet Show

Combat Paper

The Noise Remains

Midnight Cargo

Reunion Dance

The Photo on My Parent’s Entertainment Center

No Water at a Rest Stop Along the PA Turnpike

Foreshadowing (Pre-Korean War, 1952) ©Kevin Basl

Combat Paper helped me muster the nerve to ask Grandpa, blue collar stoic of the Silent Generation, for an interview. On a frigid December afternoon in 2014, at my grandparents’ Pennsylvania farmhouse, he told me about fighting in the Korean War. He talked about receiving his army draft notification, carpooling with friends to basic training, and meeting kids from all over the U.S. on an exciting, but nauseating, ship-ride across the Pacific. He described the way a mortar whistles when it flies too close. He talked about Private French, shell-shocked in the “swamp bunker.” He talked about encountering a field of Chinese soldiers lying frozen and snow-covered in horrid, contorted poses. He turned attention to his injured leg, The Limp, the proverbial elephant at so many family reunions (he couldn’t remember the shrapnel hitting him, only coming-to on the battlefield while four medics were rushing him away). This was a disturbing conversation―harrowing image upon harrowing image. When he finished, I asked if he had any uniforms up in the attic (Yes, of course). I asked if I could “borrow” one for papermaking (Sure, why not). 100% cotton. It produced fine tan-colored, smooth sheets. On them, I silk-screened a handsome photo of Grandpa lying in a field at basic training, at Fort Indian Town Gap, Pennsylvania. “Well, how about that,” he said, when I handed him the print. “I looked good in 1952.” When Grandpa died just a month later, I displayed his paper on an easel beside his casket, shared bits of his story with anyone at the funeral who would listen.    – Excerpt from This Is not a Military Uniform: An Essay about Combat Paper (2020) by Kevin Basl

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Kevin Basl

After leaving the Army in 2008, I returned to school to study literature and philosophy at West Chester University, just outside Philadelphia. I thought my two deployments to Iraq as a mobile radar operator would make the challenges of college pale in comparison (especially considering the electronics the Army had issued me didn’t work half the time), that the real-world experience I had gotten would give me a leg up. But instead of confidence I got anxiety: how was I supposed to sum up two deployments in a few sentences? How could I explain what it was like to load metal boxes containing the remains of soldiers onto a plane at night in the desert? I stopped telling people I had been in the military.

It wouldn’t be until my MFA program at Temple University that I would start to share my past (mostly because I had to—I was turning in war stories almost exclusively for my fiction workshops). Still, I was writing in the third person, allowing the question to hang: had this really happened to him, or is this imagination? I wouldn’t begin to write poetry—using the craft to directly unpack my military experiences object by object, emotion by emotion—until being introduced to Warrior Writers in 2012. Now, sharing my stories publicly seems almost second nature.

On top of being a writing workshop facilitator, I also teach hand papermaking with the Combat Paper NJ team. Both organizations often work together, the creative processes overlapping and enhancing one another, writing to help produce better visual art and vice versa. At the end of 2014, this collaborative spirit inspired me to (finally) do a project with my grandfather, a silent-type Korean War veteran: I would first interview him about his experience getting gravely injured in that war (in a writing workshop sort of format), then, with his permission, bind his story into a book handmade from the paper produced from one of his Army uniforms. While the book has not yet been completed as of April 2015, I have finished a silkscreen print based on an old wallet photo taken during his basic training, a project I hadn’t originally planned to do. Two weeks after I gave it to him, in January 2015, he passed away.

Music has also been a longtime artistic pursuit of mine. I passed time in Iraq playing guitar. While there in 2008, I began to write and record songs in a storage closet next to the radar control room where I worked the night shift, alone. Puppet Show, an album made out of frustration and quiet dissent, wouldn’t get finished until almost seven years later, in 2015 (released as a CD in an edition of 300 silkscreened Combat Paper sleeves). My multi-track recorder and memory cards containing the music stayed in my closest all those years, with no plans to revisit the project. This album would have gotten buried if not for the inspiration and push from the veteran artists I met though Warrior Writers and Combat Paper (and my brother, Greg, who re-recorded all of the drum tracks. The original drums, recorded in Iraq on an electronic kit—a toy, really—sounded awful upon revisiting.) A free download of the album is available at my website.

Press by and about Kevin Basl:
"'The Iraq War turned me into an anti-war activist': US military veterans add their voices to MoMa PS1 protest " Arts & Culture
"Veteran Resist Deploying Art" Truthout
"Military Benefits Were Won Through Veterans Movements" Other Words
Resource Wars
Other Words Op-Ed
Northern Spirit Radio
This is Not War Story features Kevin Basl.     Film Review

Kevin Basl's blog:
Frontline Arts/Praxis in Color