Toby Hartbarger

Ten Years Gone

Ten years gone, 19 years old and naive
back flat against red Georgia clay-dirt
which wicks the sweat from my Army P.T. shirt
legs at roughly a 45 degree angle from the ground
hands to my sides, or tucked beneath my back
to protect a sore that had formed over my tailbone
teeth clenched and lightly caked with dust
eyes shut tight to avoid the relentless southern sun
and the frequent streams of sweat that run down my face
into a pool forming at the base of my neck
mind still full of the bullshit one believes
prior to knowing much of anything
unaware that by nine years gone
a different soil would claim my water

Nine years gone, 20 years old and a bigot
seated on the gunner’s strap of a soft-skinned HMMWV
in Baghdad Iraq, the air apparent
radiating off buff colored buildings and yellowed Mercedes
fenders, quarter panels, and doors painted odd colors
or as often, simply removed
my whole world seemed caked with dust
fearful gaze fixed fast on anything and everything but
frequent streams of five-five-six could make me scream
fuck no, I’m not afraid!
mind so full of the hatred one acquires
following fear and death and failure
praying that by eight years gone
a different soil might claim my water

Eight years gone, 21 years old and tired
lead foot flat against that Chevrolet floorboard
attempting to feel something worthwhile
something but the numbness and the nothing, just this nothing
and the thought that all of life’s pleasures and pains
may rightfully be retained from someone like me
ever recollecting how heinous I could be
knowing of a part of me I’d rather not have seen so
frequent dreams of who I’d been came crashing back at me
and into the hollow forming at the core of me
mind now full of the resentment one compounds
following loss without grief or healing
without concern for “life goes on”
that the earth continues to claim our water

My younger years gone, years older, still alive
feet feeling the sand, wading into warm water
fishing pole over my shoulder on a lake in fair Michigan
wind at my back, sweet scent of honeysuckle
my line flies fine, shot fired with great accuracy
the tug and the feel of the lure as I reel, heals me
eyes silently searching for the eddies and stills
for my next opportunity
I frequent streams, the calm it brings makes me sing
fuck no, I’m not afraid
mind now equipped with the wisdom one acquires
having survived the times that try you
with the utmost concern that life should go on
that the earth may continue to cleanse with her water


The first time I wore my uniform it did not fit
seams still untested
fibers fell which way they pleased
filled out with naivety and a new sense of association
you must wear it right to make it fit
wear it and sweat
until your salt saturates its fibers
while fear flows from every pore
wear it and weep
rasp and gasp for breath
remain in it after the child in you flees
bleed in it, maybe die in it
in which case your cold corpse will fit so snuggly
wear it right and it will fit
salt of your body
blood of your sisters and brothers
may it never fit another


gone is the will to be poetic
to try and take those moments in time
and translate them into sounds
that make memories materialize for you and me
to try and convey what it’s like
to fear for your life for a year and some change
so much so that you forget it’s fear
and it becomes an anchor

I’ve tried to put into words what it’s like
to inhale filth and death with every breath
to want to purge until nothing’s left
and explain how first volleys of 21 gun salutes
make strong solders sob like children
gone is the will to make things make sense
for forgiving fools with their good intentions
convincing the country to come to attention
for repeating deeds that should never be mentioned

So... how was it... did you kill anyone...
I’m done


Dedication is a brown stain
on the back of your PT1 shorts
moving down your
one mile no sweat, two miles oh shit
Dedication is a foul scent
in your only pair of running shoes
damn, it’s in your insoles
three miles give it hell, four miles might as well
Dedication is a mother fucker
never will the jokes end
shitted on the spirit run

1Physical Training

Morning Dies

Absurd mock men
Content in their suppressed gray garb
Suppressed in their minds
What an obscure picture of free will
Smug, big business
Fat on the souls
of the less fortunate
Wealthy grotesque, oblivious
Atrocities of epic nature
Now on your evening news
Commander in chief
A comical thief
A world filled with grief
And the blood flows freely
all through the middle east
There's blood in his oil
and blood in his smile
He keeps on smiling
all the while
cold masses of dying men
crying women
litter our streets
we must feed the war machine
While he keeps on
lying, prying, buying for time
Oh good people rise
wipe his lies
from your ears and eyes
realize, as morning dies
hear our cries
let truth not find the wayside

The Prayer

Morning brings liquid gold beams dancing through shades
They appear dull and melancholy behind jaded eyes
Her life is wasted on the day-to-day
Slowly, mechanically she kneels down to pray
She praises her god for the sun's shining rays
She thanks him again for a husband who stays
At work for long hours so bills will be paid
She thanks him for Jesus who died on the cross
Expresses her sorrow for his infinite loss
She plays for her daughter, the little whore
Help me be meek she humbly implores
It's well understand that life is a chore
She prays for the president, a good christian man
She knows he is busy out conquering lands
She knows that God is behind all his plans
Behind all the soldiers who die in the sand
The youth of America's blood on his hands
In closing she thanks him for all he has done
And thanks him again for the gift of his son
She'll look down n sinners, unworthy things
With God up in heaven and immaculate wings
A world that exists in only her dreams
As the end of her life came into sight
And all of her days faded to night
She sadly informed me that my life was no good
It saddened me deeply, I knew that it would
I wish that she would have lived while she could


sometimes the streets
seem the same as over there
sometimes the threat
is everywhere
sometimes I'm here
but I've forgotten where
sometimes I forget
to feel or even care
sometimes it's quite clear
that I died over there

On Death (Frequent Thoughts)

Time please grant me solace, in this slender life I mime
Life's a tendon strung taut, another senseless rhyme
On what note will that string snap back, and reverberate my dying
How will the song be played out, and sung while earthworms dine
So lower my body down down, into the sweet chill ground
I've thought in life and of death, but which is more profound
Can you feel life flowing, as if through open wounds?
Like a cold wind blowing slowly, throughout your dying rooms
Like staring sharply forward, while life and death commune
Or sleeping through the morning, and wasting afternoons
So plant my broken body, into the sweet chill ground
Will I still feel your sorrow, when my corpse is six feet down?
Sing for me a new song, to represent the years
That's what my life should sound like, to family friends and peers
A strange new hymn that's sadly, familiar to your ears
One that I hope reminds you, of a laugh, or curse, or tears
So lay my cold frail body, into the sweet chill ground
And bring a rose or trinket, next time you come around
In death harsh winds and hatred, are well beyond your reach
There are no more wretched lessons, for love and life to teach
Not one more selfish sermon, for the frightened ones to preach
To tell you that some heaven, is a darker grey for each
So don't lay me down down, into that sweet chill ground
Till I've bled the very last drop, from every friend around
Life is not but memories that no amount could buy
Times that make you want to, laugh or curse or cry
When my life is flashing, before my very eyes
I want that it should take a lifetime passing by.

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Toby Hartbarger

I joined the Army in high school. Within a year of graduating from high school I was choking down sand in the desert in Iraq. I served one 15-month tour in Najaf, Sadr City, Baghdad, Fallujah, and Al Kut. I was trained as an Infantry Mortarman but served in Iraq as a scout. The major turning point for me, the moment that made me say "I'm not going to just try and forget this," was when a 1st sergeant handed me an ammo can of 240 rounds - the same blood-stained 240 rounds that my best friend had been using when he was shot and killed in an ambush. He was on a patrol that he wasn't supposed to be on; he was killed one day after the date we were told we were going to be back home.

I keep thinking back to a people who are suffering, starving, and dying for corporate profit. I think about a seven-year-old Iraqi child standing in a foot of sewage holding out his hand for anything that I can give him. I think about the cries of "no water, no electricity" as I drove down the streets of Baghdad.

Is it possible to not mind the 240 that I have aimed at your children?
Never mind the fear, and propaganda, and cameras, and mics that are aimed at you;
never mind the homeless in the streets; nevermind the decline of the middle class;
never mind the decline of the lower class. Life would be so nice if I didn't mind.

I am currently studying Biology as an undergraduate at the University of the Sciences Philadelphia. I draw, paint, photoraph and write; my work is published in After Action Review and Warrior Writers Fourth Anthology.