An excerpt from “Words on a Wall,” a work of fiction by Rod Merkley that will be featured in the The Blue Falcon Review this November:
Dust, sweat, and blood are the three things I remember from that day. I squint through the grimy burn of sweat and dust in my eyes. I taste the saltiness of my sweat on my lips. I feel the stickiness of my soldiers’ blood as it soaked through my fire resistant gloves asI tried to save their lives. I can taste their blood on my lips. I can smell their blood. Every time I see, taste, smell, or feel any of those three things, I return to the day I became a hero, the day I lost myself, the day I died.
When I return it’s like a crazy dream. I am in the back of my truck. I feel my body running to the side of my patient, Private First Class Sarah Behunnin. An explosion is coming, but I just keep working. Then everything goes black. I either awaken in the night or come out of my trance while teaching high school students. The last thing I told Behunnin was that she would be all right. I lied. Behunnin was beautiful in a pained way, tall and muscular like a college swimmer. I remember how she walked and talked as if she was going to break free someday. Then she was on the ground in front of me, screaming that she couldn’t feel her legs. Her body was destroyed by shrapnel and violence. That’s when I told her it would be okay. In an hour she was dead.
I’ve been told what happened next. My family talks about it. The army recorded it and asked me to read their record to verify that it was true. Everyone tells me how I became a hero, but I don’t remember it. They tell me that I covered Behunnin’s broken body after the second blast, that I returned fire when the enemy came at us, that I killed a 13-year–old “terrorist.” I’ve been told this many times but I don’t remember it. Sometimes I dream of the boy I killed but in my dreams his face seems too perfect. He looks like some innocent kid off of a National Geographic documentary, young and innocent and pure. In my dreams and my memories the boy I killed looked like one of students I taught back at the high school, not like an insurgent firing an AK-47 at me. Terrorists are supposed to be scary, violent men. They aren’t supposed to be like the kids I teach. I don’t think my memory of his face is real; I hope it’s not. But the memories are always with me. Sarah Behunnin. The boy I killed. Everything else about that day is a slur of blood, sweat, and dust.
I remember shielding Behunnin from the falling rubble after the second blast in Iraq. Then I woke up in Germany. I vaguely remember some officer in a pressed uniform smiling and pinning a Purple Heart and a Silver Star on my chest. My wife was there, too. I don’t remember seeing her; but I remember feeling her presence. They were reading the award citation that told my heroic story. To me it was series of disjointed sentences that mirrored the fragmented memories that make up how my war will always be remembered. “Risked his life to protect his patients.” “Returned fire while providing crucial care.” “Worked tirelessly for an hour until he collapsed from blood loss.” “Saved the lives of five Soldiers.” That citation is full of hollow praise. They talk about the five lives I supposedly saved but don’t mention the three that I didn’t. What I honestly know is that I’m not a hero. I’m a schoolteacher who was stupid enough to join the National Guard. I will pay for that mistake for the rest of my life. I live in small town Kansas and I’m the town hero. They never let me forget it, either. My father is the worst.
Among the many fine authors to be published in the inaugural volume of The Blue Falcon Review is Rod Merkley, an Army medic of ten years with service in both Iraq and Landstuhl, Germany. His story “Words on a Wall” will appear alongside more than a dozen other authors’ and deal with a medic grappling with the “hero” status assigned to him upon returning home from war.
When deciding which author to spotlight for the upcoming volume, Blue Falcon Review editor Daniel Buckman said Rod was an obvious choice: “Rod’s story best represents what we tried to accomplish in our workshop. He came to us with a basic idea, was open to revision, accepting of criticism, and grew as a writer.”
In a recent interview with MEA’s Katt Blackwell-Starnes, Rod discussed what led him to military fiction, the success that followed his participation in the 2012 Military Experience and the Arts Symposium, and how the online workshop led by Blue Falcon Review editors Daniel Buckman and Jerad Alexander helped him take his writing to the next level.
Rod, like many military authors, was initially drawn to writing because of its therapeutic benefits: “I’ve always written about the things I’m doing. I find it to be relaxing.”
When he attended the 2012 MEA Symposium, however, Rod got the chance to share his work with a wider audience. He was introduced the founder of the Veterans Writing Project, Ron Capps, a 25-year veteran responsible for groundbreaking work that facilitates writing workshops for veterans at Walter Reed.
At the symposium Capps lectured about these efforts and led two classes: “Your New Life as a Writer” and “More than Words: Making Dialogue Work.” Capps encouraged Rod to submit work to O-Dark-Thirty, the Veterans Writing Project’s literary publication. Eventually, these interactions led to the publication of “Walk Until You Sleep.”
Rod’s short story immediately attracted attention, and Time Magazine’s Jeff Stein claims it “makes a strong case that our latest generation of wounded warriors may yet produce another Hemingway.”
Rod didn’t stop writing after this initial success. He joined an online workshop conducted by the staff of The Blue Falcon Review, one Rod claims was “more thorough and collaborative” than past workshops he’d participated in. He knew he had a good grasp on creating “strong characters” going into it, “but not the backstory, not what motivates the character.” By working with experienced authors like Buckman and Alexander, Rod was able to hone these skills and get feedback on every stage of the writing process.
Clearly, Rod’s work and growth as a writer is an example of what we try to accomplish at Military Experience and the Arts. If you are a veteran with a story to tell and want help getting it onto paper, we can help. At the moment, our staff of close to three dozen educators, professional writers, and veterans’ advocates is working on the publication of nearly two-hundred original works of fiction, non-fiction, scholarship, art, and poetry by members of military communities throughout the world.
Rod’s advice to beginning writers is simple: “Start writing whether you think you’re good at it or not.”
Rod Merkley spent over ten years as a medic in the Army Reserves. During that time he was mobilized for two years to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and deployed once to Iraq. He is currently studying clinical psychology as a 2LT in the Army Health Professions Scholarship Program and plans on serving as a psychologist in the Army after graduation. He writes short fiction and non-fiction about both his experiences in the Army and the psychological impact of war on the young men and women who fight it.