Building Hope From Tragedy: The Naslund Story

“Yet we few pay such a heavy price in hopes that our
Efforts might keep children, now yet just little boys,
From having to decide their innocence and lust for life
may best be sacrificed”

-excerpt from “Once Again to Be a Little Boy” by Dillion Naslund

I read this poem over and over. Its twenty-three lines contain a message that’s chilling yet bright, sad but hopeful. It articulates the internal conflict between the pain of post-traumatic stress and the deeply felt honor of military service, speaking volumes about how we attempt to reconcile the weight of all that. But the story behind this poem and its author, infantry Sergeant Dillion Naslund, is one that’s haunting – and hopeful – as the poem itself.

It was written six months before he ended his own life.

Naslund1Dillion Naslund was a normal kid, says his mother, Lisa. He was an avid outdoorsman, gregarious, and action oriented. Being such a hard charger, it was little surprise to their family that when he decided to enlist in the military he chose the Army infantry. Dillion joined during high school and became a member of the Iowa National Guard’s 34th Infantry Division, The Red Bulls. The surprises came later. After deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, “we expected him to be different,” his mother said. “But there was no way to prepare for what would come.”

Naslund2Dillion changed after his second deployment. He was plagued by nightmares and flashbacks and was prone to bouts of depression and anxiety. He coped with alcohol. Although close with his family, he rarely talked about his experiences in combat. War had altered him dramatically. “So much was the opposite of what he was before.” In August 2012, alarm bells rang for the family when they learned that he was contemplating harming himself. They took him to the emergency room, and he was sent to a VA hospital for a time. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and began treatment. But the “beast” that was PTSD, and the magnitude of the battle he and his family had to face, was “too much, too big,” and came on “too fast.” The battle ended in his suicide in December 2012.

The Naslunds did their best to recover, grieving deeply and privately. But they were shocked and overwhelmed all over again when they learned that 22 veterans committed suicide every day. That’s when Lisa and her husband, Jeff, decided that they “had to do something to make a difference.” And they have in many ways.

dilliontitlecardBy sharing their experience, it was their hope to prevent the type of tragedy they knew all too well. Family friend and film-maker Tom Zwemke offered to help by creating a documentary film featuring Dillion’s story. Then they began reaching out to other families, like Howard and Jean Somers of California, who also lost their son to suicide. A letter of condolence from one mother to another led to collaboration on Operation Engage America, an organization that holds events devoted to raising awareness about the issues facing American veterans and providing education about the means to address them. The Naslunds launched a website that helps families and veterans alike navigate the bevy of resources available for help with PTSD.

It was the beginning of filming for the documentary that led to another surprise, that of a poem that surfaced written by their son: “Once Again to Be a Little Boy.”

Lisa says Dillion had “zero interest” in writing. So they were skeptical when his fellow soldier, Shannon, brought them a worn piece of paper containing the poem. Shannon told the family that Dillion had written it over the course of a long, problematic night spent at his house. They were amazed at the depth of the message it contained and came to learn much about their son’s frame of mind and the shape of the beast with which he was grappling. The more they read and thought about it, they came to believe something else:

“That poem, and him writing it, gave us more time with him.”

The Naslunds have made it their mission to give others time – and hope – any way they can. Their son’s death served as a way for his fellow soldiers to open up about their problems, knowing they weren’t alone. All across the country, people have contacted the family directly for help. They’ve made an impact in a broader sense as well. The Naslunds have saved many, many more through their significant contribution to raising awareness about PTSD and the veteran suicide epidemic.

The overall message they wish to convey is to reach out, communicate, and remain hopeful. “PTSD is not a death sentence…there is hope. If one thing doesn’t work, try another.” Getting help “starts with a conversation,” one that the Naslunds are fostering among families across the country.

The family’s latest surprise? Although “never a writer,” their son will be a published poet in As You Were: The Military Review, Vol. 2 in May 2015.


(contributed by David P. Ervin) 

The War is Over?

by Travis Switalski, Sr.

I have been told by my civilian friends on many occasions that I should relax because the war is over for me. They keep telling me to let go of the past and to get over it. They ask me what my problem is when I am distant, assuming I am safe and sound because I am thousands of miles away from my life in combat. A hot and angry feeling overwhelms me when someone suggests that I forget about my experiences and move on with my life. I have resisted the temptation to explain myself to them, to attempt to show them the difficulty – the impossibility – of forgetting. I know that any answer will fall short of comprehension. They just want the “old me” back. They just want me to forget, to go on as if the war never happened.

It doesn’t work that way though.


There is a lot that is not easily forgotten, so much so that a person is never the same after they have been to war. I have seen my friends, my soldiers, and my enemies take their last breaths. I have witnessed explosions so bright that the images were burned into my retinas. I have seen grown men cry for their mothers as their blood spewed onto the ground. I have seen heroism and cowardice, bravery and fear. I watched Improvised Explosive Devices shred metal and meat, burning my friends as they attempted to escape. I can close my eyes and see fierce fire fights with swarms of hot angry bullets flying through the sky. My ears still ring with the sounds of mortar impacts and air strikes. The metallic smell of blood will forever line my nose. Combat provided me with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. How could I forget that?

There was very little opportunity to mourn our dead friends and soldiers in combat. There were short memorial services for them. A helmet was placed on the butt-stock of a rifle adorned with the fallen soldiers’ dog tags, sad music played, kind words spoken. That is all. The fight continued. We were forced to steel our hearts against our own mortality and the mortality of our friends, summoning the willpower to resist the “flight” mechanism in our nature. The magnitude of losing friends and soldiers hit me much later than when I actually lost them. I grieve for them now because I could not then. How could I let them go?

I went outside the wire every day. Out there, everywhere we stepped – every corner, every building, every street, every door – was potentially lethal. I lived in a perpetual state of hyper-vigilance, on the lookout for myself and my soldiers. Watchfulness meant survival. You can’t just turn that off. There is no switch. There is no magic word. There is no pill that can dull it. And I have evolved as a result of it. I can sense danger that those around me cannot and I embrace its power. Why would I want to lose that?

I have fought the enemy. I have closed with and destroyed him on his terms in his backyard. I have run under fire to save a comrade. I have held a man while the light faded from his eyes as he died. I have saved lives as well as taken them. I have a keen sense of life’s fragility. I also know about hardship, and appreciate things like showers, sleep, and food, having gone without. I learned a great deal about myself and my limits while I was in combat. I learned these grim, hard truths in a place where life was extinguished regularly. Why would I want to unlearn those lessons?

It is over now, so they say. It is a nice sentiment that soldiers can just come home and leave the war and its demons behind. To think that experiences and memories can be forgotten, and that to be home is to be completely free of the nightmare of war, is unrealistic. I have tried in the past to forget about it all, to pretend that it did not happen and that it did not matter, that it was over. The truth is that I cannot forget, nor will I try. I will not forget what my friends and soldiers have sacrificed. To do so would be a disgrace to them. I choose not to forget so that these things I’ve done won’t be in vain. That time in my life has shaped who I am now. I have embraced it, and I hope those around me can, too. I have accepted that nothing about the war for me or for my comrades will ever be truly over. Nothing.


Words Make You More: Bibliotherapy and the Healing Power of Literature

by David Chrisinger

The commander’s words relieve their stricken hearts:
‘My comrades, hardly strangers to pain before now,
we all have weathered worse. Some god will grant us
an end to this as well [. . .] Call up your courage again. Dismiss your grief and fear.
A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this. [. . .]’
Brave words.
Sick with mounting cares he assumes a look of hope
and keeps his anguish buried in his heart.

The first book veteran Liam Corley read when he returned from Afghanistan was Virgil’s The Aeneid. 

“Truly a character worthy of contemplation by an American veteran,” Corley writes, “pious Aeneas embodies the nobility and brutality that became Rome. Virgil’s mournful epic of empire depicts Aeneas as a man whose gods were not worthy of him.”


Reading The Aeneid satisfied Corley’s thirst for understanding the changes he went through while in Afghanistan and served as a compass to the changes he experienced upon his return.

“Virgil’s art sustained hope that what was transpiring inside could one day be expressed,” Corley continued.

When one reads Virgil’s words closely, it’s not surprising that they resonated so clearly with Corley.

The lines quoted above come from Aeneas’s speech to his men after they had survived a horrible storm. He delivered the speech once he and his men had collapsed “into grief and trembling weakness.”


The speech struck Corley as a “particularly cogent expression” of the gap between “brave words” that must be said and unspeakable grief concealed beneath the surface.

Ultimately, according to Corley, “By composing himself before his comrades, Aeneas portrays the power of words to make us more than what we are, a gift that may console us — in part — for what we have become.”

“Since 2006,” writes Iraq War veteran Travis Martin, “I have undergone regular sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy and psychiatric treatment at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA provides me with techniques and medications that help take the edge off of my PTSD symptoms; their speech and pathology clinics have helped me deal with cognitive problems; and the compensation checks and educational stipends certainly make life less stressful.”

Still, Martin says, “my path to assimilation and healing did not begin until I began studying literature from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and wrote about what I experienced in war.”

This is how Martin came to learn about the restorative power of bibliotherapy, an expressive therapy that uses an individual’s relationship to the content of literature and other written works as a way heal from trauma.

Bibliotherapy has not only been shown to be effective in the treatment of depression, but the results have been shown to be long-lasting.

“As advocates of bibliotherapy point out,” writes Deborah Dysart-Gale, “the restorative and healing value of literature was known to Plato, the Romans and Benjamin Rush; spiritually and emotionally edifying literature has long provided readers with comfort and guidance.”

“Bibliotherapy has been identified,” she continues, “as an important area of medical research for several practical reasons as well: it is a form of alternative or traditional medicine; it has the potential to help patients who might not otherwise receive therapy.”

“I know firsthand,” writes Martin, “what it is like to have lingering, military-related illnesses surface after entering the classroom. However, I continue to gain strength through exploring these problems in literature and through writing about what I experienced.”

More specifically: “I have learned skills and methods for making sense of my wartime experience through narration. More importantly, I have learned ways to share my growth with the veterans around me. In this way, my journey has come full circle.”

Many veterans have difficulty understanding the emotions they feel after coming home from war. They may also have trouble interpreting their experiences. This trouble can be exacerbated by our society’s tendency to place value upon ignoring, repressing, and even lying about our emotions.

On top of all of that, pathological processes and psychological responses to trauma may impede veterans’ ability to remember.

By studying history and reading literature, however, veterans can learn to put their experiences into context, which greatly increases their chances for success — and growth — in life after war.



Behind the Steel

by Joe Carvalko

Excerpts from my latest book of poetry, Behind the Steel, narrate military themes, not to honor or exaggerate war, but to give meaning to what men and women in service face. As writers, who have military experience, we serve an important role of observer-narrators, a tradition that has existed in Western literature for over 3,000 years. Homer crafted the epic poem Iliad in the eighth century BCE, about the Trojan War, and Julius Carv3Caesar reported on the Gallic Wars, in the first century BCE. War themes often exemplify the dualities of grace and horror, or human virtue and vice. Against this backdrop, I have strived to convey the power of emotions of those caught in the vortex of military life on and off the battlefield. In my seventies now, I have assimilated the subject, in ways (as all of us must) that reflect my own experience: as a cold war veteran who served in a combat-ready wing, as the son of a decorated WWII infantry combatant and as an advocate that went searching for POWs lost during the Korean War. But if that summarizes my “official” connection to the topic, Carvalko3my inspiration often comes from less well-documented encounters: Mr. White, a WWI veteran who gave me his gas mask when I was about ten; my friend Pat, dead now, but who in a long rang reconnaissance patrol walked the width of Vietnam; a law partner in the ‘80s, who was committed after years battling PTSD following his service there; Lloyd Pate, POW, Camp 5 North Korea, who spoke truth to power and forced the Army to admit that after hostilities ended it left soldiers behind. I believe that as physical, spiritual and emotional beings we represent the eyes of the Universe (no other creature can do this), and as writers this obliges us to express that which otherwise would be forgotten. Here are a couple of poems from Behind the Steel:


Carvalko2In the winter of 1917, the enemies were two sides to Sisyphus pushing in opposite directions. Each side inhabited the trenches by day and at night they ventured into no man’s land, where gas, exploding shells and bullets filled the void between two sides occupying the same deadly space, each breathing the same deadly air. Yet, down to a soldier, each man differed from the other in how he internalized the fear. Each man charged forward. Each leftover retreated. Each survivor waited for the peremptory and rhetorical question “Are you ready men?” to charge again, in an endless cycle of, cold sweat, foreboding, revulsion, and abandon.

Morning yesterday morning dew
Ethering dawn appears anew
Rolling over marshy bogs
Suspended over fallen logs
Vesicants seem ethereal
Fragrances seem funereal
Gas, gas, gas

Falling into the dark abyss
Condensing into earth’s deep kiss
Coughing puking stinking quagmire
Slimy sweat, vaporous lungs afire,
Where is the air, where is the mask
Where is the chaplain, must I ask
Gas, gas, gas

Never had a kid— or lovely wife,
Want one last gasp to harbor life
To honor burdens before I go
To raise the flag, the fife to blow
To beat the drum, to watch them fall
Face down choked, in a muddy pall
Gas, gas, gas


Lay flat and still
Follow life,
On a fallow hill
Flatted feature,Carvalko2
He too, must
Seeker of sorts who seeks a kill
Before the morning shadows fall,
In a game to gain
An unnumbered hill,
Madman’s chorale,
Songs of praise;
Neither spear nor
Knows not,
His fated turn,
Squeezed for
Panned along a line
To define—Inside
The “V” of a bore sight,
To burden the trigger,
Springs and pivots,
Proximate cause,
A firing pin
Into the backside of a bullet
Across a cosmos unglued by anthems—,
To fell
My fellow man,
Flat and still.