Spotlight: Kyle Larkin

by Travis Switalski, Sr.

“The desert is not what we thought it would be—it’s colder, grayer, indifferent as a corpse. Everything is ravaged. There’s a thin film of dust that covers this entire city, but it’s more like ash than sand. Even the palm trees are muted and dull. Buildings that have been blown into piles of rubble look like scorched crumbs in the bottom of an old oven. The devastation is permanent.


Minarets,” a short story written by Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran Kyle Larkin, is a raw, hard, highly descriptive narrative that gives a glimpse into an infantryman’s experience on a cold, eerie morning of the Iraq War. For readers who have experienced combat, the story is like a nostalgic trip back to the war. For civilian readers, it helps lend an understanding of the daily life and observations of soldiers in combat. Larkin’s open, honest, and descriptive writing style leaves little to the imagination, painting a vivid picture of the Iraq experience.

Larkin is an Army infantry veteran who fought in Samarra, Iraq in 2004-2005 with Charlie Company, 1-128 Infantry. After his service, Larkin attended the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse, double majoring in Literature and Philosophy and graduating with honors. He also received a Recognition of Excellence award from the College of Liberal Studies. He began writing after developing an interest in war literature while working on a genealogy of post-traumatic stress disorder for his philosophy capstone project.

“The first time someone suggested that I read a war novel, I remember thinking, ‘Why the hell would I want to read a book about war? I’ve been there. It was terrible. That’s the last thing I want to read about,’” Larkin says.

But after reading The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, he was inspired to draw upon his time in the military to express himself. He was encouraged further by his English professor, who helped him to explore literature and challenge ideas through writing. A particular occasion in class served as a springboard.

It turns out, he says, that the war is “all I’ve ever written about. I did not take writing classes in college, or study creative writing where you are taught to write about all kinds of experiences in different ways. I had a literature course where one of our assignments was to write about a personal experience that left an impact on your life. I had only done academic writing before, essays mostly, but decided to write about an experience in Iraq when my squad leader was killed. Our professor shared this with the class, and I received a lot of positive feedback from the other students…Many of them told me that I should pursue this type of work.”

Larkin believes that works of fiction by veterans are important tools in providing insight and understanding regarding war experiences to those who haven’t served and society as a whole.

“I think great fiction has the potential to create an enormous influence on the public perception of the military. It seems that today society has sort of collectively, although inadvertently, created a paradox for returning veterans. It has become a catchphrase for people to tell veterans, ‘I could never imagine what you’ve been through.’ Of course, veterans say this to people also: ‘You could never imagine what I went through.’ This is a problem. First, it erases even the possibility of anyone sharing such an important and shaping experience because it is believed that this can ‘never’ be understood…The entire possibility for a dialogue is severed immediately. So on one hand, people are telling veterans that they can never be understood, while veterans are telling people that they can never understand – a modern catch-22. The result is that there is now a homogenous view of the military, where every person who served is a ‘hero,’ and everyone deserves equal respect…It sort of sanitizes the entire experience for a lot of veterans, where they are basically told, ‘Thank you for your service, but don’t tell me about it.’ This is where I see the potential for literature, because it brings people directly into the experience, makes them uncomfortable, which is a good thing, so that they can understand it, because they should understand it.”


Larkin’s goal is to write a novel about his experiences in Iraq, using “Minarets” as the first chapter, and to submit more short pieces that can be used in his novel. He is currently working on a literary essay on trauma and post-trauma, veteran suicide rates and their causes and how the current dialogue, understanding, and culture surrounding PTSD can and should change.

You can read “Minarets” in The Blue Falcon Review, Vol. 2. You can also find “Convoy” here.

The Kill Switch

Somehow it’s a dirty little secret that the entire purpose of war is to kill human beings. That vastly important fact is becoming more well-known thanks to the work of authors and journalists like Phil Zabriskie, a former foreign correspondent for Time who has also written for National Geographic, The Washington Post Magazine, and other notable outlets. He’s more than a war correspondent, though. He’s made a study of the subject of combat. He fine tuned that study with an in-depth exploration on killing in war in his latest book, a Kindle Single called The Kill Switch.


Zabriskie delves into the phenomenon of killing with considerable skill. He expands our understanding of the concept into the societal and institutional context and contracts it into the personal. It’s perhaps the latter that gives the book its stark, chilling nature. The author chronicles the lives of several participants of the Iraq and Afghan Wars to illustrate the powerful psychological forces at work in the act of killing and the impact of the moral injury that killing causes. His coverage of these men over roughly a decade paints a clear picture of the entire process of learning to kill, applying those lessons, and attempting to find peace with that act. For instance, we learn about a Marine, Ben Nelson, who struggles with the times he killed and the times he didn’t. We learn of a Marine officer who bears the emotional burden of ordering men to kill as well as taking lives himself, and how the strict enforcement of the rules of engagement protected civilian lives as well as the combatants’ humanity. We see them in war. Then we see them in their living rooms. We see their pain with a clarity that speaks highly of Zabriskie’s expertise in recording the grim truth of war.

To his credit, Zabriskie lets the subject and those who lived it speak for themselves. But he’s packaged those voices in a concise and fast-flowing narrative, one that is buttressed by interviews with psychologists and research into relevant scholarship. It’s an engaging, educating read.

Although the book is short, it is long on authenticity and insight. Zabriskie has created a work that offers real-world examples of some of the ideas first explored by Dave Grossman. He has made a clear argument for the fact that killing is one of the most traumatic experiences of combat, and it is the very essence of war. How we treat that haunting truth – that we collectively flip a kill switch when we go to war – is up to us as a society, but Phil Zabriskie has done a remarkable job of defining it for his readers.



(Review contributed by David P. Ervin)

Digging My Way Home

by Travis Switalksi, Sr.

I wish my family knew the pain I feel for having left them. I wish my wife knew how hard it was to leave her alone with two small children while I fought for a cause that hardly mattered. I wish my children knew that I wasn’t choosing a war over them. I wish I had a way to tell them that I’m sorry.

I’m working on my fourth year without the Army, which means I’m working on my fourth year of unadulterated time with my family. It has been a nice change from ranges, field exercises, schools, and deployments. There is nothing like waking up and seeing the people you love most, in person, every day. For them it is a dream come true. They have earned the right to have me home by living through a nightmare.

There was a time when my family came second to the Army and my soldiers. It was a matter of fact that everyone understood. Training took precedent over family functions, soldiers’ needs were met before theirs. When the commander or first sergeant called, Dad went running away from them. That meant deployments, too. I justified my absence with the abstract notion that I went because it was the patriotic thing to do, because I loved them. They always took me to the company, where we hugged and said our farewells. I never said “goodbye.” A potential “goodbye” in the physical, living sense was all too real a possibility. Instead I said, “I gotta go to work.” They still cried. I didn’t, although I wasn’t some heartless machine. I was stoic for their sake.

When I was at war, I called them when I could to assure them that things were “going good.” They weren’t, though. Without them, I became a version of myself that was unrecognizable. I took risks that even my leadership deemed insane. I did things that were morally questionable and sometimes wrong. I buried my memories of them deep to do all that, virtually numbing myself to their existence because they were my weakness. When I was there, I was not a husband and father. I was a leader of soldiers. So I replaced my care and love for them with care and love for my comrades. After all, those men would get me home one way or the other – be it on two feet or in a metal box. The men in my platoon needed me more than I believed my family did. My wife and kids were taken care of, or so I thought.


When I got home I put on my smiley face. It was time to dig them out of the deep hole in which I’d buried them. I dug and dug, but the more I shoveled out to find them, the more the dirt kept filling the hole. I could see them and they could see me, but I couldn’t grab hold of them. They couldn’t reach me, either. The hole, the abyss, was much too deep. Somewhere in all of the burying and all of the digging I had lost myself, too. I wasn’t the person that I thought I was, nor was I who they thought they knew. To them, I was a maniac who only occupied a space in their lives. To me, they were people who couldn’t understand that I’d transformed into that person because I loved them.

In the end, the Army divorced me. I wanted to tell myself that I was surprised, but I wasn’t. I knew it would come. The Army stopped loving me. I’m not sure that it ever had. (If it ever did, it certainly wasn’t as much as I loved it.) Our parting was a bittersweet one; I felt both liberated and lost, cheated and victorious. My wife and kids were ecstatic. They would finally have me “back.” No more training. No more war. And while they were happy, I was lost. I was set adrift with people whom I had forgotten about at some point, people I had buried. I felt they’d be better off without me anyway.

But I was wrong. We needed each other. They were the ones who’d never stopped loving me.

It took some time to realize this. The four of us were crammed into a cold, leaky, dilapidated house for three years. We had little money – sometimes we had little food – but we had each other. It taught me that I never had to dig for them because they were never really buried. They were there the whole time, waiting for me to dig myself out. They were waiting for me to see that I wasn’t damaged. I was no monster. I was more than my experiences. I was a husband and father. Eventually, we learned to live together again. We learned to accept and love one another. We found a way to assimilate to  a world and a situation that was foreign to us. We did it together.

I look at the pain I feel for all of the damage and suffering I have caused them, and I hate it with every ounce of my being. Sometimes that hate makes me loathsome of myself, and I wonder how such a terrible human being could deserve something as fine as this life. That, I know, is the Grunt in me coming out to remind me that I need to count my blessings because I probably don’t deserve this. Other times I think about the pain and I wonder if it’s made me cherish what I have. I think it has.

I Think the MREs Were Really Killing Us

by Joseph Miller

In a sudden, staggering second I heard an explosion. It seemed like my company outpost was finally being mortared effectively, but I only heard soldiers laughing instead of diving for cover. I walked out of a meeting with my company commander, looked over a trash heap at my driver, Daniel Shadowens, and couldn’t help myself from laughing. What happened wasn’t really funny, but a lifetime of cartoon bombs only throwing soot on Wiley Coyote made laughing an involuntary act when a radio battery caused similar situation for Daniel. He, on the other hand, was stunned, and looked at the group of soldiers laughing at him and memorably asked us all if he had died. The Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks made events like this uniquely comical, because in microseconds all the observers transitioned from believing we were being bombed by mortars to seeing a scene similar to a kids’ cartoon. As Daniel’s platoon leader, my lead sergeant immediately chastised me and the other non-commissioned officer laughing at Daniel. His criticism was appropriate, and the day once served as a critical leadership lesson for a young platoon leader.

But now it reminds me of why many of us are struggling with respiratory issues, and the way the US Department of Veterans Affairs’ approach to identifying source of those problems seems woefully inadequate.

Questions from this anecdote may arise which make our conduct seem stupid: Just why in the hell were we burning radio batteries? Why not remove or recycle them? What else were we burning? Why wouldn’t trash fires be placed somewhere else? The answer to these questions couldn’t be simpler. Practicing successful tactics meant living in our areas of operation, and because of IEDs, no commander would have risked the lives of soldiers to transport trash to a proper waste disposal facility. I, like many soldiers, now suffer from respiratory illnesses like asthma.  However, when I attempted to record my exposures, the small company-sized outposts aren’t listed in VA studies. Instead they emphasize the larger bases that can be tested for air quality. It felt like another example of soldiers in Forward Operating Bases getting better treatment while we in the infantry took all the risks.

Photo by Joseph Linhart

And we lived and worked in filth. The smaller outposts were all forced by necessity to burn every piece of trash —from  radio batteries to soldiers’ excrement.  In the middle of the cities themselves, waste flowed through the streets.

Another momentary comedy took place during my last mission as a platoon leader. We were on an IED screening mission, and there was a square shaped object in the middle of a sewage puddle. I was almost certain it was nothing because of its location in a safe area, but it resembled a shape commonly used to hide remote antennae, so I did not want to risk a unit new to the area on a potential threat. It was just a cigarette package covered in muddy waste, and I had managed to discover that with the least amount of exposure to my boots – that is, until I slipped and got the terrible sludge all the way up to me knees. My feet were red, inflamed, and sore for six months following that day.

The worst environmental causes of sickness were not on the bases. They were on the missions and in the smaller outposts. VA studies are only scratching the surface on environmental exposures that are grossly affecting the lives of veterans.

Personally, I think the chemicals that are in most of our lungs following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are none other than the packaging and heating pads of the infamous Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). The metallic packaging was almost universally burned in the small urban outposts. However, the heating packages, which aren’t supposed be used indoors or inside vehicles, are probably the biggest source.

If I were the VA, I would halt this massive study of air quality throughout Iraq and simply burn the contents of an MRE in a controlled environment. I bet you will find those materials in our lungs.

They don’t have to be. Technology is not universally better, and using the sternos and small pieces of plastic explosives used by earlier generations to heat canned food may be a better policy. Maybe we could use the type of packaging advocated by environmentally conscious outdoor food companies. Other alternatives include buying products from the region that wouldn’t require as much packaging or placing the mobile field kitchens at the company level in the military table of organization. Maybe these steps would actually save money – and lungs – in the long run.

We all used to joke that eating MREs everyday had to be killing us. We might have been right.